It’s quiz time again, and once again, there’s an opportunity to feel smug and superior by spotting mistakes made by French native speakers. Last time, we were hunting out grammatical errors that unfortunate French folk had decided to tattoo on their bodies for all eternity. This time is if anything even worse. The mistakes are in picture books aimed at teaching very young French children how to read.
Below are pages from five picture books, with one mistake in each image. Can you find them all? Answers at the bottom of the post.
(Hint: as is common when native speakers make mistakes, all the errors sound OK when you read them out loud, but are written wrongly on the page, rather like English speakers confusing their, there and they’re.)
Scroll down for answers…
Should be ‘ils tendent le cou‘ (‘they stretch their necks out’).
Should be ‘qu’il fasse moins chaud’ (‘until it gets cooler’).
Should be ‘rassemble’ (‘gathers’).
Should be ‘s’écrie’ (‘shouts out’). ‘S’écrit’ means ‘writes to himself’.
These days, most languages that you might want to study at university can be started from scratch. Oxford offers beginners’ courses in all our languages apart from French and Spanish, which means you can pick up any one of the following that takes your interest:
Plus, within each of our language courses are options to explore further related languages, including Bulgarian, Croatian, Ukranian, Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Occitan.
And as well as the Modern Languages Faculty, two other Oxford faculties teach languages, several of which are available to combine with ours in a two-language degree.
The Oriental Studies Faculty offers Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Turkish (last four available in a combined course with modern languages).
And the Classics Faculty offers Latin and Ancient Greek (both available in a combined course with modern languages).
So if you’re at all curious about trying something new, there’s lot’s to choose from.
Around the time that Oxford opened its Beginners’ German course, the Guardian newspaper published a story exploring beginners’ languages in UK universities. Here’s an extract:
Though it’s difficult to detect in admissions statistics, university language courses are changing, with more opportunities for students to study a language from scratch. Ab initio courses, as they are termed, once the preserve of Russian, Chinese and Arabic, are now being extended to include more familiar languages: Spanish, sometimes French and especially German. In some universities, such courses are long established, but others are making new forays: Oxford offered beginners’ German for the first time this year (available in joint honours to students with an A-level in another language); King’s College London, went further and this year offered German from scratch with a range of subjects. Manchester has introduced French from scratch – plus the chance to add a language as a minor degree subject.
For Lauren Valentine, 19, completing the first year of a single honours French degree at Manchester, the university’s new “flexible honours” programme has allowed her to fulfil her dream of learning Spanish, foiled when her school split her year into two random language groups and she ended up with French. “I was always embarrassed on family holidays when all I could say was una cola lite,” she says. “I couldn’t do Spanish at sixth-form college either, and I didn’t have the confidence to apply for joint honours with Spanish ab inito because I thought it wouldn’t ever be as good as my French. Advertisement
“We did a lot of intensive grammar in the first year, and I feel that my Spanish is now above A-level standard, though the vocab will take more time to bed in. The course has given me even more than I’d hoped, and I now want to go into translation or interpreting.”
The new Manchester programme, introduced this year and allowing students to take a “minor” in a range of subjects including languages, is designed to catch students who might not have considered languages, or perhaps lacked the confidence to apply to study them at degree level. While the university still demands at least one good language A-level for traditional joint honours language courses, the minor courses require no prior language experience. This year, 30 out of 53 students taking a minor chose a language, and the vast majority plan to carry on – with a few even switching to full joint honours.
The scheme allows students to “dip their toe in the subject” for a year without risk, says assistant undergraduate director, Joseph McGonagle, and if they do continue they can get a language on their degree certificate. “The feedback is brilliant – they are grabbing it with both hands.” The hope is to double the numbers this September, he says. “This is about rebuilding from a low base – or a different base. We can’t let the popularity of school languages decline and not address that at university level.”
[…] At Oxford, ab initio German introduced this year has proved popular, and nine students are signed up for September (compared with 70 who have German A-level). Beginner students are taught very intensively and therefore their numbers will, for now, be capped at 16, says Katrin Kohl, professor of German literature.
The new course, Kohl notes, has attracted students drawn to German in diverse ways: perhaps through an interest in the economy, through family connections, or after reading something influential.
Jocelyn Wyburd, chair of the university council of modern languages and director of the language centre at Cambridge, sees the expansion of ab initio as “universities grappling with a pipeline problem” – a “woeful” 48% of the GCSE cohort last year took at least one language.
A strong fight back by language departments, mainly through the Routes into Languages campaign, plus government initiatives, may ultimately see a turnround in language take-up in the UK. But for now, Wyburd says, universities are “reinventing their rules. Each department is devising its own pathways and constantly reviewing what are the non-negotiables.”
Can ab initio rescue languages? “It can. Will it? I don’t know – I’d love it to. But it’s not a panacea.”
Last week, I left you with the problem faced by the French dubbers of Game of Thrones, who needed to find a phrase that meant something a bit like ‘hold the door’ and sounded something a bit like ‘Hodor’. So what did they come up with?
From ‘Odorr, it’s only a small step to au-dehors, the formal French expression for ‘outside’, which is pronounced almost the same way.
So in French, Meera yells, ‘Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors!’, which becomes ‘pas au-dehors’, which becomes ‘au-dehors’ and then ‘Hodor’.
If you’re not familiar with the grammatical construction: que + subjunctive can be used in French as a kind of third-person imperative. So, just like you can say Go! in the second person – Va! or Allez! – and Let’s go! in the first-person plural – Allons! – you can use this construction to say Have him go! or Let him go!: Qu’il aille !
Or Let them go (outside)!: Qu’ils aillent (au-dehors)!
Or Don’t let them go outside!: Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors!
It’s maybe not the most natural way to say it. Qu’ils ne sortent pas! would be a more obvious thing for Meera to say in the circumstances, and even with the way she does say it, just ‘dehors’ would be more usual than ‘au-dehors’.
Qu’ils n’aillent pas au-dehors! is a bit formal and old-fashioned, perhaps more what you’d expect someone to tell their cat-sitter about their long-haired pedigree Persians than what you’d naturally scream out as you ran from ravening undead hordes. But given the quasi-medieval setting of Game of Thrones and the slightly formal, archaic language the characters often use, it actually works very well in the context.
Here’sa short article in French on the Hodor dubbers’ dilemma, if you’re interested to find out a bit more.
And here’sa list of how other brave dubbers and subtitlers around the world tackled the problem, from ‘Halt das Tor!’ (not too bad, Germany) to ‘¡Aguanta el portón!’ (Hmmm, Spain, not so sure about that one…)
PS. The same grammatical construction appears in the most famous French quotation that nobody ever actually said. Marie Antoinette’s notorious ‘Let them eat cake!’ is, in the original French, ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!’
The translator’s life is fraught with peril. Especially if there’s a long-running literary saga involved. Month after month, year after year, you wrestle the writer’s intentions into the target language, reaching for an impossible balance between expressing exactly what was meant and producing something that doesn’t sound hopelessly clunky and false in its new language. And then… And then you discover that a time-bomb was lurking in the source text all along, cunningly hidden, its deadly ticking sound unheard until it was too late to stop the countdown…
We saw in an earlier post how J. K. Rowling left such a device for her poor French translator, Jean-François Ménard, which, when it eventually detonated, left him with no option but to rename evil dark wizard Marvolo Gaunt as ‘Elvis’ in the French version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
At the end of the last season of Game of Thrones, viewers discovered that the world’s other favourite purveyor of magic and dragons, George R. R. Martin, had done the same thing. Now, as the seventh season is about to start, let’s look back at what happened.
If you know Game of Thrones, or as the French call it, er, Game of Thrones (the novel got a French title, Le Trône de fer, but the TV show is known by its English name), then you know about Hodor. He’s the big, friendly giant of House Stark, the lovable Hagrid-alike who, in later seasons, becomes the companion and protector of paralysed Bran on his mission to find the Three-Eyed Raven. He’s also, famously, a man of few words. Of just one word, actually, the nonsense word ‘Hodor’, which is all he can say, and from which he gets his name.
“D’accord,” thought the translators of the novels into French, “il dit ‘Hodor’, nous l’appellerons ‘Hodor’.”
“Pas de problème,” thought Dubbing Brothers, the French company with the contract to produce the version française of the TV show by dubbing all the dialogue into French. “Il dit ‘Hodor’, nous l’appellerons ‘Hodor’,” which will mean that the lip-movements you see on screen will match the dialogue nicely.
Except, as it turns out, ‘Hodor’ is not a nonsense word. It has a very specific English meaning, which George R. R. Martin has known from the start, but which nobody found out until Season Six of the TV show.
By which time it was much too late.
‘Hodor’, we discover, is a contraction of the sentence, ‘Hold the door’. To recap: Bran, Hodor and Meera are fleeing the horde of ice-zombies who have invaded the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave. As they rush outside, Meera shouts ‘hold the door!’, which Hodor then does, using his bulk to keep the cave door closed behind them, and sacrificing his life to keep the wights trapped while Bran and Meera escape. Bran, meanwhile, is doing his mystic mind-travelling thing, his consciousness simultaneously in Hodor’s mind in the present and time-travelling back a couple of decades to witness his family’s past at Winterfell.
There, he sees Hodor-in-the-past, up to that point a normal teenager named Wylis, fall to the ground in a fit of premonition, and hears his cries of ‘hold the door’ gradually degenerate into ‘Hodor’, which will be the only word he says from that moment on. (It makes more sense when you see it.)
Oh dear. What to do?
If only Martin had let his translators in on the secret from the beginning, they could have rechristened Hodor something like ‘Tinlaporre’, French-language Meera could have shouted ‘Tiens la porte!’, and everyone would have been happy.
Now, though, the translators, subtitlers and dubbers for each of the many languages Martin’s work is enjoyed in have to translate the sentence ‘hold the door’ into something that means approximately the same thing and at the same time sounds a bit like ‘Hodor’. It’s such a key moment in the saga that there’s no way to avoid it, but, for the French translators at least, no easy way to make it work.
So what did they do? Well, obviously, anything close to the literal translation, ‘tiens la porte’, won’t do at all. But there is a neat solution available. What they were aiming for was the French pronunciation of the character’s name, which, as you can imagine, was more ‘Odorr than Hodor. Can you come up with an answer of your own that works? I shall leave you with the problem, and tell you the dubbers’ solution next week.
Here’s an odd little detail from No et moi, Delphine de Vigan’s novel about a thirteen-year-old genius who befriends an older homeless girl. Towards the end of the novel, Lou (the thirteen-year-old) is feeling overwhelmed by the situation. A few weeks earlier, the story almost seemed to have reached a happy ending, with No installed in Lou’s family home, happy, sober and in employment, and Lou’s mother lifted out of the long depression caused by the death of Lou’s baby sister Thaïs by the experience of helping No put her life back on the rails.
Now, though, all of this has fallen apart. No’s drinking and pill-stealing have seen her thrown out of Lou’s home, and Lou has reason to believe that the temporary refuge she has found with Lucas is now under threat. Lou’s own secret crush on Lucas is running up against the harsh reality of their four-year age difference, and she is filled with jealousy at his attention to other girls his age. When No gives Lou an expensive thank you gift, Lou is struck by the contrast between the bleakness of No’s situation and the fake glamour of the perfume advertisement on a poster that forms the backdrop to the scene.
She heads home in a black mood, slams her bedroom door in her mother’s face, and later tells her father:
Depuis que Thaïs est morte maman m’aime plus.
(The scene, by the way, is pp. 221-22 in the Livre de Poche edition.) Her father tells her she’s mistaken:
Lou, tu te trompes. Maman t’aime, elle t’aime de tout son cœur, elle ne sait plus très bien comment faire, pour le montrer, c’est un peu comme si elle avait perdu l’habitude, comme si elle se réveillait d’un long sommeil, mais dans ses rêves elle pensait à toi, beaucoup, et c’est pour ça qu’elle s’est réveillée.
Lou says ‘d’accord’ to show she’s understood him, and even smiles. But inwardly, she’s thinking… what?
She’s thinking about kitchen gadgets:
J’ai pensé aux vendeurs devant les Galeries Lafayette, perchés sur leurs petits stands, ceux qui font des démonstrations avec des machines incroyables qui découpent les trucs en cubes, en tranches, en rondelles, en lamelles, en roses des vents, qui râpent, pressent, broient, mixent, bref qui font absolument tout et qui durent toute la vie.
N’empêche que moi je ne suis pas tombée du dernier RER.
And there the chapter ends. What does it mean?
Galeries Lafayette is a deluxe department store in Paris, and these salespeople are in the street outside it. (Do they work for the department store, or are they just hoping for a little reflected glory on the product they’re selling?) The kitchen gadget they’re demonstrating is a kind of miracle all-in-one food preparation device that can dice, slice, grind, mix and do all of the other things listed above, plus more besides, and which will never break down as long as you live. Or at least, that’s what they claim.
Lou’s comment on this loosely translates as ‘Even so, I didn’t fall off the last RER’, the RER being the Paris crossrail linking the suburbs to the city centre. Even if you don’t spot the similarity to the more usual French expression, ‘je ne suis pas tombée de la dernière pluie’, you can probably guess from the context that this is Lou’s urban version of the expression meaning ‘I wasn’t born yesterday’.
With that, things start to become clear. The gadgets are just too perfect: they do everything, you can rely on them for ever. Clearly, the salespeople are lying, and the thing will spend a couple of weeks grinding when it’s supposed to grate and slicing when it’s supposed to dice before breaking down completely and spending the rest of its life at the back of a cupboard.
If the kitchen gadgets are a symbol, then, they must symbolize the idea that Lou’s father’s reassurance is also a lie, that the picture he paints of a mother who loves her daughter dearly but just needs a little more time to recover from her depression is also too perfect to be true.
Lou has witnessed how No managed to bring her mother out of her shell, make her smile again and engage with the world, in a way that Lou herself has never been able to. Earlier, Lou was left ‘très en colère’ (on p. 157) when her mother shared a bottle of wine with No and opened up to her about Thaïs in a way she never had with Lou. So Lou is jealous of her mother’s relationship with No, and resentful that her mother hasn’t shown so much closeness to her for years.
It’s never clearly expressed, but we can also speculate about what may lie beneath these feelings: is Lou secretly afraid that her mother would rather that she, Lou, had died and Thaïs had lived?
And if so, is she right to be afraid of that?
We’re left to make up our own minds about these questions. My own view is that Lou’s father is largely right: Lou’s mother has behaved like she has because she has been suffering from depression, not because she does not love her daughter. Lou’s sceptical thoughts about food-processors tell us more about her own (understandable) feelings of insecurity, than they do about her mother’s true attitude towards her.
You may read it differently. However you interpret it, though, it definitely forms a part of the novel’s deeper story about how Lou slowly comes to understand that in real life there are no fairy-tale happy endings, and that broken people cannot be easily fixed.
Telling a story in just 100 words is no easy task, but our entrants were up for a challenge. What impressed the judges was not just how complete these stories could be, but how they managed to surprise the reader, reimagining familiar situations from a new perspective: we saw skeletal revellers with fleshy make-up in a reversal of the ‘Día de los Muertos’ celebrations, and had snapshots of human society as glimpsed by a cast of insects – often all too briefly. These were stories with a sting in the tale. Others were more suggestive, hinting allusively at a character’s back-story or inviting the reader to think further about what wasn’t on the page; some even scorned 100 words as frivolous luxury, one following in the footsteps of those ‘baby shoes, never worn’, another offering the cheekily open-ended ‘Y luego escribí éste.’ But the best married invention and creativity with accurate and ambitious Spanish, showing how much can really be done within the deceptively wide scope of the microcuento.
The judges chose to award a joint first prize in the Years 7-11 category, and a first prize in the Years 12-13 category. The winning entries, along with the judges’ comments, can be found below.
Oliver Sabatés (Year 7)
“No leas esto” fue el título del libro que David encontró mientras buscaba entre las cajas que se encontraban en el ático y, como le llamó la atención, decidió abrir la primera página. “Este libro le pertenece a David” eran las palabras que se encontraban escritas. En la siguiente página, nada y nada más por las siguientes cinco páginas. Siguió pasando hojas en blanco hasta encontrarse con un nuevo texto. En esta ocasión, se leía “que aburrido, duérmete y muere”. Al terminar de leer esto, David pensó: “que aburrido”. Dejó de leer, se fue a dormir y nunca más despertó.
Oliver’s story was extremely well written, in Spanish that was accurate, authentic and natural. The judges also liked the story’s premise, which – as the story itself has it – ‘llamó la atención.’ It was a witty idea, elegantly realized.
Anna Clark (Year 10)
La gente dice que este hombre es bueno para darse cuenta de las cosas. Tal vez, estaban equivocados. El hombre sólo puede concentrarse en una cosa ahora. Esos zapatos delicados. El hombre había visto esos zapatos antes. Eran los zapatos que limpió cuando estaban sucios, o reemplazar cuando los extremos del cordones eran gastados y deshilachados. Esos cordones colgaban sin vida por encima del balcón. En esos zapatos, veía los pies, las piernas… no oyó los sollozos desde arriba o las punzadas ocasionales de la cuerda tensora mientras el pesado cuerpo amenazaba con caer al suelo. Sólo esos zapatos.
What made this story stand out was its combination of the focus on a single moment which flash fiction often elicits (here, interestingly, via the character’s own highly focused gaze) together with brief glimpses of something greater. The story’s suggestion that this short-term focus was a necessary strategy to block out other, broader, and painful memories was evocative and compelling.
Harry Glyn John (Year 12)
Me habían dicho que sería pan comido: solo una simple misión para conseguir provisiones. El enemigo no sería consciente de lo que ocurría y podría ayudar a mi familia a sobrevivir.
Asaltamos la casa de nuestro enemigo declarado. Repentinamente escuché un silbido como una serpiente y se armó la de San Quintín. A mi alrededor, mis compañeros afligidos estaban ahogándose en una nube densa de gas antes de caer al suelo. Intenté huir de la atmosfera venenosa porque quería vivir.
Pensé en mi media naranja y entonces llegó la nada…
No fue nada fácil ser una avispa.
A clipped and attention-grabbing beginning; a description of the character’s predicament in terms that court empathy; and a final ability to pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet – this story was impressive for how much could be crammed into so few words, all composed in accurate and idiomatic Spanish.
Our 2018 Spanish Flash Fiction competition will be launched in December. Watch this space!
Strolling past a Paris café recently I was amused by a disarming mistranslation on their menu – ‘Velouté de potimarron du chef’ rendered not as ‘The chef’s cream of pumpkin soup’, but instead by the somewhat bizarre ‘Softness of pumpkin of the leader’. There is always room for approximate translations in the world, and nobody will ever suffer any significant consequences from this particular error, even if the dish is unlikely to find much favour with foreign customers.
However, some mistranslations can have wider repercussions. Donald Trump, in several boastful speeches in the run-up to the election, claimed that Vladimir Putin had described him either as ‘a genius’, or as ‘brilliant’. This claim, which significantly increased perceptions across the world that the Russian government was supporting his campaign, turned out to be based on a simple mistranslation. Putin had described him as a talented man, certainly, but he also added that he was ‘yarkiy’ – a word which can reasonably be translated as ‘bright’ (as in ‘a bright colour’). But when applied to someone’s personality, there is no doubt that what Putin intended was an ironic comment on Trump as a ‘very colourful’ personality. Trump had no justification, therefore, to cite it as a compliment to himself from the leader of a world superpower. What he needed was a better translator.
This reminder that mistranslations can have important repercussions on the international stage is why we need to have lots of well-qualified linguists in Britain. It takes several years of study to achieve the level of knowledge and understanding to translate accurately, and that means that foreign languages are a great subject to study over a four-year course at university. And whether you opt for Portuguese or Japanese, Czech, Arabic, or German, your course will also provide an adventure: the compulsory third year abroad will take you away from your British university routine to live, work or study in one or even two foreign countries. That experience of independent living abroad at the age of 20 or so proves formative in many people’s lives – young people get to discover new landscapes, beautiful cities, or foreign rock music or cinema; they come to appreciate alternative ways of organizing society and family life; they acquire new friends, and even fall in love. All this undoubtedly impresses future employers too: many qualified linguists go on to acquire further postgraduate qualifications in a huge range of subjects, or else vocational qualifications – and then find themselves very much in demand for the most exciting jobs in international law firms, businesses, the world of finance, international organisations and journalism, as well as the more obvious careers of translating and interpreting. Employment rates for modern linguists are excellent.
The decline in numbers studying foreign languages in British state schools over the last twenty years is therefore deeply unfortunate. Differences in languages bring home to us just how different societies have evolved over time, how different peoples develop different priorities in matters as specific as how you should address a stranger, or as broad as how nations view matters such as land-ownership, gender, environmental issues or public transport. Discovering that other people live – and thrive – in differently-organised societies teaches us that we have much to learn and much to share with foreigners. It encourages openness to difference, and promotes tolerance. An increasingly monoglot Britain is likely to become more inward-looking. If modern languages had been truly celebrated and widely taught in the British education system, would British people really have voted for Brexit?
(This is the fifth post in an occasional series asking and answering a key question about the books and films on the A-level French syllabus. You can find the others by clicking the ‘A-level texts’ tag at the end of this post.)
Entre les murs (The Class) is a 2008 film about a class of teenagers in an inner-city Paris school and their teacher, M. Marin. It stars François Bégaudeau as the teacher, who also wrote the screenplay, adapted from a novel he wrote inspired by his own teaching experiences.
If you don’t know the film, here’s a subtitled version of the trailer:
The turning point in the film, and one of the most dramatic moments in the story, centres on a single word. Since the start of the film, M. Marin has had a teasing, sometimes slightly mocking attitude towards the students, which has been met with a healthy disrespect coming back at him. On this day, though, he pushes things too far and openly insults two of his students. A line has been crossed, the class is in uproar, and there will be serious consequences for teacher and pupils alike.
To set the scene: Esmerelda and Louise are the class representatives, who, as part of their role, get to sit in on teachers’ meetings. The previous day they attended such a meeting and annoyed M. Marin with their whispering and giggling. Today in class he discovers that they have passed on sensitive information from the meeting to their classmates, including some negative remarks he made about one of them. As the mood in the class turns mutinous and M. Marin gets increasingly flustered, he starts to criticise the two girls for how they behaved during the meeting, and the following exchange occurs:
Louise : Mais nous, on a fait juste notre rôle, hein, rien de plus !
Esmerelda : On dit ce qui s’est passé au conseil de classe.
M. Marin : Ouais, bien sûr, ouais. Je n’avais pas cette impression-là, moi. Quand je vous ai vues ricaner là, un moment pendant le conseil, moi j’ai eu un peu mal, ouais ? Ça m’a fait un peu mal pour vous.
Esmerelda : Ah, bon ?
M. Marin : Et j’ai trouvé que c’était ni le lieu ni le moment de le faire. Et que c’était pas très sérieux pour tout dire, d’accord ?
Esmerelda : Ouais, ben, ça dérangeait personne en tout cas.
M. Marin : Ah, mais si ! Si, si. Ah, non, non, non, non, non. Moi, ça me dérangeait, et je crois en plus pouvoir dire que ça dérangeait des autres aussi.
Esmerelda : Non, non, non. Ça dérangeait que vous.
M. Marin : Si, si. Moi, je suis désolé, mais rire comme ça en plein conseil de classe, c’est ce que j’appelle une attitude de pétasses.
Louise : Quoi ?
Esmerelda : Eh, mais vous pétez un câble ou quoi ?
What did he just call them? Here’s how the English subtitles translate the dialogue:
We’re just doing our job. / Yeah.
We say what happens at the staff meeting.
Yes, of course.
I didn’t get that feeling
When I saw you two giggling, I felt bad.
I felt bad for you.
Really? / It was not the time or the place to giggle.
That’s not responsible.
Well, it didn’t bother anyone.
Yes, it did.
It bothered me and the others as well. / No way.
To giggle during a meeting like that is behaving like a slut.
Are you out of your mind?
The English insult in the subtitles certainly works in the film. It would believably trigger the student outrage against the teacher and the disciplinary proceedings that follow. But is it right?
When they come to talk about the insult later on, the student and the teacher have very different ideas about what the word means:
Esmerelda : Déjà, pour moi, pétasse, ça veut dire prostituée.
M. Marin : Une pétasse, c’est une fille pas maligne qui ricane bêtement.
And dictionaries also disagree. The Petit Robert defines pétasse as :
prostituée [employé le plus souvent comme injure]
while Le Dictionnaire de la Zone, which specializes in up-to-the-minute slang usage, says it means :
femme d´allure vulgaire, provocante, aguichante
which, while maybe not as innocent as M. Marin’s own definition of the word, is closer to his version of it than it is to Esmerelda’s.
So it does seem that M. Marin’s insult, while it’s definitely inappropriate language for the classroom, might genuinely mean different things to different people, especially if they’re people of different ages and backgrounds like M. Marin and Esmerelda. He thinks he’s accusing Esmerelda and Louise of behaving like dumb, giggling girls; they hear him calling them prostitutes.
Pity the poor translators who had to try to get these nuances across in the English subtitles. I think we can probably agree that they didn’t quite manage it, and I think we can also probably agree that we couldn’t have managed any better if it had been up to us to do it. Sometimes there simply is no word in English that will translate the full meaning of a French one, with all its connotations and ambiguities. Lucky for us, then, that we can deal with the French words directly, without having to rely on the subtitles!
Modern Languages at university form part of a family of subjects, along with history, English, philosophy and several others, known as the Humanities. This week’s Good Reason to study modern languages is because it’s a humanities subject, and because all the humanities are important. (You can find the other reasons by clicking the ‘100 Reasons’ tag at the bottom of this post.) The American writer and academic, Francine Prose, makes an eloquent case for studying the humanities in a recent article, and suggests why these subjects might be more important than ever in today’s world. Here’s an extract:
Those of us who teach and study are aware of what these areas of learning provide: the ability to think critically and independently; to tolerate ambiguity; to see both sides of an issue; to look beneath the surface of what we are being told; to appreciate the ways in which language can help us understand one another more clearly and profoundly – or, alternately, how language can conceal and misrepresent. They help us learn how to think, and they equip us to live in – to sustain – a democracy.
Studying the classics and philosophy teaches students where we come from, and how our modes of reasoning have evolved over time. Learning foreign languages, and about other cultures, enables students to understand how other societies resemble or differ from our own. Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?
I don’t believe that the humanities can make you a decent person. We know that Hitler was an ardent Wagner fan and had a lively interest in architecture. But literature, art and music can focus and expand our sense of what humans can accomplish and create. The humanities teach us about those who have gone before us; a foreign language brings us closer to those with whom we share the planet. The humanities can touch those aspects of consciousness that we call intellect and heart – organs seemingly lacking among lawmakers whose views on health care suggest not only zero compassion but a poor understanding of human experience, with its crises and setbacks.
Courses in the humanities are as formative and beneficial as the classes that will replace them. Instead of Shakespeare or French, there will be (perhaps there already are) college classes in how to trim corporate spending – courses that instruct us to eliminate “frivolous” programs of study that might actually teach students to think.
In 1813, Germaine de Staël published a seminal work called De l’Allemagne, which offered a wide-ranging introduction to German romantic literature and philosophy. She had long been an advocate of learning from one’s neighbours and had a particular admiration for the British political system. She had also written Corinne ou l’Italie, a novel which suggested that Italy, at the time a fragmented series of little duchies, principalities and papal States, could unite around its common cultural heritage. She was very interested in what languages and reading foreign texts or those written in the past can teach us:
Comment pourrait-on, sans la connaissance des langues, sans l’habitude de la lecture, communiquer avec ces hommes qui ne sont plus, et que nous sentons si bien nos amis, nos concitoyens, nos alliés ? Il faut être médiocre de cœur pour se refuser à de si nobles plaisirs. Ceux-là seulement qui remplissent leur vie de bonnes œuvres peuvent se passer de toute étude : l’ignorance, dans les hommes oisifs, prouve autant la sécheresse de l’âme que la légèreté de l’esprit.
Enfin, il reste encore une chose vraiment belle et morale, dont l’ignorance et la frivolité ne peuvent jouir : c’est l’association de tous les hommes qui pensent, d’un bout de l’Europe à l’autre.
This is one of the extracts included in the anthology of texts mainly from the long eighteenth century, freely available to download here. All of them deal with the subject of Europe which seemed to us to be particularly topical. There are pieces taken from works by major figures like Rousseau or Voltaire – and others who did not write in French, like Gibbon or Kant. There are also some by forgotten authors. Most are short, some of them are almost aphoristic, a few of them are in verse. They all show that during the Enlightenment (and indeed before), thinkers were wondering about political integration, ties with neighbouring lands like Turkey or the Maghreb, common cultural practises and social rituals, but also about the role individuals might play in shaping the future of international relations.
Putting together the anthology was a collective effort. Like Tolérance. Le combat des Lumières, published in the aftermath of the January 2015 killings in Paris, it was carried out under the aegis of the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle. Like its predecessor, it was a collaborative effort, piloted by my the Professor of French and Italian from the university of Augsburg, Rotraud von Kulessa, and by myself, with the help of colleagues from different countries. This, however, is only part of the story. We want people, wherever they are, to be able to use the book, to read it freely, to download it, to dip into it or to read it from cover to cover… That is already possible now. We also want it to be available to people who do not speak French or who would benefit from having the texts in two languages. Tolérance was translated into English in an amazing manner by Caroline Warman and 102 students and academics from Oxford—if you have not seen it yet, this is where you can find it:
Our plan is to translate L’idée d’Europe in the same way. Language students from all over Oxford and their tutors are getting involved and once the work is finished and the book online, we will make sure you get the inside story on this blog so… enjoy reading L’idée de l’Europe in its initial French version and watch this space for The Idea of Europe.