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Witches & Flibbertigibbets

Published in 2018, Mona Chollet’s Sorcières. La puissance invaincue des femmes met an eager audience in France. The book was extremely well-received, and the author was invited on multiple platforms to talk about her work.

Her writing has been discussed by experienced French critics, and it is not my intention to add to that body of work [1]. Let us just say for context that I am a wholehearted fan and I tend to quote her often. However, I always find myself at loss for the right tone, the right phrase in English — and especially the right sarcasm. Lucky for me, Sophie R. Lewis’ translation the book, In Defence of Witches. Why women are still on trial, was released this January. A recent New York Times article called her British English translation “crisp”, and I thought I would elaborate on the book’s translation itself.

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“I am on house arrest at home, serving meals, forced to get up at seven every day, to have absurd lessons recited at me and to keep the washing machine going. All this for kids who take me for their skivvy.”

Skivvy · chiefly Brit often disparaging · a female servant who does menial work”[2]. French: bonniche.


Yes, Sophie R. Lewis’ translation has a few British undertones. The publisher being Picador, an imprint of British publishing company Pan Macmillan, there is nothing inconsistent here.


As I was reading, I would make note of words I didn’t know, or words I knew but wouldn’t always be confident on how to translate on the spot. Standard practice. The “Britishness” did come up a few times (“cripes” was an entertaining one, and “skivvy” another one), and for learning purposes, I would make a mark on words that would be considered British. Interestingly enough, a lot of the terms I was writing down shared a few features. Some them were indeed British. However, the main characteristic was, they appeared in sentences and paragraphs that displayed a rather casual tone. Eventually, I found that my notebook turned into a long list of informal and often derogatory terms used to describe women: “hussy”, “virago”, “prissy”, “scatterbrain”, “klutz”, “filly”, and so on. There is a reason for such disparaging lexicon in this work: Chollet regularly impersonates other discourses. In other words, she recreates a specific kind of language - a sexist, informal one. For example, she reports a real doctor talking down to a younger female surgeon:

“You may have a future in this profession, my dear. You are the first filly I haven’t managed to make cry over the ops table.”

Filly · a young female horse. French: pouliche, however in Chollet's version the word pisseuse (“the pisser/the one who pisses”) is used.


Alternatively, and quite often, she uses sarcasm and irony to denounce said discourse, for example when summarising a novel by taking the point of view of a male gynaecologist :

“He almost falls out of his chair when the young flibbertigibbet replies that she doesn’t want children”

Flibbertigibbet · old-fashioned · an irresponsible, silly, gossipy person. French: écervellée.


It is within these instances of speech loaded with prejudice that the vocabulary — and the translation choices — can become somewhat picturesque; in an essay about the perception of women through the ages, this makes room for a rather colourful anthology of insults. It is pleasing to note that a lot of these terms can be considered old-fashioned (I genuinely hope that no-one has heard the word “hussy” — French: gourgandine — in a very long time). It is also worth noticing that some of these words are common to most variants of English, and some are even more on the General American English side (“left-field” as an adjective, for instance).


Translating informal and derogatory terms is no picnic, for many reasons. One of them is the implication of contextual elements: who is talking to whom? when? is this a case of claiming back derogatory words? etc. This is why the translation gives us a list of terms varied in place and registers. It makes sense that by working with a discourse that is informal and often old-fashioned (if not archaic), we stumble on adjectives that are anchored in one time and one place. This might entail, sometimes, a good old and crisp British English vocable.

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[1] Although I will provide you with a quote if you want that critical work to be translated.

[2] All definitions are from the Collins English Dictionary, seventh edition, 2015.


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