Once a Nazi
by

Something I never was able to get about translations is the way they try to reproduce the original word for word.

In francophone Africa, for example, governments until a few years ago, say the late 1990s, regularly referred to themselves as “le pouvoir,” and the media, muzzled or not, and the opposition parties, whether or not rotting in low-altitude dungeons (basements), used the same word.

It was the word French pols used during the Third Republic (the one that won the Great War and lost the next one due to a belief that defense is the best offense). The press, less muzzled than in the colonies, likewise. It was also used occasionally during the Fourth Republic, which came after World War II, but it eventually was replaced by “le gouvernement” which means what it sounds like, or “le consei des ministres,” cabinet. In the Fourth Republic the gouvernement and the conseil fell and then rose with more or less the same people sitting in different chairs with a kind of metronomic regularity, an exercise in governance known as “la valse de portefeuilles,” the attaché-case two-step. Guys — they were males to a man — in suits, often smelly, prancing around with their briefcases, that’s the picture.

The colonies were on the way to becoming ex-colonies, which created the phenomenon known as post-colonialism, an academic racquet in the U.S. but a real live (and sometimes deadly) one in these places. They were led by guys — males to a man — most of whom had grown up during the Third or early Fourth, so for them the word pouvoir was not exotic, it meant the government.

Due to the fact that post-colonialism lasted longer than colonialism — it has not ended — the boys with the portfolios were slow to catch on to new political lexicons coming out of Paris. When they went there it was to get a scam going, deposit some money in a box, buy some real estate, enjoy the girls (or the boys). Seriously now, they were not going to waste their time re-learning French now that they had the means to have some fun in France.

Thus when trouble brewed and someone in Los Angeles got the odd notion of sending a reporter to see what the fuss was about and that reporter, armed with a portable typewriter and an old dictionary left over from high school French class (back then most reporters did not go to colletch, one of the reasons they were reporters), got on the scene, he heard the word “pouvoir” and, after checking his dictionary, thought it meant “power.”

Since back home the foreign desk editor, even more so the editorial page editor, was prepared to think the worst of those wogs, the word “power” made perfect sense. The dark force. The bad guys. The corrupt rulers.

They allowed the word the reporter had used to stay. It was a literal translation of the original, but it was a bad translation.

It is not odd that it still happens. First of all, now they go to college and do not even have high school French, or high school English for that matter; and moreover they either do not realize this or are indifferent to it. And with the difference between the colonial power and the colony, or post-colony, a matter of no consequence to them, the language confusion gets transferred back whence it came.

As in the present case: the National Front, a French political formation, recently renamed itself. This is standard: French parties, especially in the Fifth Republic (the current one), rebrand themselves as often as French pols (and their ladies) change fashions.

The Front National, which means National Improvement Ass’n, on the proposition of its leader (a woman), will be known as the Rassemblement National. Literally, a rassemblement signifies getting a crowd together, presumably though not necessarily for a specific purpose.

The Anglo-American media immediately informed its followers that the “national front” was being renamed the “national rally.”

The Rassemblement du Peuple Français was the name of de Gaulle’s first post-WW II political party. Jacques Chirac, who claimed the Gaullist mantle decades later and was a leader in the movement to take free urinators off Paris streets, called his party the Rassemblement pour la République. In both cases, the connotation was not to “rally” but to assemble, to form a united bloc of French people or of people in favor of the Republic.

The correct, and I should think obvious, translation is Union of the French People, in the first case, Republican Union Party in the second. But the word always is translated as “rally,” as in rallying in the second half after falling behind in the first; or more perilously rallying your troops at the gates of Vienna to stop the barbaric hordes from breaching them, just when all seemed lost.

In describing the earth-shaking event, some higher education type working for CNN thought it clever to point out that the National Front has been working overtime for the past few years to shed its image as a party of the fascist or Nazi orientation. Full of his own erudition, he noted the irony of choosing a word like rassemblement, when that was the one used by a Vichy era collaborationist formation, the Rassemblement National Populaire. This, the piece stated, translates as “National Popular Rally,” which is pure gobbledygook.

“National Front,” our erudite newsman (unless it is a woman) did not inform us, was the name of an anti-German resistance movement of that same period, controlled, one might point out, by Communists. So was the National Front secretly crypto-commie all along and is now trying to apologize, or what? No, it only means certain people in journalism have totally given up on editing, research, fact-checking, and the process known as thinking.

The RNP was a party created by, and no accident here, former Socialists; many socialists supported the old marshal who capitulated to the Germans in June 1940, and in fact they thought Nazism and fascism had socialistic qualities, which they decided they could work with. In using the word populaire they meant, of course, people, not popular; they were calling themselves the national people’s union. The Front Populaire of the late 1930s, which they participated in as Socialists in alliance with the Communists, connoted the same idea, the people’s front, or — to quibble about still another word, union, or even organization, nor “front” which in English means the opposite of “back.”

Frente popular in Spanish is understood the same way, and for that matter the U.S. Communists, easily influenced by foreign notions, spoke of a “popular” or “united” front, though they could not have filled a phone booth with its members, so instead they put them in the federal government.

Anyway, what matters is that the National Front, or the Rassemblement National, is trying to do the old makeover. Names are part of that, for sure, consider for example liberals calling themselves progressives or Republicans trying to pass themselves off as conservatives.

Whatever. Their main goal in life always — since the early 1970s, when they got their act going — has been to blame others, foreigners preferably, other others when there are no foreigners around. They think immigrants cause unemployment and render certain neighborhoods insecure. In the past they have expressed warm regards for Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin. They invited Steve Bannon — given a square and fair farewell in these very space but did that make him mindful of what he owed? — to their renaming conference and, always one for tact, he applauded them for being known as xenophobes and racists. He did not mean that being known as and being are the same quality, but the press, translating back and forth, did not get it.

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