Today I’ve come across the word hacker. These "new" terms linked to the Internet, generally English, are difficult to deal with because no one agrees on how to translate them at first; it takes a few years for the more popular term to push out the others. This one is particularly difficult as it has two sides: the "nice" hacker, the programming genius who unravels system just because she can, and the "nasty" hacker, who wreaks havoc on the net for fun. The context of my translation clearly indicated that I was dealing with the second kind.
I came across its wikipedia entry, which gives "bidouilleur" (from "bidouiller", slang term meaning "to fiddle with") as a translation. I really don’t like this translation, as it doesn’t make it clear that the person in question fiddles with computer programs. The article also gave a link to the Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France, an organisation that I didn’t know existed. Its objective is to coordinate cultural policies in favour of regional or minority languages. They have a terminology database called CRITER, which contains the terms published in the Journal Officiel by the Commission générale de terminologie et de néologie, roughly 3000 French terms with their definitions and their foreign equivalent.
I did a search for hacker, and it gives "fouineur" as a recommended term. What is interesting is that their source for this term is the Office québécois de la langue française. Now I’ve got nothing against my Canadian cousins’ version of French, but it has varied greatly from "French French" along the years, so much that I would never attempt a French translation for a Canadian public. I’m wondering whether the dynamism shown by French Canadians in terms of promoting their language (see the very respected and widely used Grand dictionnaire terminologique) might mean that "French French" is going to become more and more "canadianised" in the future.
Anyway, I’m not fond of fouineur (nosey person) either, as it is too positive for my context of a person creating havoc just because they can. So I went for pirate informatique, as I think the maverick image of a person with no respect for the law was more appropriate than the relatively positive fouineur and bidouilleur.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:39+00:00 November 8th, 2004|Words|13 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima November 8, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    I like your choice – in my mind pirate has the same ‘cool’ ring to it as hacker.

  2. ViVi November 9, 2004 at 8:11 am

    I agree with Jemima. Although whenever I see anything that includes the word “pirate” I commence with the “Arrr matey”s. I think it’s an involuntary reflex. 😉

  3. petite anglaise November 9, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    It’s funny because I posted yesterday about neologisms and the Académie Française – and one of the examples of the dodgy recommendations they make was ‘fouineur’ for hacker.
    But have you decided what you would call a good hacker?

  4. céline November 9, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    petite anglaise: yes, I saw your post yesterday (I rarely spend a day without reading your blog), it is funny indeed that you mentioned “hacker” just as I was struggling to translate it.
    I would also translate “good hackers” as “pirates informatiques”, as there are nice pirates in popular culture, Robin Hood-style, they’re not all bad… are there? I can’t think of any nice ones, but I know there must some, I think that’s what Jemima meant when she said pirates can be cool… I really wish I could think of a lovely pirate! Help!

  5. jonathan November 10, 2004 at 11:05 am

    a hacker is not a pirate, that is a cracker, and even so…
    a hacker in a classic sense is a programmer, someone who ‘hacks’ code into order — cf. the hacker’s dictionary. — http://catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/
    the popular media used the word to mean any people who tried to infiltrate computer systems (they tried to crack them], very often these people were also hackers, but not always. from their it was extended into the realm of all sorts of removing protection from computer games and other software, counterfeiting activites and other.
    a pirate is someone who in the physical realm (that is, the real world) deprives another of goods, sometimes even of their lives. they are not johnny depp. he is cool, he is fun. but that is the movies.
    piracy — the real thing — is a rampant problem in the eastern seas, and it is not fun. people are being terrorised, losing their lives, goods, health, sanity there. to use the words piracy, and pirate, in another ‘looser’ sense, means that a good, real and useful word is being devalued.
    while mafia-type organisations, who are into assassination, violence, prostitution and drugs — probably the closest thing to land-based pirates — are involved in large-scale counterfeiting of music, movies and software, that doesn’t make those activity ‘piracy’. the use of this word here is a semantic twist that the representatives of the major record companies use to tar kiddies who are in fact for the most part just teens who should know better, who ‘leech’ on artist’s rights [and revenue].
    when i meet the word hacker in a text to translate, i use the english word with a footnote, because, quite simply, outside of ‘programmeur’, there is no good equivalent.
    [I can also refer you to neil stephenson’s “in the beginning was the command line” for a good discussion of “the hacker” — http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

  6. céline November 10, 2004 at 11:27 am

    jonathan: That’s one great analysis. However and as ever with translation, it all depends on the context. The document I was translating was explaining in very simple words what an antivirus does to a non-specialist public. It was actually using “hacker” in an incorrect and vague way, which I was very aware of.
    It is all-important to keep in mind the target reader while translating. What mattered here was the MESSAGE, which was “there are very clever and unscrupulous people out there who love causing trouble in the IT world”. The most important thing was to convey that idea in a simple and clear manner (again, respecting the style and intent of the source text).
    Now I know that real pirates aren’t fun, but words aren’t inflexible and definite and get forever twisted to accommodate different meanings.
    If I had found hacker in a very technical text to be read by a technical-savvy audience, it would have been necessary to be more explicit and precise, and a footnote would have possibly been in order, but again… I wouldn’t have been translating such a document, because I’m not qualified for it!

  7. bathrobe November 10, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    Just thought you might be interested in the Chinese word for ‘hacker’, which is ‘hei-ke’. It is written in characters as ‘black guest’.
    Chinese normally tries to come up with native words rather than borrowing (the writing system is not very favourable to direct borrowing), but in this case ‘black guest’ was a nice match for the English pronunciation, plus the meaning was spot on, so ‘black guest’ it became!

  8. céline November 11, 2004 at 9:15 am

    bathrobe: “Black guest” – fantastic! Although Jonathan would probably argue that this would a more appropriate translation for “cracker”.

  9. jonathan November 11, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    black guest is pretty… and fitting. but i’m still coming back for a second strike.
    your client’s original document was erroneous — ok, that happens — and i’m sure that the technical writer in the company didn’t want to hear an outside contractor saying that. been there, done that.
    so i’ll propose you simply ‘malveillant’, not as a translation of ‘hacker’, but as an adequate (naked?) equivalent of the intention of the original text. that is, someone who intends bad things, or who has bad intentions… this avoids both the ‘hacker’ and ‘pirate’ deformations.
    oh, and ‘happy birthday’ to your blog

  10. céline November 11, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    jonathan: Good idea, but it’s a bit vague isn’t it? And a paraphrase using “malveillant” might be a big long (“une personne malveillante qui trafique les systèmes pour semer le désordre”, for example). I agree with you in theory, but in practice, it’s difficult to be a purist here.

  11. Orla November 16, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Hi Céline,
    You were looking for a ‘lovely pirate’: Gráinne Ni Mháille (engl. Grace O’Malley) was a famous noblewoman pirate who operated off the coast of Galway in the 16th century. Her many exploits are the stuff of legend here in Ireland. Her life story is a great read, about a powerful woman who fought to defend her home and her family. “Gráinne’s exploits were many and attested, and there can be no doubt that she made a deep impression on the Englishmen sent to complete the conquest of Connacht. From her appearance in 1576 before the Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney in Galway, when he described her as a ‘most famous feminine sea captain’ and ‘a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland’, to her interview with Queen Elizabeth in London in 1593, when she secured the release of her son and her brother from prison, and promises of maintenance for herself for the remainder of her life, she proved herself ready to face all dangers in her determination to salvage some part of her family’s inheritance.”

  12. céline November 16, 2004 at 11:08 am

    A legendary woman pirate! Brilliant! Thanks Orla!

  13. bathrobe November 30, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    It’s funny you should mention the possibility of hei-ke (black guest) being more appropriate for a “cracker” than a “hacker”, because I ran across this little gem at a Chinese-language ‘Devil’s Dictionary of the Internet’ the other day:
    Hei-ke: Some say that a ‘hei-ke’ is a ‘hacker’ (one who illegally invades a web), some say it is a ‘cracker’ (a master at cracking code). When I asked my translation software what I got was: ‘black guest’.
    The site can be found at (of course it’s in Chinese):
    The joke is that Chinese-English translation software comes up with a ridiculous literal translation for hei-ke. (Note: hei-ke is pronounced something like ‘hey, cur!’)

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