He said what? Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock
You can only properly translate French scatological swear words if you consider who is using them. In this case, the most powerful person in France.
When French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to “emmerder” the unvaccinated in France, he did not just throw down the gauntlet on his Covid policies, he also sparked a fervent linguistic debate.
The word emmerder is a verb derived from the noun merde, which in English literally translates to “shit”. But properly translating emmerder is far from straightforward, leaving the international media struggling to find the best equivalent. Did Macron want to “fuck” the unvaccinated? To “piss them off”? To “hassle” them? To “annoy” them?
Official translation aids were of little use in this instance: parallel corpora, which can be a useful tool to see how a word or an expression is usually rendered in another language, are mostly made up of semi-official texts, where such a word would never appear. Even the corpus of translations from the European Parliament’s proceedings displays only one example of the verb, and it is translated as “annoy”, which is more often used as a translation of the much more polite irriter.
Part of the difficulty comes from the derogatory nature of the remark. “Hassle” or “annoy” erase the more colourful dimension of this profanity, perhaps in line with different editorial standards of some English-language media.
But losing the derogatory dimension of the verb means losing part of its meaning: translating meaning is not only a matter of factual accuracy, it is also a matter of speaker intention. To capture the expressive meaning of emmerder, we need to look not just at the word itself, but at the comprehensive speech act of Macron’s entire statement.
So what does it really mean to use the sentence, “I would very much like to emmerder the unvaccinated”?
Taking “shit” verbs seriously
Emmerder literally means “to cover someone with shit”, but it has long since lost its original meaning. The meaning that has received most attention since Macron’s statement is an expressive variety of irriter, “to annoy”, with an additional note of contempt for the irritated person’s opposition to their predicament.
But there are other uses, which are best understood if the French language’s vast trove of “shit” verbs is taken into consideration.
The basic derogatory verb for pooing in French is chier. There is also a transitive version of this verb, which can be used to frame the person or the thing being covered with faeces as a direct object: conchier. Conchier also has another meaning: “to have extreme contempt or hatred for someone or something”.
Read more: Pas de souci! The French war on saying ‘no worries’
Today, people usually use a prepositional construction, “chier sur quelque chose” or “chier dessus” (both meaning “to shit on”). There is also what grammarians call a causative for chier: “to have someone shit, to make someone shit” is to faire chier. This is an approximate equivalent to emmerder: to annoy, to bother, to piss off.
Both faire chier and emmerder also have a pronominal version, too: se faire chier or s’emmerder, both meaning “to be bored”. Note that their more formal equivalent is also a pronominal verb, s’ennuyer, whose non-pronominal variant, ennuyer, means nothing else than… “to annoy”.
So, there is a system here: whether polite or profane, the reflexive of “to annoy” means “to get bored”. Correspondingly, chiant and emmerdant have become synonyms, meaning annoying, tedious and boring.[..]
Maître de conférences en études germaniques, Université Bordeaux Montaigne
Continue reading: Piss off? Annoy? Shit on? Why Macron’s use of the French swear word ‘emmerder’ is so hard to translate