IYOM2023 in French: Mils et/ou millets?

2nd in series on translation & the International Year of Millets

The French version of the name of the planned 2023 International Year of Millets (IYOM) in the UN General Assembly resolution is Année internationale du mil. Interestingly, a 2019 FAO planning document referred to it as Année internationale des millets,1 and this name also appears in some non-official documents. What’s going on here, and what might be an optimal name if we prioritize use of a plural form?

It turns out that French has two generic words for “millet”: mil and its diminutive form, millet (the latter being the source of our word in English).2 The uses and relative meanings of the two are a bit complicated. (Indeed, the “millets namespace” in many languages is complicated, each in its own way, as we’ll see further on.)

The word mil is apparently very old, being derived from Latin, but in recent times it has become associated, especially in Africa, with pearl millet (the more specific term for that grain being petit mil), as well as with sorghum (gros mil). The latter two, together, are sometimes referred to in English as “great millets” or “large millets,” as opposed to all the other millets which are “small” or “minor” (in size, and also in relative production worldwide). I first encountered the French plural of this word – mils – in central Mali years ago in the project “Opération Mils Mopti,” which focused on production of both pearl millet and sorghum.3 So does the plural, mils, tend to refer to just those two “great millets”?

In any event, I had halfway expected that the French title for IYM2023 might be Année internationale des mils.

However, the word millet and its plural millets seem to be more widely used in French, at least in Europe, and are also used in (reference to) Africa, especially in documents. Pearl millet, for instance, is also called millet perle, and finger millet is translated both as millet à doigts and mil à doigts (with the former being more frequent, per Google search count).4

Another question is whether small millets cultivated mainly or only in parts of Africa (such as fonio, of which there are apparently 3 species, and teff), or parts of Asia (such as kodo millet and little millet), would be considered as mils, millets, or both in French.

With two terms that seem to be used somewhat complementarily, would it make sense to include both in the French name for IYM2023? The problem with Année internationale du mil is not just that it uses the singular form (even if perhaps intended as a collective noun), but that it could be heard as applying only to pearl millet. Although Année internationale des mils seems better, that alternative is somewhat region-specific and may accent the great millets. And the problem with Année internationale des millets, even though it might technically be appropriate, is that it may not resonate in the major millets producing region in the Francophone space, namely West Africa.

So, could Année internationale du mil et des millets, or, if sorghum is included (as I believe is the intention), Année internationale des mils et des millets capture and communicate the message of the Year more completely? Such extension of the title for IYM2023 in French would seem to break the parallelity of translations usually seen in names of UN years (one word to one word). However, such flexibility in translation may be helpful due to the “multi-local” dimension of the subject. Also, as I’ll note in a later post, one major non-UN language (Hindi) already uses a two word expression for “millets.”

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Notes:

  1. Plan à moyen terme 2018-2021 (Révisé) et Programme de travail et budget 2020-2021 du Directeur général,” C 2019/3, Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’alimentation et l’agriculture, Rome, 2019, p. 58
  2. The French language Wikipedia actually has articles on both mil and millet, with overlapping content (when accessed 21 Jan. 2022): Mil (céréale) and Millet (graminée).
  3. Operation Mils Mopti was an ambitious but notably unsuccessful USAID-funded project in the Mopti region of Mali, during 1976-79.
  4. The French version of the webpage the East African Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum (CIFMS) is entitled “Centre d’Innovation d’Afrique de l’Est pour le Millet et le Sorgho” and, when accessed at the time of writing this article, it used both the terms mil à doigts and millet à doigts in the text of the page.

Posts in this “IYOM2023 & translation” series:

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One thought on “IYOM2023 in French: Mils et/ou millets?”

  1. Mils and or millets …are concepts we already well use in our translation and they do not seem to raise any special understanding issue from our readers…..

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