The following sentence is from Camus's The Stranger. Meursault, the narrator, is referring to his time in prison.

Je peux dire qu'au fond l'été a très vite remplacé l'été.


Question 1: What does au fond mean there?

For question 2, see these English translations.

Stuart Gilbert:

On the whole I can't say that those months passed slowly; another summer was on its way before I realized the first was over.

Matthew Ward:

But I can honestly say that the time from summer to summer went very quickly.

In English, you say at bottom as a signal that you will cut through to the essence of the matter and that, therefore, what you say may not be complete. "At bottom, he's a good man." You say this because in some ways he has not been good and a complete statement would have to include a concession in that regard.

If au fond works just like at bottom, here's question 2: Can we say that Matthew Ward's is a mistranslation?

  • au fond is definitely NOT at bottom. It is used to refer to the substance or essence of something. I'd say: in essence. It also does not mean honestly. Le fond d'une question: the essence of a question, the substance of a question. Yes, it is a mistranslation.
    – Lambie
    Mar 17, 2016 at 21:13

4 Answers 4


au fond means at bottom, but it also means honestly depending on context.

The context of the sentence changes the meaning, but au fond can mean honestly, although at bottom is better

  • But isn't there a problem with honestly because au fond is within the que clause? There was nothing honest or dishonest about the manner summers replaced one another although the saying it may be honest. In this case shouldn't au fond have gone outside the que context?
    – Catomic
    Mar 17, 2016 at 2:12
  • It does not and never has meant honestly. It means: in substance, in essence, basically, with regard to the substance of some question, fundamentally. etc. The honest thing is a pipe dream. Au fond, le traducteur s'est trompé.
    – Lambie
    Mar 17, 2016 at 21:23

Il me semble qu'ici on pourrait remplacer au fond par en fait sans pervertir le sens de la phrase.
Au fond à le sens de "à considérer le fond des choses" (et non l'apparence, la surface), (Cf. En réalité) -- le petit Robert.

En réalité, le temps d'une année a semblé très cours au narrateur.

Les deux traductions sont des transpositions intéressantes, car elles développent toutes les deux la rapidité avec laquelle le temps est passé entre deux étés.

Au fond insiste, pointe, met en valeur cette rapidité, c'est ce qui est après coup le plus important.

Stuart Gilbert développe complètement ce qui est induit par la phrase d'Albert Camus.

Matthew Ward garde la concision du texte français, en transposant au fond en honnêtement comme marqueur du temps écoulé rapidement.

N'étant pas anglophone, at bottom semble convenir, mais dans l'exemple proposé il s'agit d'apprécier la valeur d'un homme, pas de valorisé l'écoulement du temps.
Ce devrait être une traduction possible, compréhensible, très mot à mot.

Les traductions citées indiquent que la transposition retenue reflète l’atmosphère du texte original.

  • Thank you for providing a detailed explanation. When I feel that both answers gave me what I needed, I try to "select" the member's with a lower reputation point so as to encourage their effort.
    – Catomic
    Mar 17, 2016 at 1:54

Two professional translations didn't rely on the at bottom idiom; that must mean something (beyond a two-liner statement to the contrary). Whether it's because of the declining use or because it's chiefly from the BrE variety, or UK formal even, and they were interested with a more personal register, in any case they didn't use it. At bottom may mean any number of things (in reality; basically or despite appearances to the contrary / Collins; basically / AHDotEL; essentially / MW; Dictionary.com, in reality, fundamentally, links the idiom to at the bottom of, as in the ultimate cause of). The function is that of a(n) (phrasal) adverb. But even if one equates at bottom with au fond, that's not what translation is about.

Now insofar as the French language is concerned, au fond/dans le fond means « Tout bien considéré, en dernière analyse. » (TLFi) or « en réalité, tout bien considéré » (Larousse) i.e. wfw : all-well-considered/in-last-analysis/in-reality. It is independent from the ground up or essential propety/characteristic meaning such as with le fond des choses, alluded to elsewhere, and is rather related to a figurative use of a secret, or intimate location. It is also functionally a charnière (hinge) construct used to summarize, so this is not only about semantics. Constructs with a similar function include: « À bien considérer les choses, Ainsi, Au fond, Au total, Bref, Dans l’ensemble, En bref, En définitive, En résumé, En somme, En substance, En un mot, Essentiellement, Mais réflexion faite, Pour tout dire, Somme toute, Tout bien considéré, Tout compte fait. » (BDL). One meaning for honestly is really, genuinely (MW) which is certainly not inconsistent with those. One could say one went with an expression for a summary whereas the other chose the genuine, straight up statement to the same effect. On the whole is basically somme toute; I personally wonder why Gilbert didn't do on the whole I must say another summer was on its way before I realized the first was over, but I don't have sufficient (native) proficiency with the language and haven't been trained to translate. In any case that's not directly on topic, and I would think consistency and being faithful in terms of register require looking beyond a linear word equivalence, or one sentence for that matter, as I'm sure you know. I'm not familiar enough with the work to tell, but generally here someone is coming to terms with how the year went by (fast, despite whatever), using summer as a point of reference. Both translations work imho.

  • That helps a lot. Thanks. I think the English at bottom would have been too big of a "hinge"--too dialectical (as it were). To repeat the motivation for my question, I want to see Meursault as saying, "I know one year is a long time; so when I say très vite please understand me in the proper light and don't raise any stupid objections." Honestly does not carry that at all and, being rather thin on content (except when countering a charge of dishonesty), does not add anything else either. Just sounds, "Uh, you know, really." I honestly want to call Matthew Ward's a mistranslation.
    – Catomic
    Mar 17, 2016 at 11:05
  • at bottom is a translation error for au fond, unless it's a pool or body of water or a (water or oil) tank, etc.. Il est mort au fond du lac. He dies at the bottom of the lake.
    – Lambie
    Apr 28, 2019 at 20:00

Au fond, is not at bottom. It means: substantively. As regards the substance of something. With regard to its essence or substance. It is used in French law, les questions quant au fond: the issues as regards the substance of a matter. Fond is opposed to forme in French. le fond et la forme de quelque chose. The substance and form of something. As an adverb, it means: fundamentally, essentially, basically, as to substance. Sorry, no dictionaries as I am sharing what I know.

  • 'Thank you for the upvote,bringing this to zero. I get up voted and then downvoted, about once a week. Too bad the OP has ignored this answer from an actual (legal, among other stuff) translator and interpreter. Au fond, je pense que cela ne l'íntéresse pas vraiment. :)
    – Lambie
    Jun 23, 2019 at 0:57

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