Gender, Migration, & The Work of Care


How does care translate?

Translator, traitor (Traduttore, traditore).

This old Italian adage is well-known among translators. We are constantly asking ourselves:

“How can I remain faithful to the original text?”

It is easy to fall into the trap of translating a word literally: an ESL student recently talked to me about the “artistic skating” competition in the Olympic Games. They meant figure skating. This highlights the fact that to translate a word means to find a word with the same meaning, but it also needs to be the word people use in that context. The use of a word may even vary depending on the country: do you say faucet or tap? Pram or stroller?

It is important to think carefully about the way a word is used because it gives us clues about its connotations, or the meaning that we associate with a word: do we say “nanny” or “caregiver”, and how do we translate the different connotations of these words? Those were some of the questions I faced when translating the word “caregiver” into French.

English is a language that easily allows the creation of new words. From the description “person who gives care”, English effortlessly comes up with the word “caregiver”. Unfortunately, French does not offer as much flexibility: word compounding (the joining of two words) is often difficult due to necessary prepositions and strict word order rules.

As one might expect, there are many problems with the literal translation donneur de soins or “giver of care”. First, the word donneur, which follows the same formation path as its English counterpart (give + er/ donne + eur), actually holds in French the meaning “donor” holds in English—organ donor, blood donor, etc. To refer to care, French uses the expression fournisseur de soins (care provider). This is an imperfect translation, but this expression is sometimes used, especially when the context contrasts caregivers and care recipients. In French, there is no such occupation as a “fournisseur de soins.” This expression is merely a description of the work a caregiver does and is equivalent, in its use, to “those who provide care.”

The other difficulty in translating the word “caregiver” is the translation of the word “care”. The word that typically comes to mind is “soins”. After all, prendre soin de quelqu’un/ quelque chose means to take care of someone or something—an almost perfect match. But to provide care, as opposed to taking care means to provide treatment, or medical care. That is because the verb soigner means to nurse or to treat; a soignant, therefore, is not a carer, but rather a nurse.

In that sense, in French, to provide care does not typically include care of children or support to the elderly or people with disability, nor does it include tasks that do not fall under the category of medical care, such as cooking for someone or helping them take a shower. The word soignant does not include informal caregivers—people who take care of a close one or family member without pay—either.

What, then, are caregivers providing? What other word could encompass the meaning that the word care holds in English; that is, attention, emotional support, help, provided to the elderly, the young, and people with disabilities?

On the Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada website, the word caregiver (as in the live-in caregiver program) is translated into aide familial (family help), a word that tries to embrace all of the meanings of its English counterpart. Other organizations, such as private caregiver agencies or universities offering training to become a personal support worker, talk about soins d’assistance to describe the care that does not include medical treatment. To refer to informal caregivers, the French language prefers the expression proche aidant (close one who helps). Finally, the academic community, mainly in French-Speaking Europe, borrows the word Care to talk about the work of care and the workers of care – le travail du care, les travailleurs du care, respectively. This has the advantage of not losing any of the meaning the English word carries. Unfortunately, these expressions are not used or understood by the general public, who uses the terms mentioned above.

It seems that French, having already assigned a predominantly medical meaning to the word “soins”, must turn to the word “help” or “assistance” to talk about care work. This does not carry the negative connotation it may have in English but, like the word “care”, refers to something that is usually free: given, not purchased.

Alex Payette, a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the Gender, Migration and the Work of Care project, has thought a lot about the semantics of words related to care in China. He addresses the question of the importance of connotation of words in the population’s understanding of care. He, too, was faced with difficulty translating the word ‘care’ in French. He proposes the terms travail / travailleurs du bien-être which, in his opinion, reflect best what careworkers provide: well-being. Whether it is by providing medical, domestic, or child care, the workers provide emotional and physical labour that aims to increase a person’s overall wellbeing.

One last thing that had me thinking about words and the power they carry: the use of gender in French. All nouns in French have a grammatical gender — feminine or masculine, and when a noun has a masculine and a feminine form, when talking about people and professions, for example (un travailleur/une travailleuse un enseignant/une enseignante), the default is the masculine form. The rule, when talking about a mixed group, is that “masculine wins”. So even in a group of a million women, if there is one man, the rule would be to use the masculine plural form. When talking about a subject like caregiving, where the proportion of caregivers is overwhelmingly female, it is hard not to see some injustice when, even when describing caregivers and their work, preference must be given to the masculine pronoun. Grammatically, it makes sense: the masculine form is inclusive of the feminine gender and can refer to a mixed group, whereas using the feminine form would refer to an exclusively female group and thus dismiss any male caregiver. But as I was reluctantly using the masculine form, I couldn’t help but wonder if my translation was in some way a betrayal of women who are already too often silenced. As they say, tradutore, tradittore.