Intraduisible #3: Empêchement

Intraduisibles #3

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Too French for translation…

#3 EMPÊCHEMENT

Evolving from the Low Latin “impedicare” meaning “to ensnare, to entrap”, the modern-day French noun empêchement is a broad term used to excuse oneself from a prior engagement, due to a supposedly unforeseen and unexpected change of plans. Whilst dictionaries propose an endless array of possibilities of varying registers (hold-up, hitch, impediment, snag, delay, setback and conflict amongst many others), none of these suggestions accurately convey the ambiguous and indirect undertones of empêchement.

Indeed, no single English noun alone allows for such a vague and meaningless response, granting the speaker the chance to hide the plethora of potential reasons, be they genuine or fictitious, for no longer being available. Complete sentences are instead required to express and capture these evasive notions in the English language.

Renderings are nevertheless of less syntactical elegance and poignancy, with simply “something came up” being a common example found in English. Samuel Beckett plays with the noun’s qualities of impediment and obstruction in his art criticism, concluding that the confines within artistic representation can be viewed in terms of two kinds of empêchement: the object empêchement and the eye empêchement.

In the first instance, an object cannot be seen because it is what it is, in the latter the object cannot be seen because the viewer is what the viewer is. In his article, “Peintres de l’empêchement”, Beckett cites Geer van Velde as emulating the former approach, with Bram van Velde representing the latter, one painting extension, whilst the other creates succession.

GVV Mediterranee 1941

Read an extract of “Peintres de l’empêchementhere.