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Being a feminist in another language is not the same. Words shift and change and disappear in translation. So it is that the linguistic resources I have access to in English become something different in French.

Living as a francophone, I’m finding holes in my vocabulary where there once were signifiers for important categories and concepts. The carefully-mapped out vocabulary of identity politics I once used as an anglophone to structure and understand my life as well as those of the people around me has simply ceased to exist. The language of intersectional feminism that I invested so much time into learning is no longer available to me here.

I am presented with some peculiar problems. Like searching for French equivalents to words for which there are extensive discourses attached in English. Is there a phrase for rape culture? How do I respectfully refer to sex workers? What if these words and concepts just aren’t a thing? Maybe there are more extensive discourses around other ideas, each with their own set of buzz words, so translating ‘rape culture’ might not even be useful anyway. Sex work is illegal here, so does a respectful word even exist? So what now? God, it’s hard. It’s not just a matter of literal translation, but of translation that is relevant to the conversations happening about feminism in France. Sociolinguistics, or something.

Then there is the problem of intensely gendered grammar. Only now do I appreciate English’s genderless articles. Oh, our simple adjectives and verb agreements. What luxury it is to rattle off entire sentences without the need to refer to gender until pronouns come into play. Alas, the grammatical necessity of modifying entire sentences for a person’s gender in French means that binary gender is more enforced than ever. So how do I express gender-neutrality if there are only two choices? How do I refer to queer and gender-variant friends? Surely there are queer feminist discourses around this, but until I find those discourses, I risk alienating people with language.

I feel like a baby feminist again, with all the passion but none of the tools. I see when things are wrong, but don’t have the vocabulary to make a challenge or articulate my feelings. I have to opt out of conversations I’d love to have for lack of words. With diminished language has come diminished power, and it’s super-frustrating. Words, once my favourite weapons, are now a struggle of their own.

The solution is, bien sûr, to stop fraternising with the feminists and start talking to the féministes. They can tell me where the French lexicon is at. It is impossible to translate in isolation. Our feminist vocabulary is the work of the collective, so ’tis there I must go. I need to unsubscribe from some anglophone feminist media and, in between mouthfuls of bread and cheese, read some féministe conversations instead. I’ll see what words the féministes are dropping on tumblr, what fancy hashtags are circling the twittersphere.

So I’ll work on it, but it’s weird right now. It’s like I’m sixteen, learning the word misogyny for the first time. I only just learnt to say ‘fuck the patriarchy’ in French (J’ENCULE LE PATRIARCAT). It will be worth the struggle and social media digging. Because language is so ridiculously powerful, and god, I want that power back.

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Michelle

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