“Spin Doctor”, what a great expression in English and how difficult it is to translate. A literal translation would mean absolutely nothing in French and I’ve often wondered how to render it. I find it impossible to encapsulate the wonderful meaning of “spin”: like good racket players who are able to give a new and unpredictable trajectory to balls, the spin doctors are able to show information under a light that suits them best. And that image is what is so hard to translate in such a snappy way.
A few weeks ago, Le nouvel observateur had a whole article dedicated to it, and the writers didn’t quite manage to find a snappy equivalent: “faiseurs de rois et conseillers spéciaux, experts en retournement d’opinion, modeleurs d’élection, inventeurs d’images, fabricants de consensus”.They also used “maîtres de la manipulation” and even “gourous”. I’ve also heard “conseillers de l’ombre”, “éminences grises de la communication”.
These expressions are all unsatisfying as they capture one aspect only of what spin doctors really are. I am wondering whether the secret here might be to have a term that is as vague and odd and evocative as “spin doctor”. After all, if you ask 10 people what a “spin doctor” is, they will probably come up with 10 different definitions. Spin doctors are mysterious creatures. That is why I really like “Docteur folimage”, a reference to Docteur Folamour (Doctor Strangelove) that I found on a handful of websites. We have the ‘doctor’ aspect of it (someone who fixes things), the “fol” element (crazy, or not completely orthodox) and “image” (which is at the centre of their activities). Sometimes spelling out a meaning isn’t the best way to convey it and it’s better to rely on evocation and the imagination of the reader.