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In Camus' "L'Étranger" he often uses the phrase; «Cela ne veut rien dire. » in sentences like « J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. ».

From what I can gather, Camus is trying to make Meursault sound really passive, like a passenger to his own life but I'm not sure the literal translation of « Cela ne veut rien dire. » as "That doesn't mean anything" makes much sense in the context he uses it.

For example translating the sentence above would give "I've received a telegramme from the retirement home : Mum has passed away. Burial tomorrow. Best wishes. That doesn't mean anything". The "that doesn't mean anything" doesn't seem like a good translation in this context because it doesn't really make any sense, how would I express what Camus is trying to say in a more fluid manner?

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  • It was my understanding that translation here should concern translation into French, and not into English.
    – Lambie
    Nov 13 '21 at 15:38
  • @Lambie I think OP is not wording the title of the question properly. But when we read their explanation it is obvious they do not fully understand why Camus put that sentence Cela ne veut rien dire there in the first place, and they are not asking for a translation into English. The question could (should?) have been posted on Literature, and there the matter could have been discussed at length.
    – None
    Nov 13 '21 at 16:10
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    I was told on two different occasions that this site only deals with translation into French and French. Not translations into English. If I am wrong, please tell me. Yet everyone seems to be discussing that... as that is the OP's question. From the Help section: What about translations? We are not a translation service, nor do we purport to be experts in languages other than French. Asking about the meaning of a difficult French sentence is fine. So is asking how to express an idea in idiomatic French. But please don't ask us to translate a text to or from another language.
    – Lambie
    Nov 13 '21 at 16:48
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Lots of academic papers have been written on the translation of L'étranger's first paragraph into English, and, cela ne veut rien dire has been translated differently according to the translator's analysis and comprehension of the novel. This can be seen in this 1988 article in the New York Times which gives two different translations for cela ne veut rien dire.

Since on FL we are asked to answer with facts rather than opinions I will try and give you a few keys to decide for yourself which translation you prefer.

The opening paragraph of L'étranger has been endlessly discussed in critical essays and it can only be understood in relation to the entire novel. As you have pointed out cela ne veut rien dire is a recurring sentence in the novel1. These first few lines help characterize Meursault's indifference. A key theme of the novel is Meursault's emotional indifference and his detachment to the society that surrounds him. When reading this first paragraph we must have in mind that L'étranger is Camus's first work in his cycle of the absurd2.

This sentence is a first step in showing Meursault's indifference to his mother's death, a few lines later he is depicted remaining indifferent at his mother's burial. This is central to Meursault's character. In 1942 (the year the novel was published) Camus said:

In our society, any man who does not cry at his mother's funeral risks being sentenced to death3. (My translation)

And indeed, this is what happens to Meursault in the end.

Two different meanings have been given to this "cela ne veut rien dire": it can either refer to the meaninglessness of the information about the date on which Meursault's mother died, or it can mean that Meursault is indifferent to his mother's death4.

According to which interpretation you choose you will translate cela ne veut rien dire in this opening paragraph as "That doesn't mean anything" (Gilles's answer suggests "this is meaningless" that works well too here), that retains the ambiguity we have in French and lets the reader make their own decision; or "Which leaves the matter doubtful", which stresses on the meaninglessness of the information concerning the date.

As an aside I could point out that even the translation into English of the title of the novel is open to controversy. If you are interested you can listen to this leçon du collège de France: "The Stranger contre The Outsider : un combat pour le titre de L'Étranger"


1 The author of a critical essay on the indifference of Meursault counted sept fois l'expression « cela n'avait pas d'importance », cinq fois « cela m'était égal », plus quantité d'autres formules comme « cela ne veut rien dire », « cela ne signifiait rien » ou d'autres semblables.

2 Camus separated his work into three cycles. Each cycle consisted of a novel, an essay, and a play. The first was the cycle of the absurd consisting of L'Étranger, Le Mythe de Sysiphe, and Caligula. (From Albert Camus entry on Wikipedia)

3 Original sentence: Dans notre société, tout homme qui ne pleure pas à l'enterrement de sa mère risque d'être condamné à mort. You can find it here.

4 This is how these two theories have been summed up in Sparknotes: "Mersault’s comment, “That doesn’t mean anything,” has at least two possible meanings. It could be taken as part of his discussion about which day Madame Meursault died. That is, Meursault could mean that the telegram does not reveal any meaningful information about the date of his mother’s death. However, the comment could also be read more broadly, with a significance that perhaps Meursault does not consciously intend; Meursault might be implying that it does not matter that his mother died at all. This possible reading introduces the idea of the meaninglessness of human existence, a theme that resounds throughout the novel.

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Cela ne veut rien dire”, or variants such as “ça veut rien dire” (colloquial spoken French), is a very versatile sentence that usually does not have its literal meaning. It's closer to “nonsense” in English: it means that something is wrong, but it isn't very specific as to how that thing is wrong. It can mean “I don't understand”, but more often it means “there isn't enough information” or “this is not a valid justification” or “this is irrelevant” (or even “I disagree”, but that's stretching it, it doesn't work in all the cases where “nonsense” works in English).

In the specific case of the opening paragraph of L'Étranger, the exact meaning has sparked a lot of academic studies, for which I'll refer you to None's answer. My personal interpretation — which is just that, personal — is that there is a deliberate double meaning: the obvious quasi-literal one about the ambiguity of the date, and one where the narrator conveys that he doesn't really feel concerned by the telegram's information: she's dead, so what? As such, I find a translation like “this doesn't mean anything” or “this is meaningless” to be good, as it preserves the ambiguity.

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    I see absolutely no justification for Cela ne veut rien dire being anything other than: "That doesn't mean anything". These are set phrases in both the languages. Now, what it refers to is not a French language issue but one of interpretation....another matter altogether.
    – Lambie
    Nov 13 '21 at 16:41
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"Cela ne veut rien dire" concerns the telegram. It does not mean that the telegram is meaningless: this is an expression that is also used when the information is not sufficient to permit a conclusion; it means rather that the content of the telegram is too terse to deduce from it whether his mother died on the same day or on the preceding one. Below is an example in the form of a dialogue, where the faulty state of affairs is not due to the scarcity of the words but to the uncertain facts (another context where this expression applies).

  • — Le nez du chat est chaud et sec, je crois qu'il est malade.
    — Cela ne veut rien dire, il a été démontré qu'un chat peut avoir le nez chaud et sec et se porter en bonne santé.

The translation by Matthew Ward is "That doesn't mean anything"; however that by Stuart Gilbert does take into account this remark of yours since the translation is instead "Which leaves the matter doubtful".

  • MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

I do agree with this latter rendering, and I think you'd do well to follow it as it removes the same ambiguity there is also in the English "That doesn't mean anything".

Note: Do not apply this principle to all the occurrences in The stranger; it is seen to be true in the present case, but all others have to be considered individually.

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