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This quotation, attributed to Albert Camus, has been going around in various forms:

The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.

What is the original of this passage?

In particular, what word is translated as alibi? Taken literally, that does not make sense here. In English it is now widely used as a synonym for ‘excuse’; had it already acquired that meaning in French in Camus's lifetime?

(alibi is Latin for ‘elsewhere’; its original meaning in English was evidence that someone could not have done that of which he was accused, because he was elsewhere. It has been lamentably extended to mean a reason why someone should not be blamed for what he did do.)

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The original is almost certainly this (all credit to the artist currently known as floquons d'oùpepperx):

Le bien-être du peuple en particulier a toujours été l’alibi des tyrans.
Probably first syndicated in La Révolution prolétarienne

In French, alibi has a few secondary meanings. Among them are excuse, pretext, justification, and diversion (TLF, Larousse, Reverso, WordReference, Wiktionary).

Stéphane in the comments says that these meanings are figurative, that its only natural meaning is the same as English "alibi". He thus says it was a creative use by Camus as well.

I looked up alibi in the OED and found that the use you lament has been attested for a century and a half — and even if we hesitate over the ambiguity of their oldest examples, they have a definite one from as early as 1922. So it has a history. However, they label this entry "colloquial":

2. colloq. In weakened sense: an excuse, pretext, or justification.

To me, colloquial is not the equivalent of figurative. Guillaume also calls this usage dramatic, which isn't very near to colloquial. So I agree with you that it's an awkward translation, missing the tone, if not the meaning once we count the word's extensions in both languages.

  • Well I tend to disagree. As a French-speaker I know that alibi is used in a figurative sense in this sentence. In order to carry over this figurative usage of alibi (which arguably is not necessary), there is no other choice than using the same word. – Stéphane Gimenez Apr 16 '18 at 9:35
  • Also I'd say “le peuple” is what would naturally stand opposed to a tyran, but I couldn't find the source either. – Stéphane Gimenez Apr 16 '18 at 9:45
  • @Stéphane The English word as I know it doesn't carry that meaning, figurative or not. I may not have seen it in enough contexts, but it feels strange to me. Strongly agreed re: "peuple"! – Luke Sawczak Apr 16 '18 at 10:52
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    @floquonsd'oùpepperx: So it reads “le bien-être du peuple” as could be expected. Luke, I now agree with your updated answer. – Stéphane Gimenez Apr 17 '18 at 10:45
  • @LukeSawczak "Larousse even calls this French entry littéraire" - no, this is in another paragraph of the definition unrelated to what Camus intended to say. Larousse refers to "Trouver dans la musique un alibi à sa tristesse" which is a totally different meaning - a way out, an escape from something. – guillaume31 Apr 18 '18 at 11:25
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I don't think the translation necessarily betrays the original meaning.

Oxford Learners

2 an excuse for something that you have done wrong

Collins

  1. informal

an excuse

Merriam Webster

2 : an excuse usually intended to avert blame or punishment

The Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories

By 1912, alibi had also acquired in American English the generalized sense of 'an excuse, especially for failure or negligence'.

Sure, the English meaning might have a weaker or less serious connotation to it since it is mostly used in the context of smaller mistakes. But I can't think of a better equivalent that would convey the - maybe slightly - more dramatic weight of alibi in French. One could also argue that the legal meaning overshadows the whole thing, as a tyrant can later be tried for their crimes.

[Edit]

The original paragraph the quote is excerpted from:

The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience. It would be easy, however, to destroy that good conscience by shouting to them: if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want! But, in truth, the very ones who make use of such alibis know they are lies; they leave to their intellectuals on duty the chore of believing in them and of proving that religion, patriotism, and justice need for their survival the sacrifice of freedom.

http://wist.info/camus-albert/27884/ and in French p.5 here: https://cras31.info/IMG/pdf/larevolutionproletarienne-n121.pdf

I don't think the phrase make use of an alibi leaves much room for interpretation or is improper use of alibi in that context.

  • There are indeed better equivalents, including "excuse", "pretext", and "justification". A meaning labelled "colloquial" or, as your own source has it, "informal" isn't the best way to convey that dramatic weight you refer to. That's my opinion, anyhow. – Luke Sawczak Apr 17 '18 at 20:22
  • Excuse sounds too weak to me. Tyrants are not apologetic people. Pretext and justification both also exist in French - you may want to consider why Camus didn't use them. They are pretty neutral, unlike alibi which also has a criminal sense. – guillaume31 Apr 18 '18 at 8:04
  • The connotations aren't the same in English and French. "Excuse" is the least damning of the three, but still feels better than "alibi". "Excuse" is not "apology" in English. And it makes sense that Camus would choose "alibi" over "pretext" if the former is dramatic in French and the second neutral, whereas in English the former is colloquial and the second negative (and even has those legal associations that might be helpful). "Justification" has unwanted senses (it could imply that it does legitimately justify tyranny!) so I guess it's out. – Luke Sawczak Apr 18 '18 at 10:40
  • From Merriam Webster: Excuse, verb 1 a : to make apology for ; Excuse, noun Synonyms: alibi, apology, defense, justification, plea, reason – guillaume31 Apr 18 '18 at 11:13
  • That would be "apology" in the sense of "defence" (which does characterize tyrants), rather than "admission of guilt and request for pardon" as it can be in French. Normally in English one makes an excuse in lieu of apologizing. – Luke Sawczak Apr 18 '18 at 17:24

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