How Do You Translate a Gunshot? Charlie Hebdo, Francophone Culture, and the Translation Conundrum

Jennifer Solheim
From the November/December 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This past May, more than four months after the January 7 massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I arrived in Paris for a research trip. On one of my first days there, I stopped in the Place de la République to see the vestiges of the impromptu Charlie memorial on the Marianne monument. In the words of Charlie Hebdo scholar Jane Weston Vauclair, the day after the killings, “people gathered in [the Place de la République] haltingly, haphazardly and almost confusedly. [There were] candles, and someone climbed the monument to put a black armband [on one of the statues of Marianne]. There was applause from the crowd at someone at least doing something, with sporadic burstings out of ‘Liberté d’expression!’” In the days and weeks that followed, graffiti appeared on the monument as well. On the bright May afternoon when I visited, it was mostly back to old purposes: People sat on its round base, eating sandwiches, talking on their phones; skateboarders used it to break their falls. But some of the armbands remained, along with Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) scrawled in various spots, fanzine-like images plastered here and there, and one of the Mariannes had a black X scrawled across her lips. 

I snapped pictures and posted a few shots on Instagram and Facebook. I was thinking about showing these pictures to students in my Paris literature and culture course at the University of Illinois in Chicago this fall. I could literally point to different elements of the pictures to show the layers of history and culture. We could, for instance, compare this current iteration of Marianne, with the black X on her lips, to the many artistic representations of Marianne in France since she first became an allegory of French liberty opposed to monarchical rule in 1792.

Of course I was also considering the awful events of January 7 that took place so close to the Place de la République. As many know, the Charlie staff was holding a meeting when two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed their offices and shot twelve people to death. I thought about the blank horror of moving from the sound of familiar voices to the sound of gunshots. Did the victims know why they were being killed? Did they think of the Danish cartoon affair in that moment? Did they hear the first gunshots before they were deafened by the noise? Were they already deaf by the time the shooters proclaimed the vicious attack on behalf of Islam?

But the true stakes of posting my photos became even clearer to me later that evening, when I returned to the home of my friends Weston Vauclair and her husband, David, in the Bastille. Weston Vauclair is an independent scholar, translator, and teacher in Paris; she wrote her dissertation on Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor, Hara-Kiri. Jane and David have also cowritten a book about the history of Charlie Hebdo, forthcoming from the publisher Eyrolles. Needless to say, both Jane and David have been in demand on the lecture circuit since the attacks. Jane was heading to Belfast in a few weeks for a conference on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that was almost canceled due to alleged safety concerns. She was also wrangling with the cancellation of the two panels on Charlie Hebdo at the joint International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference and International Bande Dessinée Society Conference at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), which were called off after the near cancellation of the Belfast conference. 

“But,” Jane wondered aloud as we sat with David in their living room drinking tea, “if we can’t utter the words Charlie Hebdo, why is the panel on the representation of Islam in cartoons allowed to stand?” This led to a series of satiric questions on Jane’s part, which she later posted online as part of her protest over the censure of Charlie at the conference: 

  • Is it okay to mention Charlie Hebdo out loud as a word in the building?  
  • If one encounters a ULIP student, may we ask them their opinion on the Charlie Hebdo panels being removed?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je suis Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a T-shirt that looks like ‘Je suis Charlie’ but in fact says something else? 
  • Is it possible to bring copies of Charlie Hebdo into the building?
  • Is it possible to bring copies of the old Charlie Hebdo (from the ’70s?) into the building 
  • Is it possible to mention Hara-Kiri but in fact mean something else when we say it?
  • May I talk about Charlie Hebdo but in a language only I can understand?
  • Is interpretive dance allowed?

Before I went to bed that night, I looked at the Charlie memorial photos again, this time in my Facebook feed. These photos were “liked,” of course, particularly the one in which Je suis Charlie was most prominent. Given everything, perhaps I needed to write a lengthy description of why this site for the impromptu memorial was significant. But the fact is, the image had already come and gone in my friends’ news feeds, and they wouldn’t necessarily look back at this point. That shift in context—on-site to online, local to global—made such a difference in understanding. And that’s when the question occurred to me: How do you translate those gunshots? They are the signal events that led to Charlie Hebdo’s global renown. We all know that understanding the society and history from which translated works arise can help the reader immeasurably. But how, as translators, can we render the texts related to particularly stark, awful, and uncrafted moments like the Charlie Hebdo shootings faithfully? 

As a teacher and researcher, my focus is on contemporary immigrant cultures from North Africa and the Middle East in France. I was introduced to Charlie Hebdo not through my research—although the connections, thanks to the January events, seem glaringly apparent now—but through Weston Vauclair, when we first met as lecturers in Paris while finishing our dissertations. 

When I mentioned to colleagues that I had a place to stay in Paris for this research trip prior to the January 7 massacre, I didn’t say I’d be staying with a Charlie Hebdo scholar—I said that my friend Jane works on contemporary political satire, because in our generation of academics, the great majority of us hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. In fact, the satiric newspaper was debating whether or not to shut down completely in the weeks before the killings due to flagging readership and state funding cuts. So this act of translation is not only across cultures, but a traversal of historic event. Charlie Hebdo is tricky to translate in time, to say the least, because its meaning changed swiftly, profoundly, and irrevocably following the attacks.

But while the connections between Charlie and Francophone cultures in France may only now seem clear and urgent, the field of Francophone studies is not new to this translation conundrum. Let’s begin once more with a question: Francophone is a great word, isn’t it? It sounds like a brass instrument. In introducing me at talks, scholars outside my field have at times hesitated over the pronunciation, and it’s not a term that has a clearly delineated meaning even within the field of studies in French. 

Indeed, Francophonie can be considered an instrument of change—and sometimes a war of words. The celebrated Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire called it back in 1946 with the title of his surrealist poetry collection Miraculous Arms, referring to literary language as a symbolic weapon. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “A Césaire poem explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket.” Rather than taking up arms, Césaire chose to pick up the pen. Literary language is itself the weapon in the case of Césaire, among many other Francophone writers. Francophonie—as opposed to the misguided, fundamentalist violence of the Kouachis—does not use guns to express dissent. Instead, Francophone language often embodies symbolic violence. It issues a vigorous yet peaceful call for social change. 

But as Francophone works move from language to language, or from page to stage to screen, some of the symbolic punch of the language is inevitably lost. For example, in the English translation of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (Heinemann, 1993), in which the metaphor of writing the body parallels Djebar’s masterful retelling of the French invasion of Algiers in 1830, there are several footnotes to support the translated text. Lebanese Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies was adapted for the screen in the moving Denis Villeneuve film of the same name, and yet much of the vital humor surrounding the stark and horrifying Lebanese Civil War was lost in doing so.