This is a line from this "Autres secrets du vide et du plein", so some poetic license might be at play here.

Having said this, it didn't seem right to me when the line "c'est le plein vide" was given in one particular translation into English as "it is full emptiness."

In French (unlike in English), the adjective follows the noun: cf. c'est le verre vide (it is the empty glass). Thus, at least by the principle of comparison, the line should translate as "it is empty fullness," not as "it is full emptiness."

The Cambridge Dictionary does give plein as a masculine noun, giving the meaning as contenu total which, one might argue, might amount to fullness (at least in the context of a poetic translation).

We must examine the question of literal versus figurative translation here. Yes, idiomatically "faire le plein d’essence" does most often (figuratively) translate as to fill up with gas, whereas in the most literal sense we could read the phrase as to make full with gas...and yet le plein remain a noun while we don't say "to make fullness with gas" in English.

In this way, the first comparative example works in my favour and the second against. To make things even worse, there is also the question of philosophy: Is there a difference between the translations of full emptiness and empty fullness? As a literary translator, this matters to me very much.


2 Answers 2


Plein is one of these adjectives that can be located either before or after the noun and that change their meaning depending on it.

Before a noun, plein means something like "broad", "in the middle" while after, it means "filled".

Plein vide appears two times in the linked document. I understand the first one

le vide vidé de son vide c’est le vide
c’est le plein vide

to be a pun leveraging this ambiguity (adj+noun or noun+adj) while in the second one, plein is definitely an adjective:

en plein vide.


Un jour plein: A whole day, a full day. (opposite: un jour vide)

En plein jour: In broad daylight. (opposite: en pleine nuit)

Regarding "full emptiness" vs "empty fullness", I would translate the first one by vide complet or vacuité complète and the second one by intégralité vide.

  • 2
    You seem to have cut through my Gordian Knot quite elegantly. :) In terms of applying this to my translation...well, that's a slightly different story. As you yourself point out, punning is at play, so I don't want to go with the normative "it is full emptiness" or the literal "it is broad|plumb|mean emptiness." As a result, in my attempt to convey this sense of worplay without deviating from the interplay between fullness and emptiness, I have translated the couplet you quote above as "emptiness emptied of its emptiness it is emptiness / it is empty fullness."
    – mig81
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 19:30
  • (In this sense, I am taking poetic license to deviate from the source text.) As for the more "certain" reading of "en plein vide" I then simply have to follow suit because the more literal translation would break my poesis and because I've already committed to "empty fullness" in my subversion of syntax. Any final thoughts on this? :)
    – mig81
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 19:35
  • Thank you for the added suggested translations. Even if I might not use them, I think they explain perfectly the valences of the two variants of the word in the poem. :)
    – mig81
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:48

01 le vide vidé de son vide c’est le plein
02 le vide rempli de son vide c’est le vide
03 le vide rempli de son plein c’est le vide
03 le plein vidé de son plein c’est le plein
04 le plein vidé de son vide c’est le plein
05 le vide vidé de son plein c’est le vide
06 le plein rempli de son plein c’est le plein
07 le plein rempli de son vide c’est le vide
08 le vide rempli de son vide c’est le plein
09 le vide vidé de son plein c’est le plein
10 le plein rempli de son vide c’est le plein
11 le plein vidé de son vide c’est le vide
12 le vide rempli de son plein c’est le plein
13 le plein vidé de son plein c’est le vide
14 le plein rempli de son plein c’est le vide
15 le vide vidé de son vide c’est le vide
16 c’est le plein vide
17 le plein vide vidé de son plein vide
18 de son vide vide rempli et vidé
19 de son vide vide vidé de son plein
20 en plein vide

There is no poetic licence involved, but then the proposed term, artistic license, describes perfectly what is at hand; why this term rather than poetic license becomes clear if, as I do, one considers that this is not poetry but an art parallel to poetry mainly concerned with peculiarities of semantics, and at that, semantics narrowed down to its relevance to the French language only, if, coincidentally, not entirely so.

That artistic license has been indulged in in this piece of writing is readily seen. "Le vide de quelque chose" is defined for very few things; one can say "le vide de l'espace" (ref.), but "le vide du vide" is not in the least idiomatic, and that is what is implicitly defined in the first line: "le vide vidé de son vide" implies the assertion "il existe un état qui correspond au vidage du vide du vide.". Such unidiomatic constructions can be produced ad nauseam: le bois du bois, la chaleur de la chaleur, le rouge du rouge,…

The translation of "c'est le plein vide" as "it is full emptiness" is correct, "full" meaning "perfect". This is so because the place of the adjective; in that context it has the meaning found below (TLFI); this definition is compatible because "emptiness" ("le vide") is an abstract concept.

C. − Antéposé ou postposé. Entier, complet, sans restriction

  1. Le plus souvent antéposé
    a) [En parlant d'une chose abstr.]
    Avec la pleine clarté de l'évidence (Clemenceau, Vers réparation, 1899, p.77).
    Le droit plein à la vie par le travail (Jaurès, Ét. soc., 1901, p.219).
    SYNT. Plein effet; plein épanouissement; plein succès; plein tarif; de (son) plein gré; plein exercice d'un droit; pleine confiance; pleine conscience; pleine liberté; plein et entier.
  • le vide vidé de son vide c’est le vide
    c’est le plein vide

All of this is merely play with semantics; "to empty a hammock of its blankets", "to empty a pouch of its content", "to empty a vessel of the air it contains", all make sense; however, neglecting all logical considerations and insinuating that nothing (emptiness) is something that can be treated as something material, the concept of emptying something empty is put forward, hence the notion of emptying it of its emptiness which follows, and of course that must yield something; after such a null operation, fortunately there is no change and what you get is what you began with, which is emptiness, wherefrom (15) "le vide vidé de son vide c’est le vide", in English, "emptiness emptied of its emptiness is (again) emptiness" (As far as I can see, all of this is rather void of substance, mere idle play with concepts and warping of ideas.). As this null operation on the emptiness is still pretended to be non null, there must come something out of it, something that goes further than emptiness, and that is—again, fortunately—quintessential emptiness, the utmost in emptiness, perfect emptiness, which is embodied in "le plein vide" or in other (French) words, "le vide complet"; to render this perfection, intentionally, use is made of an adjective which in its plainest meaning (this one has nothing to do with the idea of perfection) signifies "full" (the contrary of "empty"; how funny…); of course, there is no pith in that: perfect emptiness is rhetoric and nothing more than emptiness. We end thus on another note of perverted meanings that leads nowhere except insofar as it enlightens us on the shortcomings of language and on how one can abuse it.

  • le plein vide vidé de son plein vide
    de son vide vide rempli et vidé
    de son vide vide vidé de son plein
    en plein vide

The last part where this noun phrase is found elicits no new treatment ("plein vide" remains "full emptiness" as understood above) except for the last occurrence that has two interpretations. The preceding word is not a determiner any more but the preposition "en"; the meaning of "plein" can therefore different from that previously used. Below is the definition (TLFi) for this new possible second meaning.

  1. En plein + subst. Au milieu, au cœur d'un lieu, d'une matière, d'un moment du temps, d'un événement, d'une action.
  • Je ne demande pas absolument que vous me fassiez cela en plein jour, en plein Paris (Borel, Champavert, 1833, p.194).
  • Je serais entrée en pleine révolte (Sand, Hist. vie, t.2, 1855, p.250).
  • Nous sommes en plein orage. Les volets battent (Giraudoux, Sodome, 1943, i, 2, p.51). SYNT. En plein champ, en plein ciel, en plein désert, en plein milieu; en pleine campagne, en pleine forêt, en pleine mer, en pleine nature, en pleine rue; en pleine ville; en plein été, en plein hiver, en plein midi, en plein nord; en plein XXe siècle; en pleine nuit, en plein soleil, en pleine lumière; en plein cœur, en plein visage; en pleine figure, en pleine poitrine; en plein vol; en plein drame; en pleine activité, en pleine bataille, en pleine crise, en pleine retraite; en plein essor; en pleine forme; en pleine connaissance de cause.

For instance
en pleine lumière              →      in full daylight
en plein hiver                     →      in the depth of winter
en plein jour                        →      in broad daylight
(percuté) en plein œil        →      (hit) slap in the eye

"En plein vide" can also be "in the heart of the void", in the heart of vacuum", "in the heart of emptiness"; it seems you could use "in full emptiness" again but there is no context to differentiate "full emptiness" as "perfect emptiness" from "full emptiness" as "heart of emptiness".

As I understand this concluding part, there is the possibility of one meaning yielding two slightly differing variants, but the lack of punctuation makes that solution very doubtful as a unique way of reading these lines.
"Le plein vide" in "Le plein vide vidé…" (17) is the beginning of a sequence of appositions to "le plein vide" in "c'est le plein vide" (16), and it lasts to the end of the piece: in normal syntax—let's not say "prose", as this is not poetry but a linguistic curiosity—there should be a comma after "c'est le plein vide". The flow of ideas is as follows. (16) It is full emptiness(17) full emptiness emptied of its full emptiness (As formerly "emptiness emptied of its emptiness" has been considered a characterization of emptiness (c'est le vide (15)) and since emptiness has been (trivially) characterized as "full emptiness", the former characterization is taken up anew by means of the "mathematical" substitution of "full emptiness" for "emptiness") — (18) of its emptiness empty filled and emptied ("de son vide vide", new apposition with a new idea ("mathematical" substitution): since emptiness has been previously characterized as "emptiness emptied of its emptiness" (15), emptiness is (inversion) of its emptiness empty; it is not possible to consider the second occurrence of "vide" as the adjective modifying "vide", we have to contend with an adjectival phrase with "vide" as head compounded by an inversion, and normal syntax comprises a comma after "vide vide". A new apposition appears in "filled and emptied" where "its emptiness" is ellipted; from "(02) emptiness is characterized as filled with emptiness; another similar apposition is embodied in "emptied": "de son vide vidé", from (15)) — (19) of its emptiness empty emptied of its fullness (The first part is a repetition (followed by a comma in normal syntax), the second (vidé de son plein) follows the characterization in "(05)" which says that emptiness emptied of its fullness is emptiness but not that emptiness is emptied of its fullness (so so characterization))(20a) of perfect emptiness (emptied of its fullness of perfect emptiness (02) (15) (16)) — (20b) in the heart of emptiness (emptied of its fullness in the heart of emptiness)

  • First of all, artistic license is poetic license. Please don't set up false dichotomies and then tear down what's not there to begin with. I frankly find the statement "this is not poetry but an art parallel to poetry mainly concerned with peculiarities of semantics" not only pretentious (not even pedantic—I believe this statement is false) but also beside the point altogether. You're not really answering the question that I asked.
    – mig81
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:41
  • Second, equally meaningless is the statement "Such unidiomatic constructions can be produced ad nauseam"—the poet did not choose to produce the statement ad nauseam but, in fact, constructed a beautiful, limited set of statements, the combined effect of which seems to have missed you by a mile.
    – mig81
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:42
  • Third, I could argue with you that, given the poetic license of my proposed translation, "it is empty fullness" actually accurately conveys the notion of "it is perfect emptiness." I am alarmed by the fact that you don't appear to see how falling back on a normative interpretation in this case takes all of the artistry out of the art. I personally don't accept your suggestion, as a result. I think it's quite telling that you think that the wordplay in the poem is "rather void of substance, mere idle play with concepts" and that "this is not poetry but a linguistic curiosity."
    – mig81
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:43
  • 1
    Finally, you seem to be redefining the question in a way that suits a limited (and, frankly, banal interpretation) that the poetry in front of us is not poetry at all, from which you proceed to argue semantics based on a false premise. I don't think your answer is appropriate.
    – mig81
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:45
  • @mig81 I see that your opinions are diagonally opposed to mine, and I wouldn't swear that you couldn't bring me to your way of thinking, nor do I rue the possibility thereof; however, the important amount of discussion that the perspectives of this being verified entails, precludes any further interaction. We'll leave it at that then.
    – LPH
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 3:02

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