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the word mise-en-abyme

Intraduisible #18


Too French for translation…

#18  Mise-En-Abyme

Mise-en-abyme is one of those expressions that seems to crop up all the time, especially in academic writing, but whose meaning is a bit of a mystery, especially as its lack of equivalent in English means that it is never translated from the French. The term would translate literally as ‘placed’ (mise being the past participle of the verb mettre, ‘to put’), ‘into abyss’, which has very little significance in English and therefore may seem strange. However, in reality the true meaning of mise-en-abyme is quite simple: it refers to a piece of art in which an image contains a smaller version of itself, which appears to recur to infinity. An example of this is the painting Las Meninas, by Velázquez, where the people in the room are pictured again in a mirror at the back of the room. The concept is also found frequently in literature and film, through the technique of a story within a story or a film within a film. For example, Agnès Varda’s Nouvelle Vague drama Cléo de 5 à 7 (a review of which can be found HERE) contains a scene in which the actors watch a film whose plot echoes their own story, and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes a play within a play whose themes are similar to that of the frame text.

A less academic example of the use of a mise-en-abyme is the logo of the cheese spread Laughing Cow (La Vache qui rit in French). In this image, the eponymous laughing cow wears a pair of earrings which are in fact Laughing Cow packets, meaning that the logo is reproduced within itself, and suggesting that in the smaller versions of itself, it will be repeated again and again. So, you see, although mise-en-abyme appears to be an exclusively intellectual term, examples of its meaning can be found in every aspect of life!


the laughing cow packaging

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