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

These shortcomings are no fault of translators. To use a brutal but appropriate idiom, if a gun were held to my head to define Francophone, I would say that as compared to French, Francophone connotes a linguistic choice. These writers were raised in multilingual families, and were most often educated in French. They could also express themselves fluently (and likely eloquently) in Arabic, Kabyle, Wolof, and Mandarin Chinese, to use just a few examples; instead, they opt to situate their fictional works in the French cultural terrain, to be published by a Francophone press, ideally both in their home country and in France. Francophonie is not only a linguistic choice, it is often a sociocultural and political choice. Play across languages is often paramount in Francophone works. While we see play with language across social classes in French works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which vividly brings to life the banter of Parisian street urchins, Hugo’s work still lives within one language, and one culture. 

These cultural translation issues have been brought to the fore with Kamel Daoud’s newly translated novel, The Meursault Investigation, released in the United States earlier this year by the independent publisher Other Press. When a French person picks up the Actes Sud edition of Meursault, contre-enquête from a thick stack on one of the display tables at a French bookstore (we can assume this sort of display, because the novel was heavily promoted, critically acclaimed, and widely distributed), they might first notice the red band around the book jacket announcing Daoud’s novel as the 2015 recipient of the Prix Goncourt for a First Novel. Next, they might notice the names: Daoud (an Algerian Berber name, not a French one), and if they are versed in twentieth-century literary classics, they will likely recognize the name Meursault as the name of the antihero in Albert Camus’s renowned 1942 novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger). They might then notice the cover art: an aerial shot of a young man with dark hair, striding down a beach. Even if this French reader hadn’t yet read about Daoud’s debut, these details would indicate that this novel has something to do with the murdered Arab in Camus’s novel. I use the word indicate as a sort of translation metaphor here, for the word’s derivation comes from the French word for clue: indice. These clues leave a trail, but you need to have both social and cultural acumen in order to follow. 

So it’s not nearly so easy to leave this trail of clues for Daoud’s novel in the U.S. context: Beautifully translated by John Cullen, its publication in the United States was heralded by an excerpt in the New Yorker and a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Where Daoud’s debut has been widely read in France, the nature of the publications that have lauded The Meursault Investigation suggests an educated and well-read audience—in other words, a niche readership. No one is expecting Meursault to become a best-seller; no one expects that Kamel Daoud will become a household name like Stephen King or John Grisham. This is one of the inherent problems for translation presses in the United States: Just as Charlie Hebdo was about to declare bankruptcy in January, due in part to new austerity measures that cut state arts funding, in the United States arts funding is a rare and precious commodity. So a work needs to hold the promise of sales in order to be published. 

Meursault—which is in direct dialogue, both in its reception and within the text itself, with Camus’s most famous novel—is ripe for publication in translation. And part of what makes The Stranger such a compelling work is its central act of violence. But how often does it occur to readers to imagine the sound of the gunshot in The Stranger? The victim in that book was described only as an Arab (as opposed to an Algerian like Camus, who was pied noir, meaning an Algerian of French descent). Has Meursault ever been called a terrorist? Not in any context I know. In the words of the Cure song that imagines the moment of the Arab’s death, he is simply “The stranger / killing an Arab.” And it’s with indignation that Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation and the younger brother of the Arab killed by Meursault, says in the opening pages of the novel: “Good God, how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him?” Meursault portrays Harun’s struggle to overcome his mother’s obsessive mourning for Musa (the name given to Camus’s anonymous Arab in Meursault—two names that in French sound very similar) and an attempt to recover the identity of Musa. Harun was a young child when his brother died, and so he has to rely on the stories his mother told him as well as his own vague memories, with the gaps filled by his understanding of Algerian society and culture in the years preceding the war:

Most of Mama’s tales...concentrated on chronicling Musa’s last day, which was also, in a way, the first day of his immortality. She would [turn] a simple, young man from the poorer quarters of Algiers into an invincible, long-awaited hero, a kind of savior... In other [versions], he’d answered the call of some friends—uled el-huma, sons of the neighborhood—idle young men interested in skirts, cigarettes, and scars. 

Ultimately, Harun tells us, Musa’s body—in other words, his story—cannot be recovered. In other words, Camus’s Arab will forever remain untranslatable to his readership:

You’re here because you think, as I once thought, that you can find Musa or his body, identify the place where the murder was committed, and trumpet your discovery to the whole world…. You want to find a corpse…. But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. 

So the sound of a gunshot translates differently when the aggressor is someone like the Kouachi brothers, native speakers of French and French citizens whose last name bears the markings of a different country and culture. And the cultural effect is redoubled when the body penetrated by the bullet is a French artist whose work appears, when stripped of context, to be aggressive toward minority cultures, if not outright racist. 

It is here that the translation of words alone falls short as well. Charlie Hebdo not only publishes political cartoons that are part of a genre called bête et méchant (stupid and mean); it also publishes political essays thematically related to the cartoons that flank them. But those essays have rarely been mentioned in the debates over liberty of expression following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Setting aside the diverse backgrounds of the cartoonists themselves, those essays have been cut out of the frame in the aftermath and translation of the Charlie killings. Nor is the long history of political satire and caricature in France made clear, alongside the sacrosanct French duty to mock and question the role of religious institutions in society. This was a major stake in the French Revolution. The symbol of Marianne speaks to Charlie’s raison d’être as well: to extricate Catholicism from the French state following centuries of divine rule by monarchs and aristocrats who exploited French peoples and lands with the understanding that God gave them the right to do so. 

Just for the record, the best way I have found to explain Charlie Hebdo since the January attacks is to compare it to The Colbert Report broadcast in a different country with subtitles. If we take Stephen Colbert’s famous caricature of Bill O’Reilly and isolate his words; if we don’t know that the show was on Comedy Central and that the channel never broadcasts any kind of bona fide news or journalism; if we don’t know about Fox News or The Daily Show; then Stephen Colbert simply sounds like a scary-ass racist. So it goes when we look at Charlie Hebdo cartoons in isolation. It makes sense, when we think of the gunshot-translation problem, that so many great American writers chose to boycott the PEN Awards this past spring, and it makes equal sense that several great American writers and graphic novelists chose to take the boycotting writers’ places at the ceremony. 

We must stand at the intersection of writing, translation, and teaching to try to grasp for an answer to the gunshot-translation conundrum. When I think now about taking pictures in the Place de la République, it reminds me first and foremost of the privilege of translation work: I know this corner of the world in its historical and cultural depth. I teach, write, and translate French and Francophone cultures from the French into English. I am also reminded of how connected, and yet fragile, we all can be: As a gunshot passes from a handheld gun into the body of another, that shot and its morbid results can resonate across time, culture, history. How to translate a gunshot? What a strange and tenuous privilege to articulate such a question.  


Jennifer Solheim is a French scholar and teacher, fiction writer, and literary translator whose work has appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder Series, Confrontation, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Fiction Writers Review, and Inside Higher Ed. She is working on a novel set in the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris. Her website is