All posts by simonrkemp

Best of Blog: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ (m.pl.) or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (f.pl.), the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.

 

Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.


1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

Best of Blog: Translating Cats

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

posted by Simon Kemp

In an earlier post, I included Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet, Les Chats, and a translation of it by Roy Campbell. I took both from this website, which is worth a look for anyone interested in Baudelaire, or in translation, since it contains every poem from Baudelaire’s collection, Les Fleurs du mal, each accompanied by four different English translations.

Anyone who thought translating was simply a mechanical process of transposing words and phrases from one language into another would learn a lesson from these competing versions of each of Baudelaire’s poems. Let’s take a brief look back at the cats.

Here, once again, is Baudelaire’s original:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

— Charles Baudelaire

And here is Roy Campbell’s translation again:

Cats

Sages austere and fervent lovers both,
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds.
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle,
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle,
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

Now, take a look at these three other translations of the same poem, by George Dillon, Claire Trevien and William Aggeler, and see how differently the text comes out each time:

Cats

No one but indefatigable lovers and old
Chilly philosophers can understand the true
Charm of these animals serene and potent, who
Likewise are sedentary and suffer from the cold.

They are the friends of learning and of sexual bliss;
Silence they love, and darkness, where temptation breeds.
Erebus would have made them his funereal steeds,
Save that their proud free nature would not stoop to this.

Like those great sphinxes lounging through eternity
In noble attitudes upon the desert sand,
They gaze incuriously at nothing, calm and wise.

Their fecund loins give forth electric flashes, and
Thousands of golden particles drift ceaselessly,
Like galaxies of stars, in their mysterious eyes.

— George Dillon

Cats

The ardent lovers and the stern students
in their maturity, love equally,
the gentle, powerful cats, pride of the family,
they too feel the cold and favour indolence.

Companions of knowledge and desire
they seek the silent horrors darkness breeds,
Erebus would take them for his funeral steeds,
were they able to soften their pride.

They take as they dream the noble pose
of the great sphinxes, reclined in desolate land,
lost, it seems, in an endless doze

Their fecund loins brim with enchanting glitter,
whilst their haunting eyes at random flicker
with particles of gold, like fine sand.

— Claire Trevien

Cats

Both ardent lovers and austere scholars
Love in their mature years
The strong and gentle cats, pride of the house,
Who like them are sedentary and sensitive to cold.

Friends of learning and sensual pleasure,
They seek the silence and the horror of darkness;
Erebus would have used them as his gloomy steeds:
If their pride could let them stoop to bondage.

When they dream, they assume the noble attitudes
Of the mighty sphinxes stretched out in solitude,
Who seem to fall into a sleep of endless dreams;

Their fertile loins are full of magic sparks,
And particles of gold, like fine grains of sand,
Spangle dimly their mystic eyes.

— William Aggeler

As you can see, many of the equivalent lines between the translations have barely a word in common. Much of the disparity stems from the translators’ desire to capture not only the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, but also something of its form: its rhyme scheme and metre, as well as, within the lines,  sound-patterns and structures of emphasis, symmetry or repetition. Poetic form isn’t the only factor in the differences, though: note, for instance, that the four translations have four different words for ‘savants’ in Baudelaire’s opening line (‘sages’, ‘philosophers’, ‘students’, ‘scholars’), but only one of these choices is determined by the rhyme (Trevien’s ‘students’/‘indolence’).

We can also see how the different translators have different priorities. Aggeler’s translation, for instance, sticks very closely to the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, translating almost word-for-word. He goes for the most accurate expression of the original meaning even where it might appear clumsy, such as translating both ‘orgueil’ and ‘fierté’ as ‘pride’, and both ‘songeant’ and ‘rêve’ as ‘dream’. In capturing the sense so faithfully, though, he has completely abandoned the form: his poem has neither rhyme nor rhythm, and no more sound-patterning within its lines than might occur by chance.

The other three all sacrifice precision of meaning to some extent in order to mimic Baudelaire’s form. Campbell recreates Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme beautifully, but at the cost of a few deviations from Baudelaire’s meaning and a couple of awkward moments: rather than ‘sable fin’ (fine sand), the gold flecks in cats’ eyes are now ‘shingle’ (basically, pebbles), and Baudelaire’s final image of cats’ eyes is rather let down by the tacked-on ‘as they glance’ Campbell needs to rhyme with ‘trance’ in an earlier line.

Dillon goes even further in imitating the form. His poem not only recreates the rhyme scheme, it also retains Baudelaire’s twelve syllables per line. Not surprisingly, his poem ends up furthest from Baudelaire’s original sense and imagery. In particular, he seems to have been left with a bunch of unused syllables in each stanza, which he’s filled up with little additions of his own invention here and there, like ‘where temptation breeds’, ‘upon the desert sand’, or ‘galaxies of stars’.

Trevien strikes a good compromise between all these positions.Her lines drift in and out of traditional English iambic pentameter, and her rhyme scheme drifts between full rhymes (‘breeds’/‘steeds’) and half-rhymes (‘glitter’/‘flicker’). This loosening of the straitjacket of versification allows her to capture Baudelaire’s meaning and images more closely than the other rhyme-and-rhythm translators. A little reshuffling and a touch of artistic licence take her further from the sense of the poem than Aggeler’s version, but at least in Trevien’s, unlike Aggeler’s, you can still see that the poem is a traditional sonnet.

Trevien is my favourite, but my point is that, in literary translation, not only can we not answer the question, ‘Which is the correct translation?’, we can’t even answer the question ‘Which is the best translation?’ without a heavy dose of personal taste in the evaluation. Each of the translations manages to capture some aspects of Baudelaire’s original poem, and sacrifices other aspects in order to do so. There’s no objective measure of which aspects are the important ones. The process is so fraught with difficult decisions that another of Baudelaire’s translators, Clive Scott, managed to write a whole book about the agonizing trade-offs involved.

To finish, my friend Mike Metcalf reminds me that there’s another translation of Baudelaire’s Les Chats, by the French writer Georges Perec and included in his novel, La Disparition. Perec translates the poem from French into… French, but a very particular variety of French. If you haven’t heard of this extraordinary novel, then I’ll tell you about it (and its equally extraordinary English translation, A Void) in a later post, but hold off googling it for now until you’ve had a good look at the poem below and tried to work out what Perec has done. The trick is simple to grasp, but oh so difficult to pull off. Over to Perec:

Nos chats

Amants brûlants d’amour, Savants aux pouls glaciaux
Nous aimons tout autant dans nos saisons du jour
Nos chats puissants mais doux, honorant nos tripots
Qui, sans nous, ont trop froid, nonobstant nos amours.

Ami du Gai Savoir, ami du doux plaisir
Un chat va sans un bruit dans un coin tout obscur
Oh Styx, tu l’aurais pris pour ton poulain futur
Si tu avais, Pluton, aux Sclavons pu l’offrir!

Il a, tout vacillant, la station d’un hautain
Mais grand sphinx somnolant au fond du Sahara
Qui paraît s’assoupir dans un oubli sans fin:

Son dos frôlant produit un influx angora
Ainsi qu’un gros diamant pur, l’or surgit, scintillant
Dans son voir nictitant divin, puis triomphant.

3 thoughts on “Translating Cats”

  1. Thanks for these most interesting examples. I agree that Trevien is by far the best of the translators here who try to preserve poetic form, but there are still some terrible word choices: for instance, haunting for mystique is a mistranslation, pure and simple. There’s no good reason for it, either, since the syllabication of the two words is the same.

    Which brings me to your point about there being no objective standards by which to judge better and worse translations of poetry. It seems fairly clear that any translation which distorts a poem’s meaning is a worse translation than one which doesn’t. So, my bias, if you want to call it that, is for translations that preserve the meaning, including, insofar as possible, connotations, associations, and nuances, over form.

    For me, then, Aggeler is far and away the best translator of Baudelaire sampled here, and I would also disagree that no one could tell from looking at his translation that Baudelaire has written a sonnet. The stanzaic structure and number of lines will strongly suggest the form to any reader who knows the technical requirements of the sonnet in the first place.

    I also think that the best way to read foreign-language poetry is in a bilingual edition with the original and the translation on facing pages. Even if one has only “schoolboy French”, one can get a sense of the form, meter, and rhyme scheme from Baudelaire’s poem, and also, via a translation such as Eggeler’s, grasp the meaning.

    P.S. Perec omitted the letter “e” (no “Googling” involved).

  2. I have just published my own translation of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, available on Amazon in three editions. Here is my version of Les Chats, which I hope compares favourably with the above translations:

    When ardent lovers or austere scholars grow old,
    Both are disposed to love, in their maturity,
    The powerful, gentle cat, pride of the family,
    Who like them loves to sit, and like them shuns the cold.

    Friends of both science and of sensuality,
    Cats like to seek the silent horror of the dark;
    As stallions of Erebus they’d have made their mark,
    Had they to servitude inclined their dignity.

    As they dream, they adopt the noble attitude
    Of a great sphinx, recumbent in deep solitude,
    Seeming to dream forever in its native land.

    From their generous loins mysterious sparks arise,
    And particles of gold, like grains of finest sand,
    Reflect like stars behind their enigmatic eyes.

  3. I have made one or two amendments to the above translation. I have changed “disposed” to “inclined” and and have made slight alterations to the two tercets, especially the last line which now has a more literal translation.

    LVI. – CATS

    When ardent lovers and austere scholars grow old,
    Both are inclined to love, in their maturity,
    The powerful, gentle cat, pride of the family,
    Who like them loves to sit and like them shuns the cold.

    Friends of both science and of sensuality,
    Cats like to seek the silent horror of the dark;
    As stallions of Erebus they’d have made their mark,
    Had they to servitude inclined their dignity.

    As they sleep, they adopt the noble attitude
    Of the great sphinx, recumbent in deep solitude,
    Seeming to dream forever in its desert land;

    From their abundant loins magical sparks arise,
    And particles of gold, like grains of finest sand,
    Confusedly bestar their enigmatic eyes.

Best of Blog: Who owns Le Petit Prince?

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

50 francs St Ex

posted by Catriona Seth

It is one of the best-loved tales in the world, translated into more than 270 languages, and with over 150 million copies sold. First published in 1943, Le Petit Prince has been turned into musicals, films and pop-up books, spawned T-shirts, mugs, dolls and pencil-cases… Its hero figures, with pictures of a plane, a map and the writer, on the last 50 franc note issued by France before it joined the euro.

The book’s author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, was a pilot with the French Air Force (the ‘Armée de l’Air’) during his military service. He continued to fly on his return to civilian life, and worked for companies delivering mail from Toulouse to Dakar in Senegal and then within South America. He drew on his experience with the ‘Aéropostale’ in novels like Courrier Sud (1929—Southern Mail) and Vol de Nuit (1931—Night Flight)—and indeed in Le Petit Prince with its aviator-narrator who is alone in the desert. He was in the ‘Armée de l’Air’ at the start of the second world war—Pilote de Guerre (1942—Flight to Arras) is based on his memories of the period during which he earned the ‘Croix de Guerre’, a war service medal for his bravery in landing a damaged aircraft. He joined the resistance. After spending time in North America, he returned to France, via Algeria, Morocco and Sardinia, and became part of a unit charged with photographic missions to prepare detailed maps for the allied landings in the South of France (the ‘débarquement de Provence’). His unarmed plane, in which he was flying alone, went down just off Marseilles on July 31st 1944. Though the wreckage was located and brought up to the surface at the beginning of this century, no-one knows, even now, whether it was an accident or whether the aeroplane was shot down.

Vol de Nuit

The question of who owns intellectual property (texts, tunes etc.) was raised seriously just before the French Revolution by Beaumarchais, who is most famous nowadays for two plays: his 1775 Barbier de Séville and his 1784 Mariage de Figaro, the basis for Rossini and Mozart’s operas. The Revolutionary government sought to protect the rights of creators. There were discussions over the decades about the duration of exclusive ownership and what happened after an author’s death. The law has changed over the centuries. The French distinguish two types of ‘droits d’auteur’ or authors’ rights. The ‘droit moral’ or ‘moral right’, for instance, for Saint-Exupery to be considered the author of his books, for all eternity; the ‘droit patrimonial’ of his descendants to receive revenue generated by his works for a set number of years according to legal dispositions.

In much of the world, currently, heirs to a dead author enjoy rights associated with his or her works for 50 years, after which the writings are considered to be in the public domain. In the European Union, the term is 70 years, as a result of legal harmonisation agreed upon in 1993 but only applied in France since 1997. As Saint-Exupery died in 1944, his works should have become freely available on January 1st 2015—though they were already considered to be in the public domain in countries like India or Morocco which are not as generous in their protection of literary property rights as European law. In the U.K. or Ireland for instance, Le Petit Prince, like Vol de Nuit or Courrier Sud, has indeed been out of copyright for over a year. The same does not hold true for France. Before the EU came to an agreement regarding the time during which works would be protected, France applied a duration of 50 years post mortem but also had a special clause for those who had lived through one or other of the world wars (or both): the war years were deemed to count twice, so for ‘Saint-Ex’ as he is affectionately known, you need to add 8 years and 120 days to the 50 years everyone was granted. In addition, as Saint-Exupery was engaged in active service, he is deemed (like Apollinaire in 1918) to have died for his country—‘mort pour la France’ is the official designation—which means a 30 year gratification is granted. Result: (50+8+30) years+120 days, added to 1944, means that, as there is no retroactive application of the 70 year rule, Saint-Exupery’s texts will only come into the ‘domaine public’ in France in… April 2033.

50 francs St Ex revers (1)

Here is a brief news film (some of which is in English) about a recent adaptation of Le Petit Prince carried out with ‘la bénédiction’ (the blessing) of the Saint-Exupery family. A short series of questions follows. You may need to listen to the French voiceover two or three times before you can answer them. Answers are given first in French, then in English.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIDEO

De quelle nationalité est Mark Osborne ?

Où se diffuse et se diffusera le film d’animation tiré du Petit Prince ?

Pourquoi Osborne avait-il d’abord refusé de travailler sur Le Petit Prince ?

Pourquoi est-il difficile d’adapter une œuvre comme Le Petit Prince ?

Quand le DVD du Petit Prince sortira-t-il en France ?

Réponses

Mark Osborne est américain.

Le film est à l’affiche au Chili et en Colombie. Il sera bientôt diffusé au Mexique.

Osborne avait refusé de travailler sur Le Petit Prince car il pensait qu’il serait difficile de rester fidèle à l’histoire

Il est difficile d’adapter une œuvre comme Le Petit Prince car chacun s’en fait une interprétation personnelle.

Le DVD sortira en France le 2 décembre.

Answers

Mark Osborne is American.

The film is being projected in Chili and Colombia. It will soon be shown in Mexico.

Osborne initially refused to work on Le Petit Prince because he thought it would be hard to remain true to the story.

It is difficult to adapt a work like Le Petit Prince because everyone has their own personal interpretation.

The DVD will be available in France from December 2nd.

Quelques petites remarques. Un film est à l’affiche quand il est donné dans les cinémas (qu’on appelle parfois aussi les salles obscures) : les affiches devant les cinémas indiquent ce qui se joue à ce moment-là.

Le film sera diffusé à partir du 2 décembre prochain indique que le clip d’animation a probablement été réalisé peu avant le mois de décembre. Il y a donc un effet d’annonce.

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Kids’ Books Edition)

posted  by Simon Kemp

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.)

1.

 

2.

3.

4.

5.

 

Scroll down for answers…

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Should be ‘ils tendent le cou (‘they stretch their necks out’).
  2. Should be ‘qu’il fasse moins chaud’ (‘until it gets cooler’).
  3. Should be ‘rassemble’ (‘gathers’).
  4. Should be ‘s’écrie’ (‘shouts out’). ‘S’écrit’ means ‘writes to himself’.
  5. Should be ‘histoires’ (stories).

Images borrowed from the French website Bescherelle ta mère (note: contains adult language!).

Starting from Scratch

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:

German

Russian

Italian

Czech

Portuguese

Greek

Polish

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.
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“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.”

“Tiens la porte, Tinlaporre!”, Part Two

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posted by Simon Kemp

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’s a short article in French on the Hodor dubbers’ dilemma, if you’re interested to find out a bit more.

And here’s a 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…)

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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!’

“Tiens la porte, Tinlaporre!”

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posted by Simon Kemp

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.

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“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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

No et moi: What’s with the kitchen gadgets?

posted by Simon Kemp

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.

Spanish Flash Fiction Competition Results

 

A flash fiction by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso.

posted by Laura Lonsdale

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.

 

Judges’ remarks:

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.

 

Judges’ remarks:

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)

La Misión

Hoy morí.

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.

 

Judges’ remarks:

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!

 

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.