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Content warning: Repeated mention of suicide.












In the following passage from a novel1, the narrator is a seven year old boy who has just been separated permanently from his suicidal mother, by Québec's child welfare social service department.

On nous a définitivement séparés. Pour ma sécurité et son équilibre. Cela m’a paru aussi logique que d’interdire la neige en hiver ou la sloche au printemps. Je savais bien, moi, qu’elle ne mourrait jamais et qu’il n’y avait que ses berceuses pour m’apaiser.

DeepL translates the last sentence to:

I knew that she would never die and that only her lullabies could soothe me.


If I were to translate "et qu’il n’y avait que ses berceuses pour m’apaiser" literally, I would come up with:

there were only her lullabyes for soothing me.

This translation doesn't make sense in the context of the sentence, and so DeepL's translation:

only her lullabies could soothe me

is much more likely to be correct. But I'm having trouble understanding how DeepL created its translation. I'm not sure if it's a use of "pour" that I dont' understand, or if instead the author is writing in a poetic way that needs to be re-interpretated to mean something different.



If I wanted to translate DeepL's translation, I might use "pouvoir" instead of "pour": "et qu’il n’y avait que ses berceuses qui pouvaient m’apaiser."

The literal translation of the "pour" version ("There were only her lullabies for soothing me") could make sense in a different context. For example, it would make sense in this context: "My mother didn't have enough money when I was a baby. There wasn't enough food to soothe me. She couldn't even afford a pacifier to soothe me. There were only her lullabyes for soothing me".

  1. How can I understand "Il n’y avait que ses berceuses pour m’apaiser" to mean "Only her lullabyes could soothe me"? Is it because "pour" has a meaning close to "pouvoir" here? Or is it because DeepL is re-interpreting poetic langauge? Or is it for some other reason? (And as always, can you give additional example sentences that might illustrate the concept I'm not understanding?)

1. From "La Bête à sa Mère" by David Goudreault, Chapter 1

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  • 2
    The only thing that existed for soothing me was her lullabies. May 6 at 11:12
  • 2
    There were only her lullabies to soothe me. not other people like grand-parents or friends or music or a puppy. "pour" is "to" here even though you can translate it into English other ways.
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:20
  • Everyone seems to be in denial of the use of pour followed by an infinitive verb. Of course, if you don't use: There was nothing but x to [verb] in English, you can devise other acceptable translations. Meanwhile, though, you miss the grammar point as given in the DAF.
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:27

3 Answers 3

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The word "pour" express the intent rather than the ability.

The idea of the french text is that she sings lullabies in order to soothe me. However the context of the text, and the il n’y avait que construct imply that soothing me is a difficult action to overcome, and that "singing a lullaby" is the way she found to actually achieve "soothing me".

That construction implies an ellipsis of the verb of the subordinate proposition: il n’y avait que ses berceuses pour (réussir à) m'apaiser. A literal translation would be an heavy construction like: there would only be her lullabies that would (be able to) soothe me.

I would personally translate the sentence by:

I knew that she would never die and that only her lullabies would soothe me.

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  • a) your paragraph with réussir à, and giving the literal translation, really helps me understand your explanation. thanks for that.
    – silph
    May 6 at 12:06
  • b) can you say more about how il n'y avait que is implying that soothing me is a difficult action to accomplish? this is a possible connotation of il n'y avait que that i'd like to understand better. perhaps, can you make up one or two example sentences that use il n'y avait que, and then (if it helps to add clarity) maybe one or two similar example sentences that have almost the same meaning but that don't use il n'y avait que but instead use a different construct? (that way, i could see better the unique connotation that il n'y avait que can have.)
    – silph
    May 6 at 12:07
  • There is no would in the French. *pour m'apaiser" is simply "to soothe me". Il est venu à Paris pour me voir. He came to Paris to see me.
    – Lambie
    May 7 at 19:39
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    @silph The phrasing doesn't necessarily imply that soothing is difficult. It's the context that implies that it's difficult, not the grammatical construction. May 7 at 22:36
  • If you use in English: There is nothing but, like the French, the pour is to though there are other ways to translate it. The translation is not heavy: There were only her lullabies to soothe me. And there is no ellipsis.
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:17
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The typical pattern is “Il n'y a que [personne X] pour [action A]”, meaning that this particular person is the only one who performs the specified action. X can be a specific person or a specific type of persons. Occasionally, as is the case here, the statement can be about a thing rather than a person. There is no particular connotation of intent or ability: X is the only person who does A, regardless of whether others don't want to, or aren't able, or don't think of it, or any other reason.

I can't think of a more general pattern where pour has this particular meaning. I can't find it the breakdown of the Trésor de la langue française. I think I would put it under the heading (I) (exchange, substitution, equivalence) (because it's a better fit than (II) destination or (III) causality), but under a separate second-level heading.

Il n'y a que lui pour dire une chose pareille.   (No one but him would say such a thing.)

Il n'y a que lui pour oser présenter (…) une œuvre « impossible » (…). (auteur non identifié, Musée Fabre)   (Only he would dare show (…) such an “impossible” work.)

Il n'y a qu'un fou pour espérer changer le monde. (Scylla)   (Only a fool would hope to change the world.)

Il n'y a qu'une femme pour me redonner goût au travail. (Georges Perros)   (Only a woman can make me feel up to working again.)

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  • thanks for writing this answer, Gilles. having the pattern explicitly pointed out to me helps me a lot. sometimes i'm finding that such patterns are difficult for me to recognize as i'm learning French [they aren't covered in any dictionary or textbook, it seems!], and they often communicate meaning that my intuition can't figure out on its own. but whenever a new pattern is pointed out to me, i often recognize it the next time i encounter it, which is encouraging! your answer gives a lot of clarity to the sentence i was asking about.
    – silph
    May 7 at 23:56
  • The meaning you refer to in your first paragraph is not the meaning in the OP's question. You say it's: "Il n'y a que [personne X] pour [action A]”. The text says: Il n'y a que [les choses X] pour [action A].
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:14
  • @silph It is explained by the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française in my answer. It could not be simpler.
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:24
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    @Lambie I invite you to read the second sentence of my first paragraph. May 9 at 15:17
  • Ok, I read it. I still find it unfortunate to "cover up" as it were, the to function with pour in French. Il n'y a que lui pour dire une chose pareille. is: There is only him to say such a thing. Now, it has another translation which is the one you give, yes. But I think it's important to point out the basic structure of pour verb is to verb before using your version.
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 15:30
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pour followed by an infinitive:

This is defined in the Académie Française dictionary as follows:

– Suivi d’un nom ou d’un verbe à l’infinitif désignant ce que l’on recherche, le but que l’on veut atteindre. [...]

(That is similar to what is called a to-infinitive in English0

Here are the examples it gives with a verb:

Semer pour récolter. Il vient pour vous aider. J’ai fait tout mon possible pour gagner son amitié. Je me tais pour ne pas vous fatiguer ou, litt., pour ne vous fatiguer pas. Je dis cela pour plaisanter. Pour ne vous rien déguiser.

In English, this would be: He is coming to help you. I'm doing everything possible to be friends with him. I'm keeping quiet to not tire you. I'm saying that to make a joke or to be funny. To not hide anything from you [etc.]

Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française

So this: Je savais bien, moi, qu’elle ne mourrait jamais et qu’il n’y avait que ses berceuses pour m’apaiser.

becomes: I did know she would never die and there were only her lullabies to soothe me.

Alternative: and only her lullabies would soothe me. But to show the pour as to, the first version I give uses the "to". However, this is not an issue of writing, and not showing the grammar comparatively as the first translation does.

Rappel: pour + un verbe à l’infinitif **désigne ce que l’on

recherche, le but que l’on veut atteindre

"pour" ne peut pas être remplacé par le verb pouvoir.

Par contre, on peut tout réécrire: "qu’il n’y avait que ses berceuses qui pouvaient m’apaiser."

mais alors, le sens change.

qui pouvaient m'apaiser=that would soothe me pour m'apaiser=to soothe me

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  • downvoters: tsk, tsk, tsk
    – Lambie
    May 9 at 14:10

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