• Auteur: Godard, Henri
  • Titre: "Céline et cie"
  • Editions Gallimard 2020

Referring to the work of novelists from de Balzac to Tolstoy, Godard writes:

“Ceux-ci s’étaient proposé avant tout de susciter chez le lecteur une illusion de « vie » des personnages et d’un déroulement de leur histoire dans une sorte de présent. Ils avaient usé pour cela d’un mélange de psychologie et de sociologie avant la lettre : connaissance du « cœur humain », connaissance de secteurs particuliers de la société. Mais, à force de servir, le modèle avait révélé ses limites.” p10

Two translation questions:

  1. “avant la lettre”: How to specify the actual meaning here of the literal “before the letter”? What is the sense here?

  2. “à force de servir”: DeepL translates this sentence as, “But, by dint of serving, the model had revealed its limitations.” The expression “by dint of” seems arcane since “dint” is used only in this one English expression and nowhere else. Is there a better way to translate “à force de servir” here?

  • 6
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is about translation to English, not about understanding the French or about translation to French
    – Maroon
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 20:02
  • 5
    "Avant la lettre" is a term of art used in printmaking. It refers to the prints made before any lettering (author's name, caption …) has been added to them. It's used figuratively in your example; it means that Tolstoy and Balzac were ahead of their time and were into sociology and psychology before there was even a name for it.
    – grandtout
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 20:58
  • @grandtout “Avant la lettre” is also common enough in English, as in describing a Platonic dialogue as containing “gay pride avant la lettre,” to use one example.
    – Maroon
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 22:27

1 Answer 1


"Avant la lettre" means a knowledge used or shown before the corresponding science has given its definition.

The second sentence, using "à force de servir" could be translated this way:

"But the model had been used so often that in the end it came to show its limits"

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