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Kontrollieren, contrôler. 14th of October, 2018 POST·MERIDIEM 05:10

Back at the turn of this decade, when I was an enthusiastic medical student in Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, I had a group tutorial with Dr Eamon Leen, an excellent lecturer and the chief pathologist there. He mentioned, apropos of something reasonable and medical which escapes me at the moment, the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, and his interpretation of it was that the main reason for it was the differing semantics of English ‘to control’ versus French « contrôler », German „kontrollieren“ (the Fremdwort borrowed from French and meaning what the French word does.)

The idea was that « contrôler » was ‘to [be able to] check’ in French, but ‘to have power over’ in English, so the British ended up sinking the Vichy French fleet at huge loss of French life (and substantial post-war rancour) because they were led to understand that the Germans would have power over it, changing the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic coast.

I had studied French and this wasn’t a difference I had been aware of, but it sounded plausible and I wasn’t about to dismiss something Eamon Leen said without good reason. I searched around a little bit at the time, but there wasn’t anything definitive to be had via Google then. The relevant text of the armistice:

Article 8. La flotte de guerre française - à l’exception de la partie qui est laissée à la disposition du Gouvernement français pour la sauvegarde des intérêts français dans son empire colonial - sera rassemblée dans des ports à déterminer et devra être démobilisée et désarmée sous le contrôle de l’Allemagne ou respectivement de l’Italie.

La désignation de ces ports sera faite d’après les ports d’attache des navires en temps de paix. Le gouvernement allemand déclare solennellement au Gouvernement français qu’il n’a pas l’intention d’utiliser pendant la guerre, à ses propres fins, la flotte de guerre française stationnée dans les ports sous contrôle allemand, sauf les unités nécessaires à la surveillance des côtes et au dragage des mines.

Il déclare, en outre, solennellement et formellement, qu’il n’a pas l’intention de formuler de revendications à l’égard de la flotte de guerre française lors de la conclusion de la paix ; exception faite de la partie de la flotte de guerre française à déterminer qui sera affectée à la sauvegarde des intérêts français dans l’empire colonial, toutes les unités de guerre se trouvant en dehors des eaux territoriales françaises devront être rappelées en France.

I haven’t spoken or listened to much French in the interval, but my usual driving-across-the-country podcast material is in large part in German, and it’s a difference I’ve been looking out for. Now of course podcast material (usually Deutschlandfunk broadcasts of some sort) from today is not amazingly representative of the usual use of German or French in 1940, but it can be helpful for some insight.

And usually, given the big semantic overlap between ‘to [be able to] check’ and ‘to have power over’, it hasn’t been that clear that there has been a difference, and I have an underlying suspicion that current journalists speak and read too much English to be careful about the German meaning. One example where it did came up the other day in a piece from the Bayerischer Rundfunk; one of the commoner anti-hypertensives was recently found to have been adulterated with carcinogens, and this piece went into detail on the international regulatory system for medications, as background. The semantic difference there becomes very relevant, in that the legal situation provides for inspections, but no definite power over the producers (beyond withdrawing the accreditation if the inspections are not up to standard). And, lo and behold, the choice of vocabulary is exactly that described by Eamon Leen.

Anyway. Lesson to take away; historically English and (likely) Standard Average European have had slightly different interpretations of ‘control,’ ideally you should be careful about this in translating SAE, and ideally you should use something like „steuern“ when translating the word into German. And there’s a good chance it won’t matter much if your interlocutors speak lots of English.

And I don’t know if I would have done anything anything differently had I been in the Brits’ position in October 1940, the text of the armistice is not reassuring at all!

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