Bone of contention

Why a picture of apples on an entry dedicated to the expression “Bone of contention”, you wonder? Well, that is the beauty of translation: you start with a bone and end up with an apple. Let me explain.
I had to translate the following sentence:

A bone of contention in several case studies relates to the involvement of donors to policy development.

A “bone of contention” is something that creates conflict, like a bone thrown between two dogs is guaranteed to start a big fight. A direct equivalent of this metaphor doesn’t exist in French, so I could have used a modulation and translated the substance of it, for example:

Dans plusieurs études de cas, la participation des bailleurs de fonds au développement de politiques a divisé les opinions/causé des conflits/provoqué des tensions, etc….

The meaning is clear, but this involves a stylistic loss. This is why I chose to use a metaphoric modulation, which has the advantage of offering a rather nice prosodic and grammatical parallelism, and which I thought was perfect in this context: pomme de discorde (apple of discord).

Dans plusieurs études de cas, la participation des bailleurs de fonds au développement de politiques a été une pomme de discorde.

This expression comes from Greek mythology: Eris, the nasty goddess of discord, was very upset when she wasn’t invited to a very important wedding, which all the other gods and goddesses were attending. That is why during the banquet, she threw among the guests a golden apple bearing the words “to the most beautiful goddess”. Of course, all the goddesses wanted it and Prince Paris was told to decide who should have it. He chose Aphrodite, who promised him that he would marry the most beautiful woman in the world. This happened to be Helen, wife of King Menelaus. Paris went off to kidnap her and thus started the Trojan War (and some serious discord).

By |2009-08-28T09:32:23+00:00August 28th, 2009|Idioms, Technical corner|6 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. Philippa Hammond August 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Love the way you’ve described your approach to translating this phrase in such detail. Impressive stuff!

  2. céline August 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks Philippa, but of course years of study + years of practice means that the whole process was pretty much instantaneous, despite a brain of moderate speed and capacity. I really enjoyed retracing my steps, I might try and do it more often.

  3. Zak August 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Just found your blog and very happy for the fact. Keep up the great work. 🙂

  4. céline September 1, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Just found it? Really? You’ve commented here before, you must have forgotten. Your blog is one of a few who slipped through the net during the move to Delicious, I’ll add it now.

  5. Bela September 1, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    That’s how my Collins-Robert dictionary translates ‘bone of contention’ – great minds, etc. 🙂

  6. Nicolette October 2, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Good one… now you just need to pray that the customer did not send you “only the text”, because they always think you need “just the text”, and will add pictures later – like a picture of a BONE. ;-))

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