Whether scribbled on tables, put up on posters in the streets, or chanted during protests, the slogans from May ’68 have become a part of French popular culture. As part of the 50th anniversary of the “events,” a collection of the slogans has been translated into English and published by the MIT Press.
The spirit of May ’68 may have faded, but the rallying cries can still be heard — etched into our collective memory thanks to the work of Julien Besançon. When the first tremors of unrest were felt in May 1968, the journalist was 36 and had already reported on the Algerian War, J.F.K.’s funeral, and the Six-Day War for the French radio station Europe n°1. He captured the processions, the barricades, and the charging of the CRS police force, and also recorded the protestors’ slogans. The resulting collection, Les murs ont la parole : Mai 68, was published less than three weeks after order was restored.
The MIT Press chose to translate the work into English and republish it in its original format. American translator Henri Vale is the man behind the project, having already translated several pages of Julien Besançon’s collection in 1998 when he was a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He remembers comparing the austerity of his campus with that of Nanterre where the Parisian uprising began, and was inspired by the protestors’ optimism.
Henri Vale has since translated works by Gérard de Nerval, Raymond Queneau, and Georges Perec. But the expressions from 1968 are still a challenge, as the objective is to reflect the urgency and creativity of phrases born of a specifically French political and cultural context during the 1960s. Some of the slogans have been translated literally (Sous les pavés la plage: Under the paving stones, the beach; L’imagination au pouvoir: All power to the imagination; Il est interdit d’interdire: Banning is banned), while others have remained in French. This is the case of Contestation, mais con d’abord (Contestation, but con before anything) and the untranslatable Des veaux, dévots, des votes (Dopes, believers, votes).
The slogans resonate in both French and English thanks to their universality. There is no need to be aware of French history to enjoy such examples as Nous sommes tous des indésirables (We are all undesirables) or Soyons réalistes, exigeons l’impossible (Be realistic, demand the impossible). “Every passing decade moves us further away from the climate of the time,” says the translator. “But the protests of May ’68 continue to influence our society; tweets are the graffiti of the modern day.”
The Walls Have the Floor: Mural Journey, May ‘68 by Julien Besançon, translated from French by Henri Vale, MIT Press, 2018. 202 pages. 14.95 dollars.