Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Translating ‘sourd-muet’

Those of you reading my initial translations of the banquets will have noticed that there’s a pretty central issue that I avoid.

Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on how you look at it) – I’ve been outed in this by Don Grushkin, who put a comment on the 1835 banquet translation asking why I leave ‘sourd-muet’ untranslated.

The answer to this is that naming conventions in the Deaf world are a key part of identity politics… after all, wouldn’t it be nicer to call them the ‘French Deaf Banquets’?

So, I didn’t want to use the obvious (but VERY unfashionable) ‘deaf-mute’ until I had done some work to see whether it was appropriate.

There are at least three sets of challenges: Political, Historical and Linguistic.

Political challenges

First, political challenges… which really, as in other Deaf Studies areas, permeate everything.

For example: Imagine you need to translate something from modern French that refers to “les sourds”.

  • You know that the straight translation of “sourd” is “deaf”
  • But, you also know that French people don’t usually capitalise ‘sourd’ in the same way that the UK does ‘Deaf’ (most of the time Americans don’t either), but – that by refering to them in the plural, they mean a group of those who identify with some kind of Deaf culture.
  • And, you know that France generally doesn’t use the idea of a ‘community’, but that it’s a central identity factor in the UK.
  • But you also know that in the UK, it’s rude to refer to categories of people… but in the US it’s a more acceptable representative form for accessing rights.

Based on this – how do you translate “les sourds”?

In the UK: ‘Deaf people’, ‘The Deaf community’?

In the US: ‘Deaf people’, ‘The Deaf’?

These would all be valid translations… but ones that are inherently shaped by political decisions about Deaf culture, what it constitutes, who belongs in it, how it fits within a national framework of identity, how it is mobilised to access human rights?

So, the key in translating ‘sourd-muets’ from a political point of view is to take account of the politics around the notion at the time – which makes the question an historical one.

Historical challenges

Take this into historical contexts and you have an even more knotty problem because each historical period has formed its associative ‘orders’ in different ways.

Go back to the mid 19th century in France and the evidence is that the Deaf community had a much looser definition – it contained both deaf people who couldn’t speak, and those who could. And, in some cases, hearing who lost their hearing and were learning to sign… AND deaf people who couldn’t sign but were  members in potentia.

So, modern definitions based on culture/language/politics/audiology start to fall apart.

Go back even further, to the late 18th century, and you find that the idea of ‘community’ falls apart too. Mostly, all you have in the record are individual, (probably) signing, deaf people – like Etienne de Fay, or Saboureux de Fontenay, or the travelling, deaf, Italian showman who taught Desloges to sign.

In both cases, you could use modern terms – but you would flatten historical differences… and that’s dangerous, because the last thing you want to do with history is assume that it’s just like the present, because a more critical analysis always comes back to bite you.

So, what do you do?

One option is to make up a new term to capture the central idea… I did that in my PhD – using the term ‘DEAF’ from the sign ‘DEAF-MUTE’. But that was for use in a strongly academic context, so not appropriate for a stand-alone translation that could be read by anyone.

Another option is simply to try and translate the terms used at the time – and to open them up to exploration by modern Deaf scholarship as a focus for study in their own right.

Which then takes us to linguistic challenges.

Linguistic challenges

Given the need to stick with an historical form, these are pretty straightforward:

  • sourd = deaf
  • muet = mute/dumb

so sourd-muet means ‘deaf-mute’ or ‘deaf-dumb’

Now, the issue here is deciding between ‘mute’ and ‘dumb’.

Modern-day, this is no problem. ‘Dumb’ carries the idea of lower intelligence… whereas ‘mute’ is simply about speech. So, if this were a modern French translation, we’d definitely go for ‘mute’.

Does the same hold historically?

Well, ‘mute’ comes from a variety of sources. It’s an evolution of the Latin ‘mutus’, and potentially also from the Sanskrit ‘mukah’ and the Greek ‘myein’ – meaning ‘to be shut’.

‘Dumb’, in the Old English, Old Saxon (dumb), Gothic (dumbs), and Old Norse (dumbr) originally meant ‘without speech’. But by the late middle ages was taking on the notion of ‘stupid’.

So, by the early 19th century, ‘mute’ and ‘dumb’ meant quite different things.

Taking all this together and considering that

  • The modern day term ‘mute’ is less offensive than ‘dumb’
  • The origin of ‘mute’ is the Latin, which is what French derived more directly from.
  • The 19th century meaning of the two prefers ‘mute’

… then the translation should be ‘deaf-mute’.

A final test

Before I finish – there is one final test. Something that I have found useful in my writing is to work on a different but complimentary source, and see if the translational assumptions still hold.

What better for that purpose than something that was written specifically to address the issue of what ‘sourd-muet’ meant – by Berthier himself.

This is the original, and then the translation, of a note that he included in his biography of the Abbé Sicard – I think you’ll find that it confirms the use of ‘deaf-mute’.

So, from Berthier (1873: 200 – Note D):

Différence entre les mots sourd et muet et sourd-muet.

Le dénomination de sourd et muet suppose deux incapacités distinctes, et n’étant pas une conséquence nécessaire l’une de l’autre ; d’une part, l’incapacité d’entendre, occasionnée par la paralysie du nerf auditif ou par toute autre cause, de l’autre, l’incapacité absolue d’articuler la parole humaine, incapacité qui est le résultat physiologique de diverses causes ; tandis que l’appellation de sourd-muet renferme, au contraire, l’idée du rapport direct de la surdité au mutisme, de telle façon que celui-ci sont considéré alors comma la conséquence obligée de celle-là.

Difference between the words ‘deaf and mute’, and ‘deaf-mute’.

Defining someone as ‘deaf and mute’ supposes two distinct inabilities – where the one is not necessarily a consequence of the other. On the one hand; the inability to hear, caused by a paralysis of the auditory nerve, or by some other cause. On the other; the total inability to produce human speech, an inability that is the physiological result of a variety of causes. By contrast, the definition ‘deaf-mute’ presupposes a direct link between deafness and mutism, where the latter is seen as the necessary outcome of the former.


So, avoiding modern day politics, taking history and linguistics into account – the conclusion is that, even where a more natural, modern-feeling translation might be tempting – ‘sourd-muet’ should be translated ‘deaf-mute’.

This kind of problem permeates all translation work and we’ll see it come up time and again in the Banquets…

… don’t even get me started on the notion of ‘silence


Berthier, F. (1873) L’Abbé Sicard. Paris. C. Douniol

3 comments on “Translating ‘sourd-muet’

  1. Mary Beth Kitzel
    June 21, 2012

    The ‘mute’ equivalency…

    Hiya Mike~
    A thought provoking discussion and one that has implications for my own work. Nineteenth century English Census materials use the term ‘dumb’ is used for an individual who does not speak, the mute equivalence. In fact, I find in some of the enumerator books, an effort to mention when a person is an ‘idiot’ as well as ‘deaf and dumb’. The official census report of the time ignores all people labelled as just ‘Deaf’, thus supporting the idea that those labelled that way had speech. It means a few things, I think. Firstly, they were looking to identify people without speech or hearing and secondly, the reports ignore people that were bi-lingual.
    As for capitalization, ‘D’ v ‘d’, it seems to have been up to the individual enumerator’s sense of style and penmanship, as so much of the writing in the period did before spelling standardizations.
    It brings up loads of additional questions as well about the qualifications of the enumerators, the instructions they received, etc, and why the assessor chose to ignore so many people labelled as ‘Deaf’. But it also gives us a chance to look at how ‘ordinary people’, if indeed the enumerators were such, perceived these labels.

  2. Don G.
    July 16, 2012

    On a related note, and relevant to my own work, do you know the current term for Deaf in France? Are they using terms similar to “hearing impaired” or “hard of hearing” now, or is it still sourds-muets? And, if the former, would you have a rough idea of when the newer terms started appearing?

    • Mike Gulliver
      January 27, 2013

      Hi Don, sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier. Your comment came on the very day our son was born, and I missed it in the busyness.

      As far as I know, the term ‘Sourd’ is generally used, with sourd-muet also being used by those outside the Deaf sphere. Of course, sourd-muet is rather deaf-mute than deaf and dumb, and so doesn’t carry the same weight of ‘dumb’ and so isn’t so offensive.

      ‘Malentendant’ [bad hearing] is also used… As is hard of hearing in the anglophone world.

      There are tensions over whether the label is used of an individual’ or a group… The latter (community) having no political or legal validity in France, and so things tend to be defined on an individual level.

      I could get the definitive answer for you from friends in France if that would useful?

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on June 20, 2012 by in DEAF history, Musings, Translations and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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