All posts by simonrkemp

Is Donald Trump bright? It’s a translation issue

This post by Professor Julie Curtis originally appeared on the Oxford Creative Multilingualism website.

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?

In September 2015 Donald Trump reproached former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – one of his political rivals who speaks Spanish fluently – saying that he should “set an example and speak English while in the United States.” Trump is also currently obsessed with building an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. If you are a linguist, you learn to listen as well as to hear, to interpret as well as to understand: the trouble with walls is that you can hear nothing coming through from the other side.

Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.

Entre les murs (The Class): What does the teacher call his students?

posted by Simon Kemp

(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.

What?

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!

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages, Reason 90: Because the Humanities Matter

posted by Simon Kemp

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.

You can find the full article here.

Europe

posted by Catriona Seth

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:

http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/418/r

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.

 

French Film Competition – The Winners

 

posted by Simon Kemp

As promised last week, here are extracts from the winning entries in our French film competition.

First, here is part of Sophie Still’s reimagining of the ending of Jean de Florette. Our judges said her new end to the story ‘both captured the mood and character of the film and dramatically reworked the ending’.

Manon is standing, holding a furry, wriggling mass in her arms. Once again, she is standing in Ugolin’s garden and once again, he is nowhere to be found. She approaches another flowerbed of plants and vegetables, crouches and sets the rabbit down in the soil.

Manon: There you are, little rabbit.

The rabbit sniffs at a bean plant and begins to nibble on a lettuce leaf.

Manon: That’s right. Feel free to eat whatever you want!

Suddenly an out-of-breath Ugolin rushes into the garden.

Ugolin: (holding up the secateurs, shouting angrily) Looking for something? How dare you destroy my flowers! Do you know how much they were worth?

Manon jumps in surprise, revealing the rabbit which is munching happily on the vegetables. He screams.

My plants! That’s it you’ve had it now!

Ugolin lunges towards the flowerbed. Manon screams and backs away quickly but he grabs the rabbit instead and dangles it by its ears.

Manon: (shouting) No! Put him down! Don’t touch my rabbit!

Ugolin: (grinning manically) But little girl, he’s not your rabbit anymore. He has come into my garden and eaten my plants – that makes him a pest, which means I’m allowed to do this…

He drops the rabbit onto the ground in front of him and snatches up the shovel that was leaning against the wall of the house. He raises it above his head.

Manon: (screaming) No! No!

Ugolin brings down the shovel and crushes the rabbit. Manon bursts into tears and screams and screams. Before he can do anything else, she dives in, scoops up the rabbit’s broken body and runs as fast as she can down the hillside. Ugolin calls after her.

Ugolin: Come back in here again and you’ll be next!

******

Manon hands the rabbit to Jean, who examines it carefully.

Jean: Oh my! Poor creature. Did a fox do this?

She wipes a tear from her eye and sniffles but does not reply. Jean picks up his shovel and begins to dig.

Jean: We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Monsieur –

Manon: (quietly) Pierre

Jean: Monsieur Pierre who lived a short but happy life. He loved lettuce leaves and we loved him. He will be missed.

He picks up the rabbit and is placing it carefully in its deep grave when he nearly drops it in surprise.

What is this? The bottom of this grave is full of mud! But if there is mud, that must mean that there is—

Manon: (bursts out) Water!

Secondly, here is an extract from Lidija Beric’s new ending for Paris nous appartient, which the judges described as a ‘brilliant and ingenious reworking’ which ‘perfectly captures the darkness and complexity of the original’.

« Pourquoi lui as-tu dit de venir? »
Nos yeux se sont rencontrés et je l’ai vu, j’ai vu ce mélange de haine et d’amour quand il m’a regardée.
‘Terry !’
Je n’ai daigné répondre. Nous avons attendu dans le silence comme les ombres calmes au milieu d’une tempête.
Les pas faibles d’Anne ont soudain pu être écoutés et Philip a craqué. Il a crié encore « Pourquoi ? Pourquoi lâche –»
« Il est nécessaire qu’elle vienne. » Ma voix était monotone.
Les coups frappés à la porte ont transpercé l’air comme des balles.
« Ta nécessité est arrivée. » Il a craché.
« Comment oses-tu? Je n’ai rien ! Je n’ai rien sans mon enfant ! C’est toi, tu as tous ce que tu veux-»
« Tais-toi! Elle est folle, ton enfant, elle sera bientôt sur le point de mourir! Quand oublieras-tu la passé et te concentreras-tu à l’avenir ? Paris est en danger des forces étrangères. Si nous restions là sans rien faire-»
« Je vous écoute ! Terry ! » a-t-Anne poussé des cris.
Je n’ai réagi qu’en baissant ma voix. « Pourquoi penses-tu que je l’ai dit à Anne ? »
« Pas encore, évidemment-»
« Je vais lui dire maintenant. »
« Et quoi, alors ? Ce que tu as dit à Juan ? »
« Qui sait quel rôle je vais jouer aujourd’hui ?» j’ai dit énigmatiquement.
J’ai ouvert la porte pendant que Philip a disparu aux ténèbres de la pièce voisine.
« Anne. Montrez-moi. »
Anne n’a pas du tout hésité à me donner la note de suicide.
Je lui ai mené dans le salon. C’était une interprétation maintenant. J’ai allumé la platine pour que la musique de Juan puisse m’accompagner avec l’air mystérieux.
Anne a deviné tout de suite.  « C’est l’enregistrement de Juan ? »
« Qui d’autre ? » J’ai dit du ton condescendant. « Et je sais ce que vous pensez. Que j’ai trahi Gérard parce que je ne le lui ai donné pas. Ma raison était simple. Je ne pouvais pas le laisser partir. Cela aurait signifié que j’avais oublié Juan. Ma connexion avec lui était si forte que je devais garder l’enregistrement. »
« C’était quoi, votre connexion ? Que l’aviez-vous tué ? » Anne a demandé.
« Les agents de la Falange l’a tué. »
« Ce n’était pas suicide ? Mais vous lui avez dit quelque chose. Quelque chose qui l’a affecté…»
« La même chose que je vais vous dire. Maintenant. Êtes-vous prête ? C’est une vérité de la  puissance incroyable. »
« Vous avez pour but de me détruire ? »
« Ca dépend. Voudriez-vous vous asseoir ? »
Comme si elle était dans un rêve, elle est tombée dans la chaise.

We’ll launch a new competition at the same time next year, and we look forward as always to the wildly creative contributions we receive.

French Film Competition 2017

 

posted by Jenny Oliver and Jonathan Patterson

2017 sees the sixth year of Oxford University’s French film competition, in which school pupils are invited to watch (a) selected French film(s), and write an essay or script re-imagining the ending. As in previous years, the competition was open to students across secondary school year groups, and in 2017 we received almost 100 entries, from over 40 different schools.

The judges were delighted by the incredibly strong field of applications, and hugely enjoyed reading (and watching!) the entries. Across the age ranges, students from across the country had clearly enjoyed tackling the creative challenge set. This year, entrants were given the choice of two films in each category: one ‘classic’, and one contemporary. Shortlisting was not easy; there were a great number of highly inventive pieces that showed impressive maturity. The most successful entries managed to develop plot and character convincingly from the tone established in earlier scenes, picking up smoothly from the set starting-point, with compelling dialogue and plausible innovations, all within the specified limit of 1500 words.

The winner of the years 7-11 category was Sophie Still, whose screenplay re-imagining of the ending of Jean de Florette both captured the mood and character of the film and dramatically reworked the ending. Runner-up in this category was Dylan Ferguson for his humorous and imaginative reworking of Mic Macs. Highly commended by the judges were Peter James Cocks and Ella Keith, while Caroline Mirza, Sarah Shah, Charlotte Cheah, Lucy Horobin, Arabella Hall and Carol Habib were all commended.

In the older age category (years 12-13) the winner was Lidija Beric for her brilliant and ingenious reworking of Paris Nous Appartient, which perfectly captures the darkness and complexity of the original. Runner-up is Matilda Butterworth, who impressed the judges with her vibrant and tonally sensitive new ending to Microbe et Gasoil. In this category, Sophie Daisy Elliott and Eilidh Morrice Lang were highly commended, while commendations go to Ilana Pearce, Lucy Morgan,Tom Owens, Louisa Van Aeken, Beth Molyneux, Finlay Marum, and Ella Williams.

We’ll be posting some extracts from the winning entries on next week’s blog.

 

Some more specific notes from the judges on the entries for individual films follow below:

 

Jean de Florette: Pagnol’s classic received a large number of entries, many of which were very promising. A number of excellent entries majored on the divided loyalties of Ugolin; others gave a fresh perspective to the Soubeyran deception as perceived through Manon’s eyes. The most convincing entries were those that developed the motifs of tragedy, greed and/or revenge, engaging all the main characters, with a strong sense of cinematographic drama.

Mic Macs: the best entries were humorous and imaginative, but balanced this with great attention to plot and character motivation, and kept the underlying topic of the arms trade clearly in sight. Many entries developed the psychological profile of Bazil and/or his relationship with Elastic Girl, and quite a few played in dramatic ways with the competitive dynamics between the villains Marconi and de Fenouillet.

Microbe et Gasoil: the most successful re-imaginings of the ending maintained convincing characterisation, but added a significant twist to the denouement. Many entries reflected sensitively and thoughtfully on the relationship between the two main protagonists, and several very successfully maintained director Michel Gondry’s quirky and distinctive sense of tone.

Paris Nous Appartient: rewriting Rivette’s complex, contorted screenplay was a demanding task, and the judges were extremely impressed with the overall standard of entries. Several played on the motif of appartenance with considerable sophistication. In keeping with the original, the very best entries were those which shifted the action around Paris, offering terse dialogue and unexpected plot twists that did not attempt to resolve or demystify the dénouement to a neat conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone

 

posted by Oxford’s Creative Multilingualism project

When Creative Multilingualism hosted LinguaMania at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery was taken over by a crowd-sourced version of Harry Potter. During the evening event, visitors to the gallery were asked to help translate Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sentence-by-sentence into whichever languages they happened to know. The translations were written on a giant scroll rolled out along the length of the gallery, allowing visitors to see Oxford’s linguistic diversity unfold.

The activity was entitled “Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone”, with a nod in the direction of the British Museum, home to the Rosetta Stone itself. It proved to be one of the most popular at LinguaMania and people queued up to be able to contribute and engage with this celebration of Oxford’s linguistic talents. During the course of the evening, the team collected over 88 translated sentences in 51 different languages, ranging from Chinese and Esperanto to Welsh. Towards the end of the event, the scroll moved to the Atrium in the centre of the Ashmolean Museum and was unfurled over the balcony, allowing LinguaMania participants to see the many translations which had been collected. This was followed by a recitation of a section of Harry Potter in various languages, so that visitors to LinguaMania could hear as well as see the hidden multilingualism in Oxford’s community.

The activity was conceived and organised by doctoral students Henriette Arndt, Annina Hessel and Anna-Maria Ramezanzadeh from the Oxford University Department of Education. In the below video they describe why they chose Harry Potter to help highlight Oxford’s linguistic diversity and explain how the activity gives participants the opportunity to showcase their creativity through translation. You can see photos of Harry Potter and the Rosetta Stone below.

 

Bringing Proust’s Imaginary Music to Life

posted by Jennifer Rushworth

Many people will have heard of Proust’s ‘madeleine’ moment, where a piece of cake dipped in tea has the power to revive full technicolour memories of the narrator’s past.

Fewer people will have delved further into Proust’s long novel A la recherche du temps perdu (translated originally as Remembrance of Things Past and more recently as In Search of Lost Time). Even first-year French students at Oxford only read the first two hundred pages of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way/The Way by Swann’s). And there are seven volumes in total to get through (not unlike that more modern classic, Harry Potter…)!

Do read on, however, and you will encounter one of my favourite characters and some of my favourite passages. Meet Vinteuil, a composer. Vinteuil is a strange composer, however, for he is purely fictional or imaginary.

Early readers of Proust’s novel were obsessed with identifying the man behind the mask, and suggested a number of famous French composers whose music you may have heard or played: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Franck… In contrast, more recently readers have quite rightly tended instead to read Vinteuil as pointing not to any real composer, but rather as a specifically literary, entirely imaginary manifestation.

What does it mean for a composer to be fictional or imaginary? It means that their music is essentially silent, heard only in language, and often mediated by the written responses of different characters within the novel.

From Proust’s novel we have only sparse details about Vinteuil’s life. He was a village organist and piano teacher, widowed, and with a daughter. His music earned him neither fame nor riches during his lifetime. Yet two of Vinteuil’s compositions emerge in the novel as sublime works of genius: a sonata for piano and violin, and a septet (a piece for seven instruments, which are never entirely coherently listed by Proust).

Generously supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund, I am leading a project this academic year (2016–17) to bring to life Vinteuil’s violin sonata.

How can Proust’s novel act as a catalyst for new pieces of music? And what will these new compositions tell us about how musicians read and respond to Proust’s literary music?

Two undergraduate students in Music at Worcester College, Oxford have been commissioned each to write a violin sonata responding to the passages from Proust’s novel where Vinteuil’s sonata is heard and described. These passages have been wonderfully translated into English by a team of undergraduates in French at Oxford, led by Madeleine Chalmers (Cambridge), and can be consulted here in both French and English.

If you can, do join us for a free final concert on Friday 5 May 2017 at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, to hear these new commissions, alongside readings from Proust’s novel. Free tickets can be booked here.

Alternatively, the new music will be also be available and recorded online, so do check back in May to hear the music of Vinteuil newly imagined by two student composers.

For more information and to explore this project further, please consult the website: https://proustandmusic.wordpress.com/

Letters Home: Le Lunch

In the second Letter Home from our archive, Sam Gormley,  French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne, tells of trouble at the hotel reception. New weekly posts from next Wednesday.

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.

(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

Letters Home: The Year Abroad Game

In case you are going away over the Easter break, this week and next week we’re re-posting a couple of letters home from our travelling students on their modern languages year abroad in the third year of the degree. First, from Rowan Lyster, who studied French and Linguistics at Somerville, the Year Abroad Game:

I’ve decided it’s time that the secret competitiveness of being-on-a-year-abroad was made official, and have created the Year Abroad Game. Rewards are measured in smug-points; any inconsistencies in the rules are down to artistic licence (and definitely not the fact I couldn’t be bothered to make up a proper scoring system).

START: You find yourself trapped in a foreign land where nobody has heard of Doctor Who. Will you survive? 

Gain 5 points for each cool attraction you discover in your new hometown.

Such as the ice rink, which has a disco section complete with a light tunnel and hills. In classic French style, this is completely dark, and full of terrifyingly reckless locals. Great fun, despite frequent near-death experiences.

Gain 2 points (and a few pounds) every time you sample a local foodstuff

such as crêpes, of which I’ve eaten a shocking number since discovering the heaven-in-a-pancake that is Nutella with Speculoos-spread.

Gain 10 points if you wring a smile out of one of the bitter and twisted administrators you’ll no doubt encounter.

Such as the receptionist of my accommodation, who regularly tells off residents for the heinous crime of asking for our post. After a determined campaign of sickly sweet bonjour’s, I miraculously got a friendly smile back.

Lose 15 points and go back 3 spaces if you let out a snarky comment to one of the bitter and twisted administrators who’ll no doubt be pointlessly rude to you.

Believe me, the former is ultimately a better way of getting things done.

Gain 30 points if you get a non-disastrous haircut during your time abroad.

I managed this the other day, despite an alarming lack of French hairdressing vocabulary. Aside from nearly accepting an unwanted fringe, it went surprisingly well!

Gain 20 points if you go on a spontaneous trip with no particular destination in mind.

We accidentally did this after attempting to go to Nîmes by bus (it turns out there is no bus to Nîmes, despite the confident assertions of 6-8 locals who sent us on a frankly impressive wild goose chase). After giving up on Nîmes, we hopped on a bus and ended up in Pézenas, a gorgeous town an hour or so away.

 

 

Pézenas

Gain 15 points for each new town you visit.

The Nîmes story has a happy ending; we finally made it there (by train) the other day!

 

 

We saw this gem…

 

 

…and this badass.

Gain A MILLION POINTS if you ever manage to actually receive CAF (the French housing allowance).

I was lulled into a false sense of security by a letter saying I’d been approved for this, but apparently that’s just a hilarious prank they like to play before asking you for every document you’ve ever heard of and a lot that you haven’t. On the plus side, there’s free money available to anyone willing to undergo the seven labours of Hercules.

Lose 1 point every time you accidentally insert snippets of English e.g. ‘yknow,’ and ‘like,’ into your target language.

This is particularly embarrassing in official meetings.

Gain 10 points for each new hobby you take up.

I’ve joined a walking group. Yes, I have become my parents… It’s actually a great way of exploring, as the people with cars drive everyone to somewhere cool.

Gain 15 points per nationality for all the international students you manage to befriend.

So far I’ve met people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Algeria, America, Switzerland, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

Gain 30 points if you do something ridiculously brave that you’d never do at home.

I went with a German friend to a café that had libre-service instruments, and eventually decided to go for the plunge and play the piano in public. Nobody booed, although hell may have frozen over.

Wild card: OH MY GOD ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN if you completely change your plans for the year.

By ‘completely’ I mean ‘quite a lot’ – I’m moving house at Christmas and have replaced a lot of my study-time with volunteering-time, which conveniently involves interacting with Actual French People.

Gain 100 points if you get mistaken for a French person by another foreigner.

This has happened to me a few times, albeit briefly. I’m also often asked if I’m German, due to my Nordic good looks (I like to think).

And if you get mistaken for a French person by an Actual French Person

Go home, you have won.