by Laila Hulatt
Dépaysement is a French term which portrays the amalgamation of experiences when being in a different country that you wouldn't call home. It evokes a feeling of being torn from the place we know best, and of being somewhere else to our usual surroundings. This noun is among many terms deemed untranslatable, however, whilst it is difficult to select a direct translation of this word due to its complex nature, there are multiple angles from which we can view it depending on the context.
From the explanation given so far, you might assume that this word comes with negative connotations, however, this word is not so singular, and can represent uneasiness and excitement simultaneously. The etymology of the word supports the idea of unfamiliarity, as the prefix ‘dé’ hones in on the idea of being outside or out of something. Alongside ‘pays’ meaning country, the meaning of ‘dépaysement’ is literally "out of country". One could argue that the best English translation is ‘to displace’, but when exploring the conflicting duality behind the meaning of ‘depaysement,’ you can see why it cannot be translated so simply.
But why don’t we explore the word in more abstract terms. For example, you don’t have to travel to be removed from your known reality. You can escape in a similar way through the mediums of literature and art forms. For many, the act of reading a good book can be considered an out-of-body experience which can transport you to another place. At first, it's just words on a page, the characters mature from unknown elements into fully developed people who we empathise with, as the setting becomes somewhere that we can visualise ourselves in. Readers can travel back in time and engage in history, board trains to breathtaking landscapes from their own homes and even experience magic. These art mediums similarly pick us up and drop us in a new place, a storyline, or a new way of thinking and even challenging our own ideas. When we walk into a pitch-black cinema screen, we relax into the velvet seats and leave our world outside, we are disorientated by the darkness. We are enchanted and mesmerised, yet simultaneously perplexed by our new surroundings.
It focuses on the speaker's dream of an unchartered place, in an attempt to leave their original home behind and search for a better life. Formed as a letter to an unknown "Jonas", the speaker repeatedly addresses him throughout as a means of reconnecting with him. The speaker maintains that at home she could recognise everyone, she knew her neighbours and even those who walked the streets of her hometown, but in New York she is confronted with nameless faces. This somber monologue implies a loss of her identity, as she is stripped of everything she knows, the voiceover underpins the moving scenes and speaks to people who have left their homelands.
In a particularly profound moment of the film, the speaker insists that "to see the sun one must go to the crossroads". This sums up the dual nature of dépaysement which you must grapple with when saying goodbye to your home country and those you love. The "crossroads" symbolise the journey and the hope for a new beginning but is mixed with the forlorn yearning for what you leave behind. We hear the noise of the subway train, and the scene picks up in pace until we are placed again in a desolate setting. We also see barren landscapes, abandoned scrapyards and hear the speaker repeatedly address "Jonas", pleading "où es tu?" (which the subtitles translate as "where did you go"). Perhaps here, Fedotov is drawing on transition and despite the desire to return, the home will never remain the same as you leave it.
Although dépaysement is considered untranslatable, it is clear that the meaning of the word can be understood by breaking it down into different situations. This poses the question: is a word really untranslatable if meaning can be maintained? Whilst we don’t have a single word in the English language which can portray both a negative and positive view of being far from home, the French noun captures the whole sense of this peculiar feeling which is relatable for anyone who feels distant from their habitual environment.
edited by Rosie Bell
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