Category Archives: French literature

The Tutorial

posted by Simon Kemp

One thing we’re very proud of at Oxford is the tutorial teaching system. In most weeks of the undergraduate course you’ll write an essay on a topic to do with literature, linguistics, film or some other part of your course. You’ll hand it in for your tutor to read, and then you’ll have an hour, in a pair or trio, or occasionally just you, to talk through the topic with the tutor, exploring it from all angles, clearing up any questions or misunderstandings arising from the essay, and testing out your views. It’s a great way to really get to grips with a subject, and a chance to share ideas with a world expert in the topic. Here’s an example of a modern languages tutorial in action:

No et moi: Who lives in the Invisible City?

posted by Simon Kemp

‘La ville invisible’ (the invisible city) is the metaphor that introduces the final section of Lou’s presentation to her class in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. The novel reproduces the section in full (in fact, it’s the only part of Lou’s speech that the book does include). Here’s what she says:

Il y a cette ville invisible, au cœur même de la ville. Cette femme qui dort chaque nuit au même endroit, avec son duvet et des sacs. À même le trottoir. Ces hommes sous les ponts, dans les gares, ces gens allongés sur des cartons ou recroquevillés sur un banc. Un jour, on commence à les voir. Dans la rue, dans le métro. Pas seulement ceux qui font la manche. Ceux qui se cachent. On repère leur démarche, leur veste déformée, leur pull troué. Un jour on s’attache à une silhouette, à une personne, on pose des questions, on essaie de trouver des raisons, des explications, et puis on compte. Les autres, des milliers. Comme le symptôme de notre monde malade. Les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Mais moi je crois qu’il faut garder les yeux grands ouverts. Pour commencer. (p. 70)

 à même le trottoir : (right) on the pavement

recroquevillé : huddled up

faire la manche : to beg

se cacher: to hide

repérer: to spot, notice

la démarche : the way [they] walk

déformé: stretched out of shape

troué: with holes in it

 

So the ville invisible is the same city in which everyone else lives (Paris, in Lou’s case), but it is the city made up of homeless people. Her first examples are those we might expect: people sleeping on the streets surrounded by their belongings, under bridges, in stations, lying on cardboard or huddled on benches. Begging for small change. They’re invisible because people choose not to see them: embarrassed, afraid or indifferent, we walk past without acknowledging the presence of the homeless, acting as if there was nobody there.

But these are not the only people Lou is talking about, and this is not the only kind of invisibility in the invisible city. The homeless are not just the people we avoid looking at, but the people we see without realizing they are in distress. The second part of Lou’s paragraph focuses on the people who hide their homelessness, but whose status can be betrayed by small clues in their appearance:

On repère leur démarche: You can spot them by the way they walk (because of drugs or alcohol? untreated injuries? or simply the fact of having nowhere to go?)…

On repère […] leur veste déformée: You can spot them by a stretched-out jacket (bulked out by extra layers of clothing beneath it for warmth?)…

On repère […] leur pull troué: You can spot them by the holes in a worn-out jumper.

Lou has found herself starting to ‘tune in’ to the presence of these people, people like No, and she’s here encouraging her classmates to try to do the same thing. The first step is to see the invisible people, to start to realize just how many of them there are. Then you can try to do something to help them.

The idea of the invisible city crops up several more times in the course of the novel, for instance on p. 76 and 119. As Lou thinks more about it, it develops into an image of a parallel world, occupying the same space as ours but treated as if in a different dimension: ‘ce monde parallèle qui est pourtant la nôtre’ (p. 119). Lou refuses to accept that her world must remain separate from No’s. The story is her quest to find ‘un endroit où les mondes communiquent entre eux’ (p. 76).

No et moi: Just how clever is Lou?

posted by Simon Kemp

D’où vient qu’avec un Q.I. de 160 je ne suis pas foutue de faire un lacet ? (p. 13) says Lou in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi, looking down at her untied shoelace. An IQ of 160 is very high – it puts her on a par with Stephen Hawking. Her genius, and the effect it has on her life, comes up for discussion a few pages later in Lou’s first conversation with No, the homeless girl she meets at the station. No asks:

 

— T’as quel âge ?

— Treize ans. […]

— T’es en quelle classse ?

— En seconde.

— C’est pas l’âge normal, ça ?

— Ben… non. J’ai deux ans d’avance.

— Comment ça se fait ?

— J’ai sauté des classes. […] J’ai appris à lire quand j’étais à la maternelle, alors je ne suis pas allée au CP, et puis après j’ai sauté le CM1. (pp. 17-18)

This is one of the main ways Lou’s high intelligence has shaped the situation in the novel : she has skipped two years of school, and is a thirteen-year-old in a class of fifteen-year-olds. The references to the French school system might benefit from a little explanation. ‘Maternelle’, where Lou learned to read, is pre-school, which is not compulsory in France but available for three- to five-year-olds. Then come five years of École primaire (Primary School). They begin with a year of Cours préparatoire or CP, the first year that Lou skips), then two years of Cours élémentaire (CE1 and CE2), followed by two years of Cours moyen (CM1 and CM2), the first of which Lou also skips. After that comes collège, which is Middle School, equivalent to Years Seven to Ten in the British system. The class names count down from sixième (Year Seven) to troisième (Year 10). Finally come the three years of lycée (High School), beginning with seconde, where Lou is currently studying, then première, and finally terminale (Year Thirteen). The names are all feminine, by the way, because ‘la classe’ is a feminine noun.

Lou is not the only person in the novel to be in the ‘wrong’ year of school. Lucas is also in seconde, but at seventeen years old he’s two years out of step from the other direction. The opposite of ‘sauter une classe’ is ‘redoubler’, and redoublement, repeating a year, is obligatory in France for students who fail to make the required grade to progress to the next level at the end of the year. Having students of different ages in the same class is very common in France. Vigan only tweaks the typical situation a little to create the intriguing premise of the brilliant thirteen-year-old as classmate to the slacker seventeen-year-old, to allow their unlikely friendship to form.

There are other effects too of Lou’s cleverness on the story beyond setting up her relationship with Lucas. For a start, it allows Vigan to narrate the story with the sophistication of an adult. Lou does not write like a normal thirteen-year-old: her grammar and vocabulary are of adult standard, and her use of narrative structure, metaphor, and everything else you expect of a novel are operating at the height of Vigan’s storytelling powers, without it seeming implausible that a thirteen-year-old should be doing this.

But what’s crucial to the story is not just that Lou has the intelligence of an adult. It’s that she combines the intelligence of an adult with the personality of a thirteen-year-old. She has a passion for justice, and when she sees homeless people in the streets she has a burning desire to put things right. Older people may be content to walk on by, blame the government, or shake their heads about insoluble problems, but not Lou. Combined with this is a thirteen-year-old’s naivety. She has confidence that No can be fixed. All it will take is a roof over her head, some kind words and a few square meals. Much of the novel’s narrative development comes from Lou’s slow realization that the happy ending which seemed so easy may not ever be in reach. Over the course of the story, we see her become a wiser person, but also a more disillusioned one, as No’s problems prove increasingly beyond her ability to solve, no matter how clever she may be.

Best of Blog: Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi

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?’

asterix

posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’

asterix2

For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution is as elegant as it is clever.

asterix2

posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’

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.

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.

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.

 

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/

Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

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

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

An example of an auto-da-fé

 

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

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

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