As in the previous few years, the Oxford University Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages is organising a French Film Competition, run with the help and generosity of Routes into Languages and the Sir Robert Taylor Society.
The Competition has been a really successful and fun way of getting young people interested in France and French culture. And this year we have opened it up to younger students: all UK students of secondary-school age – from years 7 to 13 – can take part. The challenge of the competition is to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words.
The films for this year – Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog) directed by Mona Achache (2009, for Years 7-11) and L’Auberge Espagnole (Pot Luck), directed by Cédric Klapisch (2002, for years 12-13) have been chosen because they talk about reaching out to strange or foreign people. The first film sees a young girl forming an unlikely friendship with a prickly, hedgehog-like caretaker; in the second, a young Frenchman flatshares with eccentric students from different countries on his Erasmus Year Abroad – a situation many language undergraduates have to deal with!
Judging the competition is often a lot of fun and we are always impressed by the imagination and wit of the entries. There are no restrictions as to the form the entry might take: screen-play, play-script, prose, prose with illustrations… and this year, you can even upload a YouTube video or audio file! Entries should be submitted by email to email@example.com by noon on Monday 31 March 2014.
A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each age group, with runner-up prizes of £25. For further details about entering the competition (including the points in each film where we’d like you to take up the story), please see the link below, which offers more details about how to enter. It’s great fun and an excellent exercise in creativity! So please do enter!
Is it odd to have favourite words? Hopefully not too strange among language-learners, as it’s always been the case with me. How do we ever manage in English without the Frenchsi, the special version of ‘yes’ for exclusive use when contradicting the person you’re talking to? It’s very handy in conversation, and much more elegant than the English ‘oh yes it is’ (‘oh yes I did/she has/etc.), which is its most precise translation, and only suitable for pantomime usage. And how nice to discover that the French bélier, ‘ram’, not only means the male sheep but also the big wooden thing for battering down castle gates. So here, in an occasional series, are some French words that tickled my fancy as a linguist.
Firstly, le créneau (‘les créneaux’ in the plural). It means ‘battlement’, the up-and-down bit on top of a castle wall, and is related to the English word ‘crenellation’. You can use it literally: the poet Verlaine has a line about
‘L’archer qui veille au créneau de la tour’ (‘The archer standing watch on the battlements of the tower’).
And you can also use it metaphorically:
‘monter au créneau’ (‘go up to the battlements’)
means to wade into a discussion or controversy, particularly one where there’s attacking and defending to be done. That’s already more than we do in English with our own word, but the nice thing about the French créneau as opposed to the English battlement is how much further they take the idea of its up-down-up shape. Un créneau in French is not just a literal slot in the stone parapet at the top of a castle wall, but almost anything else that resembles that shape or reminds you of it in some way. It can be a crenellation-shaped design or pattern, square notches or teeth on a mechanical device, or the shape of a city skyline. More than that, it can be a figurative ‘slot’ between two blocks for something to fit into. You can have a
in your timetable available for a meeting. ‘Quels sont vos créneaux d’ici à vendredi ?’ (‘What times do you have available between now and Friday ?’) offers the online dictionary, Trésor de la Langue Française as its example. (I’m scheduling classes and tutorials at the moment myself, which is probably why the word springs to mind.)
‘trouver un bon créneau’
in the market (‘find a good opening’) for your product. ‘Une petite société, à condition de bien choisir ses créneaux, peut rivaliser avec les géants mondiaux’ (‘A small company can rival the giant multinationals, as long as it chooses its market openings carefully.’) says the TLF.
My favourite usage, though, is the more concrete idiom
‘faire un créneau’
literally, to ‘do a battlement’.
Rather beautifully, it’s the normal French expression meaning to slot your car into the gap between two other cars, i.e. to parallel park. The TLF illustrates the concept with the handy phrase, ‘Je rate toujours mes créneaux’ (‘I always mess up my parallel parking’), which you may wish to memorize in case it comes in useful in the future.
So here it comes. Peter Capaldi – Malcolm Tucker as was, Doctor Who as shortly will be – is twirling his moustache as Cardinal Richelieu in trailers for the much-heralded BBC adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844). It’s always good to see British TV take on French literary classics. Let’s hope The Three Musketeers has a little more in common with its source material than the BBC’s other recent effort, The Paradise, for which I’d be surprised if the producers were able to put up the subtitle ‘based on the novel by Émile Zola’ without blushing. At any rate, the Dumas adaptation looks exciting, as you can see above, with plenty of cape-swishing, sword-fighting, smouldering looks and death-defying leaps. Plus one element that is markedly more prevalent than in the book itself: gunfire. One of the odder things about Dumas’s novel for the modern reader is its singular lack of muskets.
In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (‘mousquet’), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name ‘moschetto’ or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.
There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks, and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant ‘mousequeton’, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual ‘mousqueton’ makes its first appearance. A ‘mousqueton’ is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers that’s holding it.
The siege of La Rochelle in the later part of the story seems a more propitious setting for firearms, and indeed, as soon as he arrives at the camp, D’Artagnan spies what appears to be a musket pointing at him from an ambush, and flees, suffering only a hole to the hat. Examining the bullet-hole, he discovers ‘la balle n’était pas une balle de mousquet, c’était une balle d’arquebuse’ (‘the bullet was not from a musket, it was an arquebuse bullet’, arquebuse being an earlier type of firearm). We are now 586 pages into the story, and starting to wonder if Dumas is playing a game with us. The suspicion is heightened when the musketeers take a jaunt into no-man’s-land for some secret scheming away from the camp: ‘Il me semble que pour une pareille expedition, nous aurions dû au moins emporter nos mousquets,’ frets Porthos (p. 639). (‘It seems to me that we ought to at least have taken our muskets along on an expedition like this.’) ‘Vous êtes un niais, ami Porthos; pourquoi nous charger d’un fardeau inutile?’ scoffs Athos in return. (‘You’re a fool, Porthos, my friend. Why would we weight ourselves down with useless burdens ?’) The key to the Mystery of the Missing Muskets is in these lines. Their absence from the novel up to this point is not simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets. Remember that, writing in the 1840s, Dumas is closer in time to us today than he is to the period he’s writing about, and his gaze back to the seventeenth century is often more drawn to romance than historical accuracy (as the cheerfully pedantic footnotes in my edition point out on every other page). For Dumas, the charm of his chosen period lies in the skill and daring of the accomplished swordsman, and his breathless narrative can wring far more excitement from a well-matched duel of blades than it could from a military gun-battle. Heroism in Dumas is to be found in noble combat, staring your opponent in the eye as you match his deadly blade with your own, not in clumsy long-range slaughter of unknowns. Musketeers his heroes must be, in order that they might belong to the royal guard and thus play a role in the dark conspiracies hatched around the King, the Queen and her English lover by Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne. But the muskets themselves are surplus to requirements.
Dumas does relent a little on his musket-phobia by the end of the novel. On page 645, the musketless musketeers fire at their enemies using weapons grabbed from corpses. And finally, on page 705, when Richelieu catches the four friends conspiring on the beach, we are at last granted a glimpse of the soldiers’ own guns: ‘[Athos] montra du doigt au cardinal les quatre mousquets en faisceau près du tambour sur lequel étaient les cartes et les dès.’ (‘He pointed out to the cardinal the four muskets stacked next to the drum on which lay the cards and dice.’) As far as I can make out, this is the only point at which we see the musketeers with their muskets in the whole story, and it seems a fitting way to present them to the reader: lying idle while the musketeers are occupied with other, more important amusements.
François Bégaudeau was a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in an area that had been designated a ‘zone d’éducation prioritaire’ due to its social problems and low-achieving students. He then wrote a novel about his experiences, called Entre les murs(Within the walls). He then, with the director Laurent Cantet, adapted his novel into a screenplay for a film. He then played the starring role in Cantet’s film as ‘François’, a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in a… well, you get the idea. The film was a huge success, and won the 2008 Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival, and it’s easy to see why. Bégaudeau clearly knows what he’s talking about, and it’s rare to see a film set in a school that rings as true as this one. Bégaudeau’s teacher shows a passion for bringing out his students’ potential, but also shows the frustrations involved in having to teach French versification or the use of the imperfect subjunctive to a bunch of not always interested and often rowdy teenagers. He’s also not afraid to show his character making mistakes. The film’s turning point comes after the class’s delegates to School Council, Louise and Esmerelda, have giggled and whispered their way through a staff meeting, then promptly relayed all the sensitive information discussed by the teachers to the rest of the class, including all the grades people are due to receive at the end of the term, and the fact that François described one pupil in particular as ‘limited’ intellectually. The following day, as the class grows increasingly hostile towards him, François loses his cool and inappropriately accuses the two delegates of having behaved like ‘pétasses’, a word which makes the whole class erupt and will have consequences through the rest of the film.
I use this scene from the film in my fourth-year Advanced Translation seminars, where we always spend a good few minutes merrily discussing what exactly the teacher has called his students. When he is forced to defend himself later in the film, he claims that a ‘pétasse’ is ‘une fille pas maligne qui ricane bêtement’ (‘a girl who’s not too bright and giggles stupidly’). His students insist that it means a prostitute. I shall leave you to discover how the dispute is resolved. The word obviously causes trouble for the people doing the subtitles too, who have to come up with a term in English that can fit both meanings. The UK DVD release opts for ‘slut’, which strikes me as being rather more offensive and less ambiguous than the original. Or at least it did, until I discovered recently that for some people in this country it simply means ‘someone who doesn’t clean behind their fridge’.
The performances in the film are extraordinary – especially from the teenagers who play the pupils, who never once look like they’re acting a part – and the film is hilarious, gripping and moving. Sean Penn called it a ‘perfect movie’ when he awarded it the Palme d’or, and I notice that it also received a five-star review from Heat magazine. When the Cannes film festival and Heat agree on a film, it surely must be something special. I recommend you see it straight away. (It’s available here, or to rent on Lovefilm, Netflix and the like.) Also, it offers good ammunition should you later find yourself at university required to learn the forms and usage of the imperfect subjunctive. The French kids have never heard of it either.
In mid-December, the week after term ends, hundreds of Year 13 students descend on Oxford for the admissions interviews. By this stage, we’ve already reviewed the applicants’ UCAS forms, schoolwork samples and language tests. Everyone who comes out of that process looking as if they might be able to take up a place on the course is invited to spend a few days in the college they applied to. While they’re here, they’ll attend two interviews, perhaps more, with the college’s experts in their subject. During one admissions week, my colleague in French, Helen Swift of St Hilda’s College, kept a video diary of how the process looks from our side.
First, before the interviews get underway:
Then five days later, just after finishing her last interview with a candidate:
And then a couple of days after that, once the final decisions had been taken:
Oxford has been making an effort in recent years to demystify its admissions, and this blog will be visiting different aspects of the process in the coming months. This seems like a good place to start.
One of the aims of this blog is to point interested readers in the direction of French books which are worth your time, and which are accessible to language learners who are prepared to make a bit of an effort to get to grips with a real French novel. In schools, when novels are recommended or (increasingly rarely these days) set as part of a course, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger is the go-to option, followed some distance behind by Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes and Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse. Good novels all, with Camus’s book in particular in a league of its own for its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content. I’ll be getting round to pointing out a couple of interesting things about it in a later post. But I’d like to take you a little off the beaten track, and introduce you to novels and writers you’ll hopefully enjoy, but which you might not otherwise have come across.
First up, cult Belgian author, the award-winning Amélie Nothomb, who attacks the French bestseller lists every September with a new short novel. All her books are spiky, funny, attention-grabbing reads, often built around a high-concept premise: Métaphysique des tubes purports to be her autobiography from the womb to age three; Attentat is a love story between the ugliest man and the most beautiful woman imaginable; the prize-winning Stupeur et tremblements (now a film by Alain Corneau) recounts the descent of the hapless ‘Amélie’ down the hierarchy of a Japanese corporation from office-worker to lavatory attendant as she repeatedly fails to grasp the niceties of Japanese etiquette. Any of these is worth reading, but what makes her particularly popular with young people is her writing about the dramas of adolescence in novels like Antéchrista, which lay out in often blackly comic fashion the teenage hell of social anxiety and loneliness, or problems with body-image and eating disorders.
Despite the title, Antéchrista has nothing to do with religion, beyond the fact that it’s about a girl called Christa who makes life hell. The novel’s heroine, Blanche, is a shy sixteen-year-old, unhappy in her skin, who is flattered and astonished to find herself suddenly friends with the prettiest, boldest, most popular girl in college, Christa. Christa, though, lives far away, and could do with a place to crash on Monday nights before the girls’ 8 a.m. class on Tuesday mornings. Blanche’s parents agree to let her stay over in the family’s flat, on a camp bed in Blanche’s room. She’s a delightful house guest and a hit with the parents. Only with Blanche herself, when the two are alone in their room, does Christa begin to show a darker side to her personality.
Then she moves into the family home full time.
Charming and helpful, graceful and sophisticated, she’s the kind of the daughter Blanche’s parents must have dreamed of having. Already she’s starting to seem as much a part of the family as Blanche herself, maybe even more so. By the time Blanche learns the true nature of this cuckoo in the nest, it may already be too late to fight back.
At only 150 pages long, it’s a fast-moving story, with a twisting plot that will keep you turning the pages, but it’s also a memorable description of what it’s like to feel an outsider in life, and ultimately even in your own family. You can find it here, and find out more about Amélie Nothomb and her other novels here.
It’s that time of year again when the UCAS forms arrive in my pigeon-hole from Year 13 students applying to study modern languages at Oxford, starting off the admissions process that will include schoolwork, language tests, and finally, interviews in December. One of the most interesting parts of the process is reading the personal statements on the UCAS form, six hundred words or so of the applicant’s own account of why they want to come and study modern languages, what their particular interests are, and why they deserve a place on the course. Coming right at the start of the admissions round, these statements give me my first glimpse of who my future undergraduates will be, and I’m always impressed by the levels of enthusiasm, talent and commitment on display.
I’ve been reading personal statements for a while now, and one thing I’ve noticed on the increase in recent years is a tendency to try to GET MY ATTENTION with a punchy opening. Sometimes it’s an inspiring quotation on the need for the human race to understand one another better, or the gateway into a culture afforded by a new language. Sometimes it’s a personal anecdote, recounting how the importance of speaking a foreign language was brought home by an embarrassing linguistic mix-up in a French cinema between The Big Sleep (‘Le Grand Sommeil’) and le grand slip (‘the big pair of underpants’). Or something along those lines. These kinds of things liven up my evening, but their increasing prevalence, and the increasing space they’re taking up in the statement itself, makes me wonder if they’re turning from personal quirks to compulsory extras. Are prospective students being urged to leaf through dictionaries of quotations for a suitably uplifting opening line? Are they being ordered to delve, Proust-like, into their earliest memories in search of a heart-warming vignette? Or, failing that, to… invent one? (Surely, no!)
Can I now take the opportunity to assure anyone who might find themselves in this position that YOU ALREADY HAVE MY FULL ATTENTION. We take personal statements very seriously and read them very carefully. While you’re very welcome to entertain me while I’m reading it, I promise you I will read it just as carefully if it’s straightforward, businesslike, or just a little bit dull. And so will all of my colleagues. We’re also reading for very specific things. Like all courses in Oxford, modern languages publish our Selection Criteria online, which are a list of the qualities we’re looking for in a potential student. The main criteria for modern languages are these:
Motivation and commitment along with capacity for sustained study of language and literature.
Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively both in writing and orally; ability to listen and to give considered responses.
Proven competence in the language(s) as established by school work written in the language(s), by the language test and (in some cases) by oral competence at interview. In the case of beginners, clear evidence of aptitude and potential for language study.
While there is no requirement that candidates will have read any literature in the language(s), successful candidates will demonstrate an aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s) or by their response to a reading-passage at interview. Assessors will look for evidence of intellectual curiosity and critical engagement.
You can find them, plus some more specific details regarding language tests, interviews, etc., on the university website here. Some of these criteria are relevant to the personal statement. For instance, you have the opportunity to show your motivation for the literary and cultural side of the course by telling us about your reading, in French or in English, outside of school, or about foreign-language films you’ve seen. It’s a topic I’ll return to in a later post. For now, though, I’d just like to point out the absence of any criterion declaring that successful candidates must open their personal statements like a movie pitch. We want to know about your interests and achievements in detail, and you can trust us to pay very close attention, even if you don’t reel us in with a hilarious anecdote about that time with Uncle Gerald, the grumpy waiter and the big bucket of snails.
From the fourth Harry Potter book onwards, once the saga’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, was most definitely not translating the work of a little-known British children’s author any more, his working routine was the same. The publisher’s paranoia about plot leaks meant that translators were refused advance access to the English original. Ménard’s copy arrived on the day of publication of the English-language version. Two months later he would be expected to present the publishers with the French text to be rushed into print for millions of impatient francophone readers. Every day of those two months would be spent translating J. K. Rowling’s prose, starting at 6 a.m. and finishing at midnight, barring a long lunch-break to refresh his brain and a weekly trip to the physiotherapist to ward off writer’s cramp.
Translating Harry Potter presents unusual challenges. What to do with the latiny riddle-language of Rowling’s spells, which allows English-speaking readers to work out that wingardium leviosa implies ‘wings’ and ‘levitation’, or that the cruciatus curse will bring excruciating pain? What to do with the names of people and places, with their hidden jokes and clues? Let’s take a look at a few, so that we can appreciate what Ménard was up against. In the original, Hogwarts school is divided into the four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. In Ménard’s translation, L’École de Poudlard (‘Poux-de-lard’, or ‘bacon lice’) is divided into Gryffondor (‘Gryffon d’or’, or ‘golden griffin’), Serdaigle (‘serre d’aigle’, or ‘eagle talon’), Poufsouffle (which suggests ‘à bout de souffle’, or ‘out of puff’) and Serpentard (which contains the word serpent, meaning snake). Some are quite different, presumably because literal translations of Hogwarts (‘verrues de porc’) and Ravenclaw (‘serre de corbeau’) are not as mellifluous, or as funny-sounding, in French as in English. A little of the subtlety is lost from Slytherin, who are now bluntly linked to snakes, and even the name which stays the same, Gryffindor/Gryffondor, is different, since the French allusion in the original becomes a straightforward label in the translation.
The characters become an exotic mix of French and English names, with Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione and Ron remaining unchanged, but now finding themselves sharing classrooms with Neville Londubat (‘long-du-bas’, or ‘long-in-the-bottom’), Severus Rogue (‘haughty’), and Olivier Dubois, who has to be repatriated from his original identity as Oliver Wood to accommodate a gag about Professor McGonagall needing to ‘borrow Wood’, which Harry misunderstands as an implement for punishment. This oddly franco-British establishment becomes odder still with the introduction of an actual French school of witchcraft, Beauxbatons, in the fourth book, leaving us wondering why the French-named students enrolled in Scotland. And talking of French names, Rowling’s own liberal use of them gives the translator an extra headache. Fleur Delacour may sound sophisticated to English ears, but to a French reader it means the rather more ordinary-sounding Yard Flower. Similarly, Voldemort transforms from a figure of fear and mystery to a comic-book villain when his name simply means ‘Deathflight’ (or ‘Death-theft’) to the reader of the translation.
And it would not escape the notice of the French audience that a surprising number of Rowling’s bad guys have French names, such as Malfoy or Lestrange. Rowling perhaps meant them to sound like ancient, aristocratic Anglo-norman families. French readers who missed the implication might have felt a little hurt. In a project fraught with difficulty, and scattered with no-win situations pitting sound against sense, or humour against consistency, Ménard pulls off a sterling job seven times in succession. I wonder how many French readers realize just how much Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers and its sequels owe, not just to J. K. Rowling, but to J.-F. Ménard as well?