Las bufandas – Spanish Flash Fiction

This week we are delighted to showcase the winning entry in the Year 12-13 category of our 2018 Spanish Flash Fiction Competition. This story comes from Charlotte Collerton and is a poignant evocation of familial relations across generations, told in a simple but graceful style. The judges were impressed by Charlotte’s excellent command of idiomatic Spanish, but also her poetic sense of rhythm that permeates both the form (vocabulary and sentence structure) and the content of the text (the action of knitting, the rhythm of seasons and sequence of generations).

¡ Felicidades, Charlotte!

Las bufandas

Ella empezó tejer la primera bufanda hace cuarenta años cuando estaba embarazada de su primer hijo. El invierno era constante y la bufanda se convirtió en manta para el bebé.

Ella tenía siete hijos y cada bebé tenía su propia bufanda como una manta para proteger de los inviernos atroces.

Con los años los bebés crecían y ellos creaban la próxima generación y las agujas de tricotar se reanimaban de nuevo.

Cuando ella colgó el guante la familia recogió todas las bufandas y cosió un chal de cada uno. El invierno era impotente contra la tibieza en su ataúd.

Photo by Philip Estrada on Unsplash

The Scarves

She started knitting the first scarf forty years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. Winter was constant and the scarf became a blanket for the baby.

She had seven children and each baby had her own scarf as a blanket to protect it from the severe winters.

Over the years the babies grew and they created the next generation, and the knitting needles were revived again.

When she passed away, the family gathered all the scarves and sewed a shawl from each one. Winter was powerless against the warmth of her coffin.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: my unexpectedly fun and rewarding discovery of Russia.

In this post, current undergraduate Joseph Rattue, who studys at Somerville College, offers a candid and entertaining reflection on his year abroad while studying Russian from scratch.

Four years ago, I sat looking through some testimonials in Oxford Modern Languages leaflets at an open day, in awe of the list of amazing places students had been on their years abroad. With law internships in Berlin, banking placements in Zürich, and events management in various châteaux in the picturesque French countryside, it was a list of great promise. A list that would convince anyone of the excitement and glamour of a degree in French, Spanish, German or Italian at Oxford. A list from which the location of the year abroad for Beginners’ Russian was markedly and suspiciously absent. After some digging around on the internet through the Russian sub-faculty’s web page, I found the city where second-year Russian Ab Initio (from scratch) students go for their year abroad, and didn’t think much of it in the face of the cosmopolitan metropoles I’d read about earlier that day. Today I have a photo plate of it on the wall above my bed.

Yaroslavl. Probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to spend your year abroad. Unknown to most people outside Russia, it sits modestly 272.3 km north-east of Moscow, and a trying 13-hour overnight train ride south-east of St. Petersburg. If I thought the scale of these distances was daunting before I arrived at the airport “in” (45.8 km south of) Moscow, it got even more extreme when I asked the minibus driver when we would reach the train station to go to Yaroslavl, only to discover that Yaroslavl was considered “next to Moscow,” as the 6-hour bus ride ensued. After the 5am start in the UK, it would be fair to say we all slept pretty well that night once we’d arrived at our home stay hosts’ flats.

Yaroslavl, photo by Joseph Rattue

For anyone wondering why I haven’t mentioned what we were actually doing there, fear not. All in good time. First, though, there are some things to do with the structure of the Russian Ab Initio Course which need some explaining. If you read the opening of this post and were a bit puzzled about why I talked about second-years going abroad, you were right to pick up on this. Nearly all Modern Languages degrees at Oxford are arranged for students to go abroad in their third year, unless the degree includes Beginners’ Arabic or Beginners’ Russian, in which case the second year is the year abroad. If you do Beginners’ Russian, you spend the whole of the first year doing almost exclusively language work, with a 1-hour poetry reading class every week in the second term designed mainly to help with the resonance of words, and to give the basic outline of some literary movements in Russia. In their second year, all the Oxford Russian Ab Initio students go to Yaroslavl and do a language development programme designed specifically for them by Yaroslavl State University, making it easier to tackle Final Honours texts in Russian in the third and fourth years. Yes, this can have its downsides; you are away when your friends are back home in Oxford, and your linguist friends are away in third year when you come back. But this does not exactly spell the end for your social life. Without sounding too cheesy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my social experiences on my year abroad were some of the best I’ve ever had. I went to a new place, discovered a new culture, and made new friends, many of whom will be in Oxford with me this coming year and mean a lot to me.

It’s not often that you go to a monastery with a bear called Masha inside it, or a café where tens of cats live, or a museum with a whole room dedicated to different kinds of traditional irons which can also be musical instruments. Nor is it every day that you sing traditional Russian folk songs and drink mulled wine with your teachers to celebrate “Old New Year” in mid-January because Russia used the old Julian calendar until February 1918. It is these sorts of things that have made my year abroad not only so much fun, but so meaningful and fulfilling. Being in a class with the other Oxford students gave me an immediate group of close friends, and together we discovered Russia. Whether it was watching Yaroslavl Lokomotiv play ice hockey with our Russian friends, staying up to see the sun rise over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or belting out Russian pop songs about new year at 1am, the year could hardly have been more full of shared, new experiences that brought us closer to each other and to Russian culture. The other people who made all this possible were our hosts, or “babs” (short for “babushka,” the Russian for “grandma”), who lived with us, fed us, and shared their stories, ideas and lives with us. When I met my bab, Emma, at the start of the year, I could hardly understand a sentence she said. By the end, I was interpreting for her as she told my parents all about her family, past and present, and which English writers she liked reading. I visited Yaroslavl again this summer, 4 months after the end of my year abroad in March, and left a box of chocolates for my friend to give to Emma when she got back from her holiday. Two days ago Emma got those chocolates, and said hi.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable year, one full of discovery, new people, and both academic and personal growth. What felt like a very foreign country now feels like a second home to me. To that end, the Yaroslavl year abroad is the epitome of what a year abroad should be.

French Film Competition – live action

In July we showcased one of the winning entries in the Years 7-11 category of our 2018 French Film Competition.  This competition asked pupils to watch a French film and produce an alternative ending. The film selected for the Years 7-11 category was Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Une vie de chat (2010). The point in the film at which the rewriting picked up was the 49:20 minute mark, at the moment when Nico says  ‘Allez, accroche-toi bien Zoë’.

We are now pleased to publish the other winning entry in this category, a brilliantly conceived and produced film by Ethan Ross and co. Take a look at the film below – we hope it inspires you to produce your own films in French!

Teachers, if you are looking to introduce some ‘drama’ into your MFL classroom you might be interested in these exercises for multilingual drama teaching, created by the Creative Multilingualism Project with the Oxford Playhouse.

Lessons in Translation: The War Hasn’t Started Yet

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Here, professional translator Noah Birksted-Breen talks about translating the same play three times, taking into consideration different audiences and cultural reference points. You can also read an interview with Noah about Russian theatre here.

I have just finished translating Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Hasn’t Yet Started for the third time in as many years. I’m in an unusual situation – one translator creating three different versions of the same play. As far as I know, that doesn’t normally happen. I have tried to take advantage of each opportunity to re-translate the play, adapting it significantly to the specific target audience.

In 2015, I translated The War for the first time, for my Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London. Subsequently, this translation was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Frontline Club in London. I knew that the Frontline Club attracts a specialist audience, already familiar with Russian culture. I left the play in quite a ‘raw’ state. For example, I could indulge my audience with references to ‘dachas’ rather than ‘country houses’. I left the language sounding rather ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. To English ears, it was somewhat stilted – although it worked for people who already know about Russian culture.

In 2016, Theatre Royal Plymouth produced The War in the Drum Theatre in Plymouth (their studio space with approx. 200 seats). I developed my translation further with the director Michael Fentiman, who directed the production in Plymouth. Fentiman had a good eye for clarifying cultural references which would not be clear to audiences in the UK. So, ‘dacha’ would become ‘country house’. But there were more difficult decisions to be taken as well about ‘hidden’ references.

For example, one scene in The War refers to ‘another country’, without specifying which one. Russian audiences would know from the scene that it refers to Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert – and later more overt – war against Ukraine since 2014. It felt wrong to name Ukraine in the scene, since the drama works on a metaphorical level, as well as commenting obliquely on real-world geopolitics. Fentiman encouraged me to develop the references in a certain way. For example, the Russian TV journalist who willingly broadcasts a ‘fake news’ story about Ukraine refers to ‘them’ and ‘they’.

Image by Dragonfly Design © created for Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production (2016) of The War Hasn’t Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov, translated by Noah Birksted-Breen.

In my second translation, working with Fentiman, I ended up going for ‘those other people’ – which is tacitly xenophobic or at least judgemental. This less literal approach to the original text helped to create the sense of two hostile, warring neighbouring countries without needing to specify Russia and the Ukraine. It even added to the drama of the scene, I think, by highlighting the mentality of ‘us versus them’, which motivated the scene and the play as a whole. (The playwright is looking critically at the ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than endorsing it!).

In January 2018, a new production of The War opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse. It is produced by the same company, Theatre Royal Plymouth, but there is a new director and therefore the translation will also be different. This has been my favourite experience of translation to date. Working with the director Gordon Anderson, I altered my translation even more than in 2016.

I moved yet further away from translation as a technical process which is ‘faithful’ to the original. Anderson’s TV experience gave him a keen eye for opportunities to edit and shape the dialogue – a step closer to adaptation. In the past, I might have objected. Scholars often feel that retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the play’s language is the highest priority of translation. Yet, my approach to translation has changed over many years – and Anderson pushed me to develop my approach still further. At times, I added to the dialogue and at times, I cut dialogue from the scenes, where I felt that the spirit of the original was getting ‘lost in translation’.

This way of working sees the translator as essentially creating a ‘new play’. Obviously, this ‘new play’ has to embody the spirit of the original, but it needn’t be overly faithful to the original. Translating The War for the third time, I wanted the London audience to experience the drama (the story and structure) of this play, without getting bogged down in the ‘strangeness’ of the language itself. This method captures a more nuanced view of Russian culture. It aims to create a natural-sounding text in English which retains difference, or even ‘strangeness’, in the plotting or characters.

That makes sense when you think about it. After all, Russian culture is not ‘isolated’ in its own bubble. I regularly speak to Russian playwrights who tell me that they are equally inspired by Russian culture as by British playwriting. Any translation must find a nuanced balance between being ‘strange’ (or ‘foreign) and ‘natural’. The language should not be an obstacle for the audience. Otherwise, Russian plays are being translated solely to be watched by audiences who are already familiar with Russian culture.

I have come to believe that translation is more about capturing ‘unfamiliar ways of thinking’. In The War, there are a series of competing realities. Different characters see the world in contradictory ways. The play suggests that ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ cannot both be true. In other words, The War offers an experience of living in a post-truth era – just as relevant to British audiences as Russian ones. I have come to feel that translation is like telling somebody about a dream you had the previous night. You have to explain what you saw as clearly as possible, in a language which they will understand. The meaning of the dream is elusive…. What matters is how it felt when you were asleep, and finding a natural-sounding way to explain the odd experiences in the dream to your listener. I hope that my least ‘faithful’ translation of The War captures the dream-like but arresting quality of the original play in a clear and lucid language.

Languages at Oxford: A tutor’s perspective

As the new school term approaches our thoughts turn to the next round of admissions to Oxford. If you’re going into Year 12 it’s a good time to begin exploring your options, and you might start by attending our open day on 14 September. If you’re going into Year 13 you should be starting to put together your application: drafting your personal statement, preparing for the admissions test, thinking about any written work you need to submit. You can see the process laid out on the University website and do remember that the deadline for UCAS entries is 6pm on 15th October.

So what are we looking for in a Modern Languages candidate? Here, Dr Tim Farrant, who is the French tutor at Pembroke College, outlines some of the things he’s looking for when he’s assessing candidates’ applications…

There are lots more videos available which give you an insight into Modern Languages at Oxford, both from the tutors’ and the undergraduates’ perspective. We’ve compiled some of them into a playlist which you can view here.

Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog, and was written by Dr Marianna Bolgonesi. Here, Marianna talks about the issue of metaphors when it comes to learning a foreign language. A long version of this post is available here.

Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that some words are more difficult to master than others. This seems to be particularly true for words with multiple meanings, and specifically words that can be used metaphorically.

But why? Metaphoric expressions vary greatly across languages, and they are often soaked in cultural habits and beliefs. For example, while English people may have ‘butterflies in their stomach’, Chinese people will have ‘a little deer jumping in their heart’. Moreover, while some of these expressions trigger images that can help the learners understand the metaphorical meaning, others are less clear, and some seem to have no rational explanation: alarms go off when they actually go on, and houses burn up as they burn down!

Image by Schwoaze on Pixabay

The following questions arise:

  1. Is metaphor, a universal phenomenon across languages, a hallmark of human language?
  2. Is it possible to distinguish what is universal and what is language/culture specific in relation to metaphor?
  3. Why is metaphor a problem for foreign learners and how do language learners understand and use metaphor?
  4. Can metaphor be taught? (And if so, how?)

These questions were explored in a discussion chaired by Dr Marianna Bolognesi with Professor Jeannette Littlemore (University of Birmingham) and Dr Linda Fisher (University of Cambridge) at an event in Oxford in February. During the debate it emerged how metaphors in language influence the way we think, and therefore, metaphoric expressions that we use on a daily basis can indeed be quite tricky for learners that have a different mother tongue, because they might think in different ways. If we look at how language shapes our world view, in particular when it comes to metaphoric expressions, we can see that while some expressions translate directly from one language to another, word by word, others do not.

Consider, for example, ‘the statement it’s raining cats and dogs’, a classic idiomatic expression (a specific type of very conventionalised metaphor in language) that we use to say ‘it’s raining a lot’. In other languages the image of cats and dogs is quite different: in Catalan it rains barrels and casks (Està plovent a bots i barrals), in Dutch pipe stems (Het regent pijpestelen), in Irish Gaelic cobblers’ knives (Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí) and in Norwegian female trolls (Det regner trollkjerringer). These various ‘entities falling from the sky’ are probably related to cultural traditions and experiences that are typically shared by the communities that speak these languages. These expressions are therefore very different from one another. However, they share an underlying common trait: all of them are quite unpleasant when falling from the sky, as well as unexpected, and heavier than normal (literal) rain. All of these common traits constitute the core, underlying meaning of these metaphoric expressions, which is related to our bodily experiences with heavy rain. These bodily experiences, at the very basic level of perception, are not that different across languages and cultures, because we are all humans and share similar bodies.

Even within the same language, for example English, it is possible to come up with creative variations of conventional metaphoric expressions. Urban Dictionary, for example, has an extensive list of alternatives to ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, including ‘it’s raining pitchforks’ and ‘it’s raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock’.

[…]

In the second half of the debate we focused on the problems that metaphors cause for foreign language learners, and the solutions proposed to overcome these problems. On the one hand, metaphors can indeed be problematic for learners, because learners tend to process linguistic input word by word, and translate word by word what they hear in a foreign language. However, metaphors, as already discussed, do not translate word by word, most of the time. Moreover, learners often do not realise that they have not understood the intended meaning, and this can cause additional problems in the classroom, because they give misleadingly positive feedback to the teacher (‘yes, we understood everything!’). It seems therefore crucial for the teacher to be very careful when using metaphors in the target language and to double check with the students how they have interpreted the metaphor.

Metaphors, on the other hand, can also be a very productive tool when used in the classroom to express beliefs and conceptualisations that students may be more willing to share through metaphors than through literal (and often quite abstract and difficult) language. In this sense, metaphors can help the students to embrace a creative way of thinking and talking, putting aside their fear of making mistakes, and conveying messages in a way that better reflects their personal, cultural and social identity.

Careers Profile: Working for a Charity

Adventures on the Bookshelf always tries to engage with languages beyond the curriculum and, if you’re here, you’re probably already a keen linguist. But if you’re thinking of applying for a Modern Languages degree you might be wondering what career options are available to you afterwards. In the coming months, we will be showcasing some of our recent graduates who have written profiles about their careers since leaving Oxford with a Modern Languages degree. First up is Evie Snow, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in French and English. Evie now works as a Schools Programme Coordinator for the Charity  Wings of Hope, which works to provide free education to children in the developing world. Read Evie’s account below…

Evie (right) with her colleagues at Wings of Hope

I graduated from Oxford just two years ago this summer (2016), and went straight into a Masters in Development Studies at SOAS in London. This really cemented my thinking that I wanted to be in International Development or charity work at some level, and my interest in postcolonial and world history/politics/languages/cultures had already been sparked in several of my finals papers* and dissertation. I then came out of my Masters looking for a job in which I could feel that I was making a direct difference, and that’s how I came across my current job. I manage the day to day running of a social enterprise programme for students aged 13-18, who compete to fundraise for the education of children in Malawi and India. This began as an internship, but quickly developed into a permanent position, with the increase in responsibility (and title!) that this entailed. I have learnt an awful lot very fast, and am hoping there is more to come!

Even though I am not directly using my French in my current job, I thoroughly intend to in my next or following role. One of my ambitions is to work in West Africa, where French is essential for most countries in the region. Aside from the technical use of the language, I feel that studying French helped me to spark several strands of learning which have been integral to my professional life so far. One of these was an awareness of other places, other cultures, other ways of thinking; in studying a language you are confronted by a different way of constructing a sentence, and even more so, a different way of constructing the world. Even though you may not realise it at the time, I think that this is vital to broadening horizons in the way people think, not to mention the enormous benefits of being able to have a year abroad! Another of these strands is the ability, and indeed for me now the desire, to compare and contrast situations at each possible stage. When you study a language that is not your native tongue, you are constantly faced with comparison between those, and students who study more than one language are clearly comparing between multiple languages and cultures. Learning languages gives you a mental flexibility which I think is pretty unique amongst the disciplines. This is vital when entering any kind of job, as it allows you to weigh up pros and cons and to balance outcomes efficiently.

Many languages graduates come out of their degrees and feel a sense of failure if they don’t instantly use that language in their everyday lives. I think the skills we have learnt during our degrees are the epitome of transferable skills, so even though each of us may be passionate about our language/languages this doesn’t have to be within the workplace.

I still try to keep with French news, and read French literature. Without having studied French, I couldn’t have spent a month in Italy learning Italian from scratch and pick it up so easily – I may not be fluent, but I can have a decent conversation! Plus, I now have a French housemate, so even though I may not be using my French at the office, I can still come home to chats over du vin et du fromage!

*Finals papers are the exams that undergraduates sit at the end of their degree.

Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?

School’s out for summer and you may be wondering what to do with yourself over the holiday. If you’re looking for ways to broaden your intellectual horizons one great resource is Oxplore, a digital learning experience created by Oxford University for students aged 11-18. Oxplore encourages you to consider ‘Big Questions’, for example, ‘Should you believe the history books?’ or ‘Would you want to live forever?’ The questions explored draw on several subjects and aim to engage with ideas in a way that goes beyond what you’ll cover in the classroom.

One particular question explored, which throws a spotlight on Modern Languages, is ‘Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?’ You can check out this question on the Being Human strand of the website. The exploration of this question included a discussion with Prof. Katrin Kohl and Dr Marianna Bolognesi, researchers on the Creative Multilingualism Project. This discussion, where Katrin and Marianna answer some questions submitted by viewers, is available to view below.

With such a rich topic, it was inevitable that there would be more questions than it was possible to answer during the livestreamed discussion. Therefore, Katrin and Marianna also took the time to answer some of the questions they didn’t cover on the Creative Miultilingualism blog. Click here to see some of their answers.

 

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

French Film Competition – a winning entry

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are pleased to showcase one of the winning entries from this year’s French film competition. This competition asked pupils to watch a French film and produce an alternative ending. The film selected for the Years 7-11 category was Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Une vie de chat (2010). The point in the film at which the rewriting picked up was the 49:20 minute mark, at the moment when Nico says  ‘Allez, accroche-toi bien Zoë’.

One of the winners in this category was Priya Gurcha, who produced an illustrated storyboard. Here, we see Priya’s brilliant alternative ending, which is full of drama and literal flights of imagination. Félicitations, Priya!

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!