Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

As the ship on which Candide is sailing nears Lisbon at the end of chapter 5, the sky becomes gloomy : ‘l’air s’obscurcit, les vents soufflèrent des quatre coins du monde, et le vaisseau fut assailli de la plus horrible tempête’. Candide, Pangloss and ‘ce brutal de matelot qui avait noyé le vertueux anabaptiste’ are the only ones on board who survive the storm and as they set foot in town, they feel the earth quake beneath their feet. Voltaire gives a graphic description of what happens. He was drawing on a recent historic event.

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake


On November 1st 1755, Lisbon, at the time the third largest port in Europe, was hit by a terrible earthquake and tsunami. Much of the city was destroyed. In the following days, reports speaking of 100 000 deaths reached Geneva where Voltaire was living. These were certainly excessive, but they bear witness to the magnitude of the catastrophe, which is still considered to have been one of the deadliest earthquakes ever.

Voltaire was so distressed by the news that he set about writing a long poem. He called it Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ou Examen de cet axiome ‘Tout est bien’. He speaks of the innocent lives lost and can find no justification for why Lisbon should have been wiped off the face of the earth rather than similar cities like Paris or London.

‘Tout est bien’ refers to the doctrine of optimism: thinking that on the whole ‘tout va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’, as the fictional Pangloss would say. Optimism was defended by the German philosopher Leibniz in his 1710 Theodicy, which justifies the existence of evil. He claimed the world could not have been better: to suggest it was imperfect, he believed, was like accusing God of not being up to the task he had set himself.

Following the earthquake, the philosophy of optimism no longer seemed defensible to someone like Voltaire. As he wrote to a correspondant on November 30th 1755, ‘Vous savez l’horrible événement de Lisbonne […] voilà un terrible argument contre l’optimisme.’

Candide was published four years after the terrible events, in 1759, and with the subtitle ou l’optimisme’. In the book, the earthquake comes hot on the heels of a battle-scene. The slaughter is a manmade disaster. The earthquake is a natural one. You cannot blame anyone for it, in the way you might accuse a bellicose general of making his troops fight. The generous and virtuous Anabaptist drowns at the beginning of the episode set in and around Lisbon, whilst the wicked sailor survives. There is nothing moral about this. It clearly shows that all is not well.

During the whole of the ‘conte’, Candide, whose name means he is candid or naïve, is made to learn through experience (and through unlearning what Pangloss has erroneously taught him). Here he is shown that the force of nature cannot be controlled and that sometimes innocents die when criminals survive. This is an illustration of the fact that Pangloss’ philosophy (optimism) does not offer an acceptable explanation of the world. A number of other passages in the text show this in different ways, like the encounter with the ‘Nègre de Surinam’, a slave mutilated by his nasty owner.

Illustration by Norman Tealby for a translation of Candide (1928)


Just after the earthquake in Candide, the Lisbon authorities organise an auto-da-fé: literally an ‘act of faith’, supposed to ward off any future disasters by torturing heretics. Voltaire is very sceptical of such actions. Since earthquakes have physical causes, there is no way that burning criminals will have any effect on their occurrence. The university of Coimbra’s supposed pronouncement that ‘le spectacle de quelques personnes brûlées à petit feu, en grande cérémonie, est un secret infaillible pour empêcher la terre de trembler’ is obviously ironic. Voltaire shows us (and this is a subject to which he frequently returned in his writings) that too often punishments do not fit the crime.

Even the severity of the alleged ‘crimes’ is called into question. One of the people put to death before Candide’s eyes has married his godchild’s godmother—an arcane rule of the Catholic Church said that if you were godparents to the same child you were technically related and therefore could not marry. The two others are executed because they removed the bacon in which some chicken had been cooked: this is thought to reveal their fidelity to the Jewish faith. Though Voltaire believed in God, he thought that established religion served to divide and not to unite people. This scene, depicting the public burning of people who simply failed to conform to what seem to be arbitrary and even insignificant ‘rules’, allows him both to condemn superstitious attitudes to natural catastrophes, and to imply that the world would be better off if reason—rather than blind faith and a slavish adherence to religious doctrine—were to triumph.

An example of an auto-da-fé


So, to recap, there are several reasons why the earthquake matters:

  • It is a historical event which would have been familiar to Voltaire’s contemporaries.
  • It is a way of showing that natural disasters are not selective in the victims they make.
  • It forces Candide to start facing facts: all is not always for the best.
  • It demonstrates that optimism is a fallible philosophy.
  • It provokes the the auto-da-fé, which shows that religion can be bloodthirsty, and that by encouraging superstitious actions, the Church is clearly pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes.

Candide is known in French as a ‘Conte philosophique’, a philosophical tale. This is because it is a fictional story which is often quite amusing, but one which sets out to teach us something profound and not just to entertain us. Candide’s learning curve is meant to function for the reader too. Like him, we should be asking ourselves what conclusions can be drawn from his different adventures.

Ninety-Six Percent

posted by Simon Kemp

96%. That’s the satisfaction rate among our students with the French undergraduate course at Oxford.

That compares with an average of 93% satisfaction for courses across Oxford university, a satisfaction rate of 88% for courses across the ‘Russell Group’ of universities, and a satisfaction rate of 84% for undergraduate courses in all UK universities.

We’re very proud of that achievement, and always working hard to make sure our course is the best, most challenging and stimulating course that we can make it.

You can explore statistics on many aspects of our French course here, and through the Unistats link to the government website, you can compare data on our course with those at other universities. (If you do, one odd statistic I noticed is the suggestion that our French course has ‘0% coursework’. I presume they mean ‘0% compulsory coursework’, which is true, but in practice almost all our students choose to include at least one coursework portfolio or dissertation project among their final exams.)

Note too that 92% of our students agreed that teaching staff were good at explaining things to them (which leaves a little room for improvement still, but compares very well to our rival institutions), and 90% of students were in full-time work or study (such as Masters courses) six months after graduating. The excellent employability prospects of a modern languages degree, from here at Oxford or from anywhere else, is something we’ve talked about before, and really can’t emphasise enough.

Les Podcasts dangereux

posted by Simon Kemp

So, you have a room to tidy, a dog to walk, some washing up to do. How, you wonder, can you use your time most productively?

If only, you think to yourself, there was a bite-size podcast available that would keep you informed and entertained for a few minutes until the room was tidy….

Maybe a podcast about one of the most celebrated and notorious works in all French literature, offering fascinating facts and new insights into the novel and its author?

Perhaps a podcast featuring Oxford professors chatting to famous playwrights, contemporary novelists, and the man behind the ‘Dangerous Tweets’ project?

So, a few minutes later, not only will the dog be walked, but you’ll be enriched with a new understanding of a classic text.

Well, wonder no more! As the first of our ‘5×5’ series of short podcasts, Catriona Seth, Oxford’s Marshal Foch Professor of French literature, presents five takes on Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

You can find all the podcasts here:


They include an introduction to the turbulent life and times of Laclos, the author, himself

….an interview with Christopher Hampton, writer of the celebrated stage version of the novel and the famous film adaptation starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich…

…and a talk with the author of a recent sequel to the novel, Murderous Liaisons, along with the genius behind the twitter rewrite, Dangerous Tweets (The Dangerous Tweets themselves can be found here).

Les Derniers Jedi

posted by Simon Kemp

When the title of Star Wars Episode VIII was released a few weeks ago, speculation was feverish. Who was The Last Jedi?

Was it him?

…in which case, is Rey not going to be a Jedi after all?

Or was it her?

…in which case, was Luke Skywalker heading for a sticky end, leaving Rey as the sole remaining Jedi?

Or was it someone else entirely?

Certain regions of the internet were abuzz with many arguments but few answers.

And then, a month or so later the official French translation of the title appeared (along with various other languages too, of course):

…and suddenly, everything was much clearer. The Last Jedi is plural!

Rather like sheep, Jedi, it turns out, do not change in the plural form. So, just as you wouldn’t be able to tell if The Last Sheep was a film about a lone ewe or a whole woolly flock, The Last Jedi is ambiguous about how many Jedi are involved.

In French, though, the English definite article the has to be translated as either le, la or les, to agree with the gender and number of the noun that follows it. In the same way, last must become dernier, dernière, derniers or dernières, forcing the translator to specify whether we’re talking about one or several, male or female Jedis.

So, while The Last Jedi could be about pretty much anyone, Les Derniers Jedi is most definitely a film about two or more Jedi, at least one of whom is male.

It was the gift of the French language to sci-fi nerds everywhere. The French newspaper Le Figaro covered the happy moment in detail here. Here’s a short extract:

Fin janvier, le titre anglais The Last Jedi du huitième épisode de la saga avait engendré de nombreuses théories chez les fans. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise a révélé la traduction française.

Les fans ont eu raison de se méfier, la saga Star Wars a encore une fois habilement brouillé les pistes. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise rachetée par Disney a dévoilé sur son compte Facebook la traduction française du titre du huitième épisode: Les derniers Jedi. Un détail pour certains, un bouleversement pour d’autres.

(If you follow the link to the article, it’s worth also scrolling down to the comments, in which French Star Wars fans excitably debate with each other how English plurals work, and proudly declare the whole episode as evidence that ‘le français est une langue bien plus riche que l’anglais’.)

The ‘last Jedi’/’derniers Jedi’ issue actually illustrates a common problem for translators. In one language, the word or phrase you’re translating has a different scope from what it has in the other language, where it’s either more general or more specific.

Say, for example, you’re translating a French text containing the word ‘étudiante’.

The obvious choice would be ‘student’, but the English word includes male students (‘étudiant in French) as well as female ones, and also includes school students (more usually ‘élève’ in French) as well as university ones. The English word is more general than the French one.

Now let’s say that, later in the same text, you have to translate the word ‘belle-mère’.

You now have the opposite problem. The French word ‘belle-mère’ can mean both ‘step-mother’ and ‘mother-in-law’. The two English words are each more specific than the broader French one.

The solution you decide on will depend on several factors, including:

  • the context of the source text (can you work out which of the two English options the belle-mère actually is?)


  • the relevance of the information (does the reader need to know the gender of the student or not? If so, do they need to know right now that she’s female, or can the translator slip in a subtle ‘she’ or ‘her’ later on in the text instead?)


  • and the style and purpose of the translation (‘the mother-in-law, or, as the case may be, stepmother’ might be an appropriate rendering if you’re translating a legal contract. If you’re translating a poem, not so much).

It’s a nice example of what makes translation a tricky and fascinating business. Languages never quite map onto each other exactly, and translating between them is never a straightforward matter of replacing words in one language with their equivalents in another. Rather, you have to negotiate your way between two different systems, balancing the need for accuracy with a desire to be stylish or sound natural. Sometimes you may decide to leave out information that you can’t find a practical way to include in your translation (‘the female university student’), and sometimes you may even have to take a best guess about something the source text doesn’t make clear (‘her stepmother, or, you know, possibly her mother-in-law, I can’t really be sure).

Often, language differences can cause real problems for the struggling translator. Sometimes, though, as with the title of Star Wars Episode VIII, a simple difference can make a big change, and the translator can make everyone happy. Apart, perhaps, from the film-makers at Disney who were hoping to keep everyone guessing for a while longer…

Proust Walks Down Steps!

posted by Simon Kemp

You may have seen the above snippet of film in the news recently. It was discovered in the Canadian National Cinema Centre archives (full story here), and it comes from footage of a French society wedding in 1904. The wedding was that of Élaine Greffulhe, whose mother the Countess of Greffulhe, was a friend of the writer, Marcel Proust. She was also a possible model for the Duchesse de Guermantes, a character in his novel, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

‘Might Proust have been present at the wedding?’ wondered Canadian academic Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, as he examined the footage. ‘And might he even have been captured on the film?’

And there he is! He’s the man in the light coat and dark bowler hat, descending the stairs alone. Here he is to give you a better look:

The film may not show us very much of him, and it’s not really going to tell us anything new (He could walk! Down steps!) or change anyone’s view of him.

But still, if you’ve spent hours and hours absorbed in his seven-volume, three-thousand-page novel…

…if you’ve spent so much time in his company, and listened to so many of the intimate thoughts of his semi-autobiographical narrator that you sometimes feel you know him better than you know many people in the real world…

…if he’s been a voice in your head, and a handful of still, sad-eyed photographs for a long while…

…then it’s a special little pleasure to see him walking down those steps, and it must have brought a smile to many people.

It’s fitting, too, that it should be Proust that this happened to. His novel opens with an exploration of the way that memories can lie buried within us for years, apparently dead and gone forever, until a chance event triggers their return. For Proust’s narrator it’s the experience of tasting a madeleine sponge-cake dipped in lime-blossom tea, creating a flavour he has not experienced since childhood, and which brings with it a sudden flood of memories of his youth.

In 1904, an early film camera caught a three-second glimpse of Marcel Proust, dressed to the nines and walking down sunlit steps in the company of the cream of French aristocratic society. For a century the film sat in darkness, gathering dust on a shelf in an archive. And now, by chance, it finds itself back in the light, restored to us across the years.