Friday, November 04, 2005

A Translation Question: “classes populaires”

While translating these texts on the riots in France, i have used the term “working classes” to translate “classes populaires”, even though a more literal translation would be “popular classes.”

This is because the word “populaire” has the connotation of “the people” as in “the masses” or “the oppressed” or “the lower classes” whereas in English “popular” does not normally have this connotation.

That said, “working classes” is also inexact, as the way this is translated into French is “classe ouvrière.”

I am not sure if there are distortions as to one’s line that might flow from this question, but given the heat generated by such questions as “how many Stalinist angels can dance on the head of a Trotskyist pinhead?” i am sure here is potential…

So please be forewarned that when you see “working classes” or “popular classes” in any of these translations, that there is room for some ambiguity.

And if any other left-wing translators out there have any advice as to how i should handle his thorny issue, please let me know at!

Categories: ,


  1. That's a question have been struggling with for quite some time now. I dont know what to do with that.

    The thing is, Alternative Libertaire use both terms (classe ouvrière and classes populaires --note the plural here...) and certainly mean different things.

    In general, when they use classe ouvrière, it is because they refer to people in relationship to work. They almost never use the term outside of a labor related issue (except maybe when they called for "pas un vote ouvrier pour Le Pen").

    But now, when they use classes populaires, they mean it in a broader sens (indeed closer to the term "the people"). Actually, they use it preatty much the same way the Panthers used to talk about "the people" and "the community". They are encompassing everyone: lumpen, proles, youth, small shop keepers, etc.

    I think that in this context, poor people and community would have been a better choice of term. Because that's really what is being said (esp. since in France, contrary to Quebec for exemple, people talk both about quartier populaire and quartier ouvrier).



  2. I came upon this while facing the exact same translation question. I had to translate "classes pouplaires" in a context where I had to retain the concision and punchiness of the original, and thus couldn't expand the wording, in English.

    I went with "working classes". The breadth of that term in English is a little less than the expansive "populaires" in French, and it does link the term to the workplace in a similarly too-narrow way. However, I decided that speaking plurally of the "working classes" retains the important connotation of a class-based analysis, while appropriately suggesting diversity and complexity within that analysis.