Jane Kramer’s New Yorker article “Taking the Veil,” about the French law (Article 141-5-1 of Law No. 2004-228) forbidding conspicuous religious symbols in public schools (not online), has a couple of problems dealing with French that I thought were worth mentioning here. First is the odd quote on p. 64, claiming that Chirac called the veil “the siege of a politics of Islamization.” The first noun clearly represents the French word siège, which in most contexts (and certainly this one) means ‘seat, locus’; I can’t imagine how this mistranslation got past the editorial staff of one of America’s most prestigious magazines—as written, it doesn’t even mean anything. The other glitch is a quote from a feminist lawyer named Linda Weil-Curiel, who says (according to the magazine) “I’ll take Chirac, with all his casseroles, because his position on [the veil] has been, well, noble.” Casseroles? I’ve packed up my French slang dictionaries, so I can’t look it up, but I shouldn’t need to; the New Yorker shouldn’t be using any foreign slang whose meaning is neither known to every literate English-speaker nor obvious from context. Tsk, is all I can say. That and: can anyone tell me what casseroles means in this context?


  1. The casseroles are, I believe, originally those that are attached to a dog’s tail by means of a length of string. Supposedly this is one of those cruel little boys’ games. By extension, if a politician has “casseroles glued/tacked to his/her backside”, they rattle when he/she moves. An English near-equivalent might be having a skeleton in the closet. With the difference that “everyone” knows about the casseroles. Chirac is the casseroles-afflicted politician at the moment. Google returns 3,270 hits for the combination of “Chirac” and “casseroles”.
    As to the French bill against “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools, there was a long discussion whether the term should be ostentatoire or ostensible, the latter being a compromise with those who wanted visible; “conspicuous” may be a better translation indeed.I have increasingly come to consider its net effect on the educational environment to be deleterious. This comment space may, however, not be the right place to go into the details. I taught at French lower secondary schools for the last two years before the school administration and myself separated in mutual displeasure, so my present view of the French educational system is more than a bit cynical in some respects.

  2. I knew the expression “traîner des casseroles”, which means that you’ve got a few well-publicised scandals attached to your name, but I didn’t know its origin, so thanks Chris. I don’t think “skeleton in the closet” is appropriate here though, as the main characteristic of the casseroles is that they’re bloody loud and definitely not hidden anywhere. I can’t think of a more satisfying expression to translate it though, maybe there isn’t one?

  3. I would just say “with all his baggage.” But my translations are such as I hope one day to be paid simply for refraining from perpetrating them.

  4. “Casserole” means scandal here (traîner une casserole = to be haunted by a scandal), which conjurs a wonderfully vivid image of dragging a clang of saucepans behind you.
    And Chirac, as we all know, has some doozies to his credit (scandals, I mean, though he may also have absconded with some cookware too, at some low point in his career).

  5. I generally enjoy reading your posts, but whenever you attack the New Yorker it comes across as insubstantial. You haven’t yet found a mistake that can truly be called one, no matter how hard you try…

  6. Ah, false cognates; gotta love ’em.
    And t, I’d say falling for a false cognate is certainly a mistake. Another example is translating the Spanish reunión as “reunion” when it in fact means “meeting”: it’s not a matter of nuance, it’s a matter of just plumb the wrong word.

  7. I strongly disagree with “t” above: I think Hat is the most substantial of bloggers, and I also think that people should be able to express disagreement without hiding behind a fake email address.
    When the New Yorker uses a foreign word that even well-educated readers don’t know, or can’t guess from the context, they are in dereliction of their duty and should be called on it.
    Besides, Venerable Hat reserves his choiciest vitriol not for the New Yorker but for the oft-deserving Paper of Record.

  8. Pardon the rogue “i”: that’s choicest above.

  9. When I read the quote about Chirac and all his casseroles, I thought it meant with all his baggage. I’m glad my French instincts are still good, despite my use of the language limited to occasional dialoguing with West African francophone cashiers.
    I agree with hat, that the slang/idiomatic French expression should have been translated and not left in French. I cringe in thinking they have no one on staff fluent enough in French to do such a task. C’est du francais, c’est pas le chinois.

  10. t: I don’t mean to come across as “attacking the New Yorker,” a magazine I esteem, and I didn’t use the word “mistake,” I said “problems dealing with French,” and I think that’s a fair statement. The first, however, is indeed a mistake, though of course you’re welcome to disagree — this is Liberty Hall.

  11. Oh, and thanks to all who provided such a good explanation of casseroles!

  12. Here’s what I’m wondering: how do you know, for sure, that the “siege” mentioned in the article is a translation of the French word “siege”? And who are any of us to say what well-educated people know? I didn’t know what the French “casseroles” meant until reading about it here. And when I see a word I don’t know my instinct is to look it up, not suggest that the author shouldn’t have used it. Besides, it’s kind of a cool word.
    (Does it really matter if I “hide behind” a fake e-mail address?)

  13. There’s nothing wrong with “hiding behind a fake email.” Many of us have professions and real jobs. On the internet, we can freely express our ideas, pet peeves or current thoughts on an issue without fear of them going back to our boss, our sister-in-law or whoever would later throw it in our faces or accuse us of holding an unpopular, un-politically correct notion. It’s all about freedom.

  14. Maybe they were too busy to check out the meaning of the words, or maybe they didn’t want to make the effort to be correct.
    Speaking of false cognates: I found a Spanish-Portuguese false cognate dictionary in Brazil, which I stupidly did not buy.

  15. John Jainschigg says

    I was curious about this after reading Hat’s entry and various responses, so I bought the New Yorker and read the article.
    There are quite a few odd things about this piece — some conspicuous details, not all by any means hinging on translation, are left un-elaborated. For example, the following:
    “… and [France] had sold Saddam Hussein more than twenty-three billion dollars’ worth of arms and a fleet of Mirage bombers (including the intercept codes, a gesture of friendship which kept France’s own bombers off the ground for the critical first two weeks of that war [meaning the first Gulf war]).”
    After some pondering, one gets the gist: that civilian and military planes carry transponders designed to broadcast a unique identifying code; that France, in selling bombers to Iraq, destroyed records of the ID codes associated with these planes, preventing Coalition forces from identifying them unambiguously and obliging France to keep its own Mirages out of the combat airspace for fear of being targeted accidentally. But achieving understanding — while not rocket science — still requires a certain amount of specialized prior knowledge. And that phrase “… kept France’s bombers off the ground …” makes no sense to me at all — as far as I know, it’s not military or aviation usage (as the alternative phrasing “… out of the theatre of war,” for example, might be averred to be).
    Per ‘siege’ — reading the quote in context makes me think it may have been left in place by the author to stress what is, in fact, a pertinent ambiguity in both French and English (i.e., in both languages, siege means ‘seat/locus/throne’ (e.g., the Arthurian ‘Siege Perilous’) and ‘the overthrow of a walled city by encirclement, attrition and more active breach techniques’); but one which, I suspect (as does Hat) was unintended by Chirac, the speaker quoted.
    I have to agree — whoever edited and fact-checked this piece seems to have been overawed by the writer or the subject to the extent of neglecting good editorial hygeine.

  16. Doing my study abroad right now in Strasbourg, I’m damn sure that the only usage of “siege” I have heard is for a seat on a train, bus, or tram.

  17. Another thing I would add is that the use of the English “noble” for the French cognate does not completely translate as well as other words. I would have used admirable, which is in keeping with what the speaker had in mind, I believe.

  18. Interestingly enough, in the online summary of the printed version at, probably only this week, the siege quote has been edited differently into the following sentence.
    Chirac tells Kramer that his vision of France can be understood only in the context of his world view, which acknowledges that “the time when we imposed our values is over,” but stipulates that “the siege of a politics of Islamization” has no place in a French public classroom.
    Rather than being equated directly with the veil as in print, it is contrasted with the imposition of values (or pluralist lack thereof). I could convince myself that the “siege” nuance was valid here; but then “of” doesn’t work. I wonder what the interview dialogue really was.

  19. Me too. I tried googling French words that would have been in the original quote, but came up empty.

  20. “Dragging a lot of tin cans behind him” sounds like a close translation. This might be done to dogs but also is done at weddings to the groom’s car.

  21. I actually tried to think of things it would be fun to tie tin cans to. There just aren’t enough horses any more. Mercedes? BMW’s? Hummers? You can also stick a potato into the exhaust pipe.

  22. I second the “baggage” translation

Speak Your Mind