Translation: Feuille de route
--Hello? Hello? Jacques, what are the news?
I've been away for fifteen days,
I'm on the line, I'm calling you
What will I find on my return?
--All's very well,
Madam the Marchioness,
All's very well, all's very well!
We do have to tell you,
We deplore a little nothing,
A silly thing:
The far-right made it through to the second round of the presidential elections, 15,000 old dears pegged it during the heat wave, there was a failed referendum, the suburbs went up in flames, we saw sit-ins and strikes at the universities for 12 weeks, one (or two) Clearstream scandal(s), an outrageous amnesty, a revolt by MPs in the ruling party, the Prime Minister’s ratings at an all-time low in the opinion polls... But apart from all that, everything’s just fine.
Arlette Chabot’s interview with His Royal Highness President Chirac on the state-run TV station France 2 last night was very reminiscent of an old French song by Ray Ventura, "Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise" ("All's very well, Madam the Marchioness" --see history here).
In France we’ve been reading about nothing else in the press recently, and listening to nothing else on the radio. In his interview, Jacques Chirac used the expression “feuille de route” no fewer than nine times (if I counted correctly).
Now, this is an expression that has more or less died out today, at least in its original sense. A “feuille de route” was in fact a sinister document sent to soldiers, such as the poilus (the nickname given to French troops in the First World War), which ordered them to go to the front and set out their exact itinerary for getting there. Forty years of peace can wear out some words, and the expression fell into disuse in the Eighties. The Treasury of the French language says for instance that “some recent general dictionaries describe “feuille de route” as archaic”. More careful research would need to be carried out to be sure, but I have a feeling that the expression “feuille de route” came back into use again with the French translation of the famous “Road Map to Peace” that was drawn-up by the “Quartet” (the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union) in an attempt to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in 2003.
At the time I couldn’t understand why on earth “road map” was translated as “feuille de route”, since the meaning of the two expressions is completely different. Unlike a road map, a “feuille de route” is not simply a document that shows the topography of a specific region and leaves you free to choose your own route, but a direct order, and the soldier who refuses to comply is charged with desertion. See you at the court martial; do not pass Go, do not collect £200.
So, what we have here is a bad translation. Who knows where it came from? It was probably the first word that some dogsbody from the press agency Agence France Presse was able to come up with in time for his or her tight deadline, and it was then taken up by the rest of the media – no questions asked. So far, so typical. What’s funny is that in Tuesday’s papers the English press made an equally bad reverse translation (see for example The Guardian), and translated “feuille de route” as “road map”, which is at least consistent, but just as wrong; in the case of Chirac and soldier Villepin, the French meaning of “feuille de route” is most definitely the right one! How can it be translated? A “feuille de route” is something of a cross between call-up papers and a travel warrant. And while warrant suggests an element of authority, it is not normally used metaphorically. In many ways, we would almost be better off with a more commonplace term such as plan of action.
So, that’s how a bad translation can creep into our dictionaries, which are going to have to find a place for this odd couple now that they’ve been living together for so long.
Anyway, “feuille de route” or not, it’s just like in Palestine. Everything’s fine...