mardi 21 septembre 2010

Retraite, retrait - Retreat, withdrawal

Le présent article a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée dans quelques jours.

The French noun retraite has several meanings: The first is that of retreat, the act of forced military withdrawal, carried out, for example, by an army when faced with a superior military force. The expression battre en retraite/sonner la retraite corresponds to ’to beat a (hasty) retreat’, used both literally for an army and figuratively, as, for example, where one party to negotiations capitulates.


Another use of retraite, also used in a military context, and not part of mainstream language, is in the expression “retraite de couleurs”.


This refers to a bugle call or drumbeat signaling the lowering of the flag at sunset, usually on a military base; or the military ceremony of lowering the flag.

Retraite may also be used as a synonym of refuge or repli. In this sense the English equivalent is again retreat (e.g. a mountain retreat) or a place of refuge, one that affords peace, quiet, privacy or security. Another English equivalent would be ‘den’, and in that sense it is a synonym for repaire. The verb form of retraite in this sense is se retirer or faire une retraite.

Retraite appears in the expression retraite aux flambeaux, which is a torchlight procession.


Another meaning of retraite is retirement, usually from work, but in this sense the English word “retreat” is never used. It is interesting, however, to note the similarity (and the common roots) of the verbs se retirer and ‘to retire’. Both are used to describe the act of a person who ceases working at the end of a career. In the expression prendre sa retraite, the equivalent English verb, indicating an act of voluntary cessation of work, would be ‘to retire’ or ‘to go into retirement’. When, however, retraite is used to indicate a compulsory termination of work in conditions entitling the employee to a pension (mise â la retraite), the worker is said to be pensioned off. On the other hand, where the worker is fired, sacked or dismissed, the appropriate translations would be renvoyé or congedié.

In short, the French noun retraite matches its English counterpart ‘retreat’ in several cases (withdrawal, military ceremony, refuge, den) but not in the sense of retirement from work or dismissal by the employer, other than when an employee is pensioned off.

The word ‘retreat’ comes from the old French term retret, a noun use of the past participle of retrere, from the Latin verb retrahere, to draw back. (trahere means to draw in Latin.) It later developed the additional sense of a place of seclusion.

Retrait is closely associated with retraite. They are not synonymous, but retrait can also mean ‘withdrawal’ in certain contexts, even in a military context. The voluntary American withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq is referred to as retrait, whereas Napoleon’s forced retreat from Moscow is referred to as retraite. When a product is withdrawn from the market, the French expression is retrait du produit du marché. (‘Withdrawal’, which occurs when the sale of the product is discontinued, is distinguished from ‘recall’, which relates to a defective or dangerous product which all customers are invited to return temporarily for repair to the manufacturer.) Other uses of retrait exist where money is withdrawn from a bank account, where a suitcase is collected from a storeroom, where a driver is disqualified and his/her driving license is revoked, or where a complaint is withdrawn.

Where a plaintiff in a law suit withdraws his suit against all or some of the defendants, that is called a nonsuit. The French equivalent is retrait de plainte.

In other words, in some contexts the correct translation of retrait is ‘withdrawal’, but in other cases English usage prefers collection, revocation, nonsuit, etc.

In inter-personal relations, when one party pulls back from a close relationship with another, retrait may be the appropriate word.

In football, the term centrer en retrait means ‘to cross the ball back from the goal line’.
Retrait may also mean the ebb of a tide or the retreat of a glacier, in other words where water or ice ‘withdraws’. In that sense it is a synonym for reflux. It may also mean shrinkage. In that sense retrait is a synonym for rétraction.

En retrait – expressions

Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary (Eight Edition) lists the following uses of the expression en retrait:

situé en retrait: set back (past participle)

en retrait de: set back from (e.g. a house set back from the road)

se tenant en retrait: standing back (present participle)

rester en retrait: to stay in the background

ces propositions sont en retrait sur les précédentes: these offers do not go as far as the previous ones

notre chiffre d’affaires est en léger retrait par rapport aux années précédentes: our turnover is slightly down [or : has fallen slightly] compared to previous years

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