A few weeks after railing against les fainéants (‘slackers’), French President Emmanuel Macron’s latest remark on workers has been keeping the French media busy. While he was visiting a factory on the brink of closure last Thursday, a comment he made privately to a few of his aides was caught on camera:

Il y en a certains, au lieu de foutre le bordel, ils feraient mieux d’aller regarder s’ils ne peuvent pas avoir de postes là-bas…

Profanity is one of the areas of language where connotation and expressivity contribute most to meaning, which makes its passage into other languages difficult. So as the story of Mr Macron’s ‘sharp tongue’ made it to the foreign press, I thought it interesting to look at the various English translations of the colourful idiom foutre le bordel.

My point of entry into this was the Irish Times’ piece on the incident:

On a trip to Corrèze on Wednesday, Macron said that protesting workers should look for jobs instead of causing chaos. But the colloquial phrase he used, foutre le bordel, translates literally as “making a f***ing bordello”.

The author’s initial choice to report the comment as neutrally as possible (‘causing chaos’) makes it far too insipid for the reader to understand why it would be newsworthy: hence the subsequent effort at explicitation. But even this ‘literal translation’ is wholly unhelpful: not just because it isn’t literal (it’s got an extra word added in), but more importantly because it’s no translation at all—it does not mean anything in English.

Foutre le bordel borrows from the sexual register, one of the three usual sources of profanity (the other two being excretion and religion). Foutre as a verb originally means ‘fuck’, and un bordel is, indeed, a bordello, brothel, or whorehouse. As is common with profanity however, these words are most frequently used not for their literal meaning, but for the expressive potential that their connotations lend to speech, a form of modality that enables the speaker to express their anger, contempt or despair in a way that will impress their interlocutors. Foutre stands for faire (‘do/make’, as in Qu’est-ce que tu fous ? => ‘What are you doing?’), among others, which the Irish Times understands; the expressivity is conveyed through the addition of the f-word, and that works. But translating bordel literally does not. ‘To make a bordello’ is not an idiom in English; it does not mean anything other than the sum of its parts, and therefore does not actually illustrate the offensiveness of Macron’s outburst. Not only does ‘bordello’ carry no trace of vulgarity, but all bordel means in a context such as this is ‘a mess, shambles, disorder’. To a native speaker of French, never would it conjure up an actual brothel in a context where prostitution wasn’t at issue.

Fortunately, most of the publications I have consulted, apart from a few which opted for the very prudish ‘kick up a ruckus’, try in one way or another to come up with a meaningful translation that carries its crudeness.

Among the more conservative are the Express, the Daily Telegraph or the Independent: with ‘wreaking havoc’, they opt for a rather innocuous translation of the intended meaning of the idiom, to which a measure of profanity is added through the use of a beeped-out f-expletive:

Other sources keep the sexual register of the original, including the Washington Post, but bring the offensiveness down a notch with the phrasal verb ‘screw up’:

During a visit to Egletons training school in central France on Wednesday, Macron said “some people, instead of screwing everything up, they would better see whether they can get some jobs.”

Not all publications use the same lexical field, however. The New York Times’ translation is noteworthy for its reworking of the obscenity:

“Instead of kicking up a bloody mess, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” he said, referring to a nearby aluminum factory battling to find workers.

Surprisingly for an American outlet, it uses the more British ‘bloody’—a possible attempt at European local colour, unless the republishing of the story from (London-based) Reuters is to blame. The origins of ‘bloody’ as an expletive are debated: while the Oxford Dictionary of English sees it as a reference to ‘the aristocratic rowdies of the late 17th and early 18th centuries’, the OED maintains that it ‘reflects attitudes to the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation’. If the latter is true, this is a shift from the sexual to the religious component. Whichever it is, it makes the phrase, in my opinion, a lot tamer than the original.

In fact, most publications decide to switch registers, probably following the example of the AFP, which resorts to the phrase ‘stir up shit’:

Actually, this is probably the best choice: it is a satisfactory semantic equivalent of foutre le bordel, and is a well-established idiom, of the metaphorical kind, which carries the offensiveness of the original in its own wording rather than through an addition. And while the register is different, it seems to me that the degree of crudeness is roughly equivalent.

It may be worth noting that all sources, apart from the AFP itself (as well as Breitbart in the body of its article), seem to have felt the need to blot out part of the f- or s-words: ‘f—ing havoc’ (Telegraph), ‘f****** havoc’ (Express), ‘stirring up sh*t’ (Daily Mail), ‘stirring s*** up’ (Sky News, among others). Some words are still deemed unprintable.

Finally, a special award should probably go to the Times: while it chose the polite triple-asterisk approach to ‘stirring up s***’, its headline writer decided to go the extra mile with a bit of français dans le texte: