Back when I was 11, I started secondary school, and we started to learn French.* Like most English children who learn French, one of the first words we came across was salut. As a greeting, for use with friends, something like “Hi”.
When I was a few years older, I read my way through my parents’ bookshelves of 1960s and 1970s thrillers. One of the books on it was Papillon, the autobiography of a 1930s French crook called Henri Charrière; a long picaresque tale of his imprisonment in the jungles of South America, on Devil’s Island, and various escapes, recaptures, masturbation, sex with dusky native wives, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how much of the sex made it into the inevitable film version, because I’ve never seen the inevitable film version.**
One thing about Papillon, though, confused me. Not the long story with all its peregrinations and jewels-up-the-bum, but the geography. I’d heard of Devil’s Island before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a group. Les Iles de Salut, off the coast of French Guiana. According to the French I’d been taught at school, the Islands of Hi. Something about that didn’t sound quite right. Back then, I couldn’t just pop online and check up on this, though, and so it was a while later that I discovered: salut doesn’t literally just mean “Hi!”. It is, in fact, “salvation”.
Well, that makes rather more sense, despite being rather darkly ironic for the prisoners of days gone by. It’s somewhat stranger, in fact, that the French apparently use “Salvation!” as something like an equivalent to “Hi!” And there, in my head, the matter rested.
In the meantime, between then and now, lots happened. I read some stuff about the French Revolution one day, then read some more, and later more still, until I knew such vital trivia as Louis XVI’s favourite hobbies, or the name of Robespierre’s dog.*** I certainly knew about the Committee of Public Safety, the body which in many ways became France’s primary executive power in 1793-94; a dour committee of serious-minded men who promulgated government by terror, passing laws that banned any sort of anti-Revolutionary word or deed or thought, the punishment being clean, scientific and egalitarian decapitation.**** “Committee of Public Safety” is a very dull and bureaucratic name for a body convinced that France needed saving from its reactionary self, whatever the cost of the purge.
All of my reading, of course, was in English, my French being just about good enough to order dinner or buy a Metro ticket. So it was only the other day, when we visited the Museé Carnavalet – the museum of Paris’s history – that I found out what the CPS’s real name was. La Comité de salut public. Not just responsible for the public safety, but for the public salvation. The committee to save the French from themselves, whatever it takes.
All of a sudden, in my head, their actions made much more sense than they ever had before. It just goes to show what you can lose in translation, between safety and salvation; or, indeed, between safety, salvation and “Hi!”. Maybe I should have worked on my French harder in school, and the Terror would have made more sense earlier. Salut.
* Actually, there was another abortive attempt to teach me French, by my first school teacher, at the age of 5 or so. It didn’t get very far, because I couldn’t get my head around the idea that letters have slightly different sound values in different languages.
** starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Presumably the copious masturbation was also omitted.
*** Hunting and locksmithery; and “Brount”. And I didn’t get asked either of those things when I went on the telly.
**** The “egalitarian” part of that isn’t just me using long words: before the nobility lost its Old Regime rights, they alone were entitled to execution by decapitation. The common people got to hang. The guillotine, incidentally, wasn’t as clean as Dr Guillotin thought it would be; it spilled large amounts of blood, so much that the site of the guillotine was steadily moved away from the centre of Paris to try to limit the number of districts which started to get a pink-tinged water supply.