Pays de merde

Pity the humble translator whose increasingly challenging job it is to find the words for modern diplomatic language like ‘shithole countries’.

Having worked as a French-English translator in a former life, I can sympathize with those lost-in-translation moments. Often our job is not to literally replicate the words but to find terms that most people will understand to somehow capture the nuance of meaning. Not that the word ‘nuance’ can be readily associated with certain world leaders.

Translating Trump’s recent blunder, in which President Frog* used the unfortunate term to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries, the French media for the most part took the easy route with the already-coined phrase, pays de merde. An expression often used by the French themselves to describe France, it literally means ‘shit country’.

The proper meaning of ‘shithole’ was picked up by the excellent newspaper Courrier International as ‘trou à merde’. I learned all this from the Guardian, whose frankly hilarious piece details the translation challenges from around the world. Who knew there were countries where birds don’t lay eggs?

But nothing beats the Urban Dictionary, which has updated the definition of the term to its true meaning:

When my kids were little, they used to say: “C’est toi qui le dis, c’est toi qui l’es!”

I can’t think of a good equivalent in English but essentially: You said it, you’re it!

Out of the mouths of babes…


* Disclaimer: In carrying out in-depth research for this post, I discovered the Trump-frog chin meme; please note, however, that term ‘President Frog’ has nothing to do with France or the French. The author accepts no responsibility for any sensitive souls who have been offended by this post.


  1. francetaste · January 18, 2018

    What has astounded me more than the vulgar comments from someone who is well-known, even proud, to be vulgar, racist and incurious, are the reactions I’ve read from “ordinary” people: that the president should be respected, that people are paying too much attention to one word, that he was just being honest about those people. Nothing I ever was taught–by my parents, the Catholic schools I attended, even TV–would have excused not just the naughty word but above all the hateful sentiment. He is making hate great again. I suppose it’s thrilling–to be superior just because! No effort required! Manifest destiny!
    If Africa is poor, it’s because the U.S. and Europe made it so and kept it so, with unfair deals, pillaging of natural resources and punishing tariffs.
    I lived in the gorgeous shithole of Kenya for a few years and have been back many times. I’ve also traveled to other shitholes. People are the same the world over. They want a better life, especially for their children. A few adventurers (like myself!) want to leave for new lands, but the vast majority would like to stay near family and friends, but with improved conditions.

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      Respect for the office? Hmph. Seems to me that normal rules don’t apply any more. Like you, I was raised to honour the golden rule above all and that accidents of birth don’t entitle superiority. On any level. Manifest stupidity!

      If anyone has the right to talk about the so-called ‘shithole’ countries, it is you who have lived and worked there as a volunteer. Respect is both earned and deserved, or wasted and irrelevant.

  2. Osyth · January 18, 2018

    I had read The Guardian piece and it is brilliant. The Urban Dictionary did what one should always do in the face of bullying and odious behavior from unspeakably nasty individuals and refocused what has been said to spotlight the speakers own disgraceful sewage mouth. My sister-in-law lives in Botswana. The Government wrote to the US Ambassador a highly eloquent letter asking for clarification as to whether they are, indeed, a ‘shithole’. That is exactly the way to respond, with dignity, intelligence and grace. The sad thing about all of this is, that whilst everyone is running around screaming the odds this teflon coated moron is oblivious and getting on with yet more ruinous and inhumane actions. Sometimes, one has to try to see the silver lining (always actually) and surely it is this, that this vile creature has done more to unite the world than any leader in living memory. If we can limp on to the mid-terms and the Democrats can unify behind a great leader for 2020 and quit bickering and looking backwards then I honestly think that, delayed by four years, we have a chance of an America that looks more outwardly and understands that they are a part of the world not the whole world. You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one …..

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      You are right: grace and dignity are the only response, even though along with intelligence they are lost on the offending party. But yes, silver linings! We will come out of this more united globally, and perhaps even a new and improved America will emerge…although there I have my doubts. It is ironic that a country with so much good can produce so much that is bad, perhaps not unlike the essential contradiction of fast and slow in France. And yes, we need dreams more than ever, Osyth, so you are not and will not be the only one.

      • Osyth · January 19, 2018

        I quietly doubt it too but I refuse to give up hope as long as I draw breath.

  3. midihideaways · January 18, 2018

    In the pre-internet and -social-media days, people like Trump probably held the same views and probably expressed them in fairly similar ways. The big difference today is that he has the possibility to spread his poisonous message to billions at the touch of a button. In the old days, people would believe what was printed in the newspapers, today they believe what comes out of twitter and FB. The difference there, is that there is no editing, research or moderation. The mass of people appear to have no capabilities for critical analysis/thought, and are unable to sort rubbish from real issues. “Manifest stupidity” rules – sad times!

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      Reading your comment gave me a horrifying case of shivers: are we really already in George Orwell’s dystopia? Big brother’s propaganda machine is powerful and I fear it is not just bad luck that has a buffoon leading it.

      • midihideaways · January 22, 2018

        I think we’ve surpassed Mr Orwell’s wildest dreams by a mile – don’t you?

  4. weggieboy · January 18, 2018

    I believe the word is synonymous with “anus”. On the other hand, the French translation used sounds, um, romantic!

    That said, the negativity of it, the insult to good people who as immigrants to the USA are significantly more educated than the Americans they want to share this country with (Africans) or victims of natural disasters or an abusive, corrupt government (Haiti), is unmistakable in English: the president is a racist who is ignorant of the benefits of immigration to the US now and in the past.

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      Interesting. I see it as more of hole into which you shit (or American leaders do) rather than the source of said merde. But both clearly apply in his tiny mind! And on the flip side, imagine the hilarity of Norwegians wondering why on earth anyone would ever want to immigrate there? ;-0

      • Mél@nie · January 18, 2018

        the Norwegians have been morts de rire, ils se sont moqué du moumouté-en-chef “grave”… and they’ve also been extremely disgusted!!!

  5. M. K. Waller · January 18, 2018

    I’m an American, and I’m not taking responsibility for the offense arising from the vulgarity that came out of the nation’s capital last week, or the ones that came before, or the ones to come. (I use “vulgarity” to refer to both language and actions.) We are embarrassed. If I were the Statue of Liberty, I would pack up and go back to France. I wish I had that luxury myself.

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      I feel your pain, M.K. Knowing that you and so many Americans, some of whom are my good friends, feel that way makes me think twice about posting this kind of nonsense. Yet, it must not be hidden, and clearly you have no reason to hang your head in shame. Every time we think he has hit rock bottom, he manages to outdo himself. What’s next? Perhaps our only hope is hubris, an appropriately Greek ending to the tragedy.

  6. Suzanne et Pierre · January 18, 2018

    I don’t want to comment on Trump…it is too depressing but I found your other point on translation very interesting. As someone who is fluent in both French & English, I have encountered so many instances when translation didn’t get the true meaning of what had been written in either languages. I remember when I was working, our translation group would often call me to test words and often it was very difficult for them because the English was “marketing” blabla which was meaningless so how do you translate something that means nothing…quite a challenge and not one any automatic translation system can deal with… (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · January 18, 2018

      I can relate to that, Suzanne. I used to dread translating French marketing-speak into English as, without the cultural context, it made no sense at all. As someone with a copywriting background, I could probably make sense of the ‘BS’ in English – but French!?! Of course, in Canada the context is completely different, with so many words used differently in both languages. I would have relied heavily on that translation group!

  7. Mél@nie · January 18, 2018

    à propos du disclaimer, je l’avais vu ici: 🙂

    • MELewis · January 19, 2018

      That’s where google led me too!

  8. M. L. Kappa · January 18, 2018

    I could be offended, I like frogs 🤣

    • MELewis · January 19, 2018

      Lol. Frogs are probably offended too!

  9. phildange · January 18, 2018

    Beware shitholes friends, smoke your shit and cover your holes ! Weather report : Now coming from the USA “une mer de merde”!

    • MELewis · January 19, 2018

      Sounds like a shit storm. 🙂

  10. Susanne · January 19, 2018

    Love the meme. Love the post. I am not quite so optimistic as the rest of the folks commenting. I fear the ignorance of the vox populi who elected the predator in chief is reflective of far more than people want to admit. There’s an awful lot of silence.

  11. chezperrier · January 22, 2018

    I love your post and I’m enjoying reading all the like-minded comments in response to it! Thanks for speaking out about this type of “communication”, as should be regarded as far from normal. What a bizarre era.

    • MELewis · January 23, 2018

      Thank you! Glad you’ve enjoyed the comments and honoured to be in good company on this blog!

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