I’ve been asked to translate the introduction to a Nordic walking book. Initially, I was very excited – this could be my big breakthrough into book translating! – but those hopes were dashed when the author explained that the translated text would be sent by her Swiss publisher to an agent in North America, and if it was accepted, it would be farmed out to a translator there.

Well, never mind, a job’s a job, so I get started. I don’t Nordic Walk, so I’m confident I’ll at least learn something new in the process.

One word keeps popping up, jarring my translating flow: bien-être. This is roughly translated into English as “wellbeing.” Nordic Walking, it turns out, is not only a total body workout (it uses 90% of your muscles!), but it also makes you feel good about yourself. But every time I type “wellbeing,” it feels stilted and awkward. I realize it’s not a word that Americans use much. We love talking about exercise, weight loss, cardiovascular health, muscle tone — did I mention weight loss? Lose Weight! Get a Total Body Workout! I guess the implication is that if you’ve got all those bases covered, it’s obvious that you’re going to feel good about yourself. If your body is buff, what more do you need? Wouldn’t saying that you’ll have a sense of wellbeing be redundant?

More to the point, isn’t it totally subjective? How can you compare something as vague as “wellbeing” with numbers of calories per mile or target heart rate or the percentage of your muscles you’re using? What has a higher bien-être index: an hour of Nordic Walking outdoors with your friends or a sweaty session on a Stairmaster? Can’t we measure brain waves or something? Please?

I often pass groups of Nordic Walking ladies, marching along with their poles and chatting away, as I run along the lake. They look happy. But then maybe they’d be happy anyway, even without the poles. The depressed ones are curled up on the couch at home, watching reruns of Friends. But that’s the thing: bien-être is more than just happiness. It’s a deeper concept, a state of being. It has to do with tranquility, a sense of peace, of all being right with your world.

Why would the word describing this concept be used more in Europe (well, at least in the French-speaking countries, I can’t vouch for the others) than across the pond? Sure, Europe has had a lot more serious angst to deal with in the last couple of centuries than the US has. A couple of world wars, the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Maybe that has something to do with it. But then, look at the crazy yoga boom in the US. Even though it often masquerades as a total body workout, yoga also has a non-negligible karma component. All the marketing gimmicks aside (Yoga clothing? Yoga magazines?), I’m convinced there’s some big cultural thing going on here. Maybe we’re entering a kind of national existential crisis. Maybe Americans are finally starting to see that wellbeing isn’t something you can buy or something you can attain by working really hard, but something more elusive that has to be nurtured from within.

I read an article in an actual paper copy of the Sunday New York Times (thank you Matt at BooksBooksBooks) not too long ago about Jack LaLanne and his role  in turning physical fitness into a moral issue in the US. This is key, I’m almost sure of it. In the US, you exercise because it’s a virtuous thing to do. If you don’t, you’re a worthless slothlike sack of flab. Working out thus gives you the heady feeling of — an absence of guilt. That’s a far cry from wellbeing in my book. Nobody cares about wellbeing. We just want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror without an overwhelming surge of self-loathing.

There’s certainly some of this exercise-as-higher-virtue going on in Europe, too (thank you, globalization) but I don’t think it’s as pervasive. The Swiss are certainly into extreme sports, but it’s more a question of how crazy they can be than how buff they are. So when my Nordic Walking enthusiast counts bien-être as one of the benefits of her sport, I’m sure she means it. I just wish I knew how to translate it.

2 thoughts on “Bien-être

  1. Nice blog, Mary!!! Well-being is a phrase that I'm accustomed to hearing, in English. I think I sometimes read it as wellbeing, all one word, but the hyphen is more common. Sometimes it's within the larger phrase, "a sense of well-being," and maybe that would be appropriate to introduce the hyphenated word for your translation. I agree that many people seem to exercise only for a fitness goal that focuses on weight loss or maintenance, but I was introduced to yoga years before "cardio-vascular workout" passed by my ears. Well-being includes emotional, spiritual, and physical health, and is a long-term sensation, a calmness and centeredness, not a fleeting endorphin rush.

  2. There's also "wellness" (the state or condition of being in good physical and mental health, Oxford American Dictionary), but I like "well-being" better. Nowadays, you run into the word "wellness" in many languages. For instance, the Swiss Tourism Federation has a new label called "Destination wellness" in French ("Wellness-Destination" in German).

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