Lord Voldemort’s Middle Name

lordvoldemort

posted by Simon Kemp

I know from my students that for many people wanting to have a first go at reading a book in a foreign language, translations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are the gateway to reading books in French. They’re a good place to start: if you’re familiar with the stories already from the books or films in English, then you’ll always have a rough idea what’s going on if the language gets tricky, plus it’s always entertaining to find out how a Crumple-Horned Snorkack or a Dirigible Plum comes out in a foreign language. (It would be good if Harry Potter were your first step towards trying a book by an actual French person, rather than your final destination, though, as I sometimes feel when I see it as the sole text cited on a personal statement as evidence of someone’s burning desire to study French culture…) Anyway, because you know the story already, and because it’s one of the trickiest and most interesting pieces of English-to-French translation of recent years, let’s head back to the École des sorciers in Jean-François Ménard’s translation for a second look.

Voldemort’s real name, as revealed in the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, is Tom Riddle, which, with the aid of his middle name, Marvolo, can be dramatically anagrammatized from

TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE

into the sentence

I AM LORD VOLDEMORT.

I remember thinking at the time that this was a lucky break for him. Only a couple of letters short and he’d have had to make do with

ORVILLE DOORMAT

as his evil alter-ego, which would have made the task of assembling a power-hungry army of ruthless dark wizards that bit more difficult.

If only, though, J. K. Rowling had invented an anagram that smoothly converted one name into the other. That ‘I AM’ at the beginning makes the big reveal into an English sentence, and an English sentence that can’t be translated into a foreign language without the whole puzzle falling apart. What is the poor translator to do?

One option is to do nothing. The Croatian, Portuguese and Polish translations of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets give Voldemort’s name as Tom Marvolo Riddle, and then do the anagram sentence in English, as ‘I am Lord Voldemort’, with an explanation for their readers. The  Korean and Japanese versions  transliterate ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ into their own alphabets (톰 마볼로 리들 and トム・マーボロ・リドル), making it impossible to perform a new anagram in their own language or demonstrate the original one in English. Even if you’ve never seen the Korean alphabet before in your life, you can tell that 나는 볼드모트 경이다 (‘I am Lord Voldemort’, as it appears at the end of the Korean translation) is not an anagram of 톰 마볼로 리들.

Many translations, though, go for the more challenging option of changing the name to create an anagram that works in their language. So, in Italian, Tom Riddle is Tom Orvoloson Riddle (an anagram ofSon Io Lord Voldemort), in Spanish he is Tom Sorvolo Ryddle (anagram of Soy Lord Voldemort), and in Icelandic, he is Trevor Delgome (anagram of “Eg er Voldemort”). (Incidentally, if you’re wondering where I got all these from, they’re all here, along with translations into thirty-seven languages of the names of all the major characters.)

So what does Ménard do in his Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets? Well, he takes the more ambitious option and goes for an anagram that will work in French. The sentence he wants to reveal at the climax of the story is

JE SUIS VOLDEMORT

and so the name that replaces Tom Marvolo Riddle in the story is, wait for it…

TOM ELVIS JEDUSOR.

That’s right, Voldemort’s middle name, if you’re a French reader, is Elvis.

It’s actually cleverer than it may look. Ménard has managed to give Tom a real name for his middle name, unlike Rowling’s ‘Marvolo’, which looks suspiciously cobbled-together from the left-over letters she had after she’d come up with ‘Tom’ and ‘Riddle’. And ‘Jedusor’ is a phonetic spelling of ‘jeu du sort’, a phrase that means somewhere between ‘twist of fate’ and ‘game of chance’, and which perhaps also has undertones of the phrase ‘jeter un sort’, to cast a spell. Ménard weaves the meaning of the name into his story, making the Riddle House into La Maison des Jeux du Sort, and also has Voldemort himself tell Harry: ‘Tu crois donc que j’allais accepter le “jeu du sort” qui m’avait donné ce nom immonde de “Jedusor”, légué par mon Moldu de père?’.[‘Did you think I would accept the twist of fate that gave me the foul name Jedusor, bequeathed to me by my Muggle father?’] – a slight variation of Rowling’s original that helps to anchor Ménard’s new wordplay into the story.

And yet… and yet… Elvis? It has to be said that the name injects a rather incongruous element of rhinestone jumpsuits and Las Vegas glamour into Voldemort’s character. It also rather hilariously illustrates the perils of translating a story before the author has finished writing it. As you may remember, in Rowling’s English-language original, the name Marvolo turns up again in the sixth volume. Voldemort has in fact been named after his grandfather, the vile, abusive, squalid and half-insane dark wizard, obsessed with his aristocratic descent from Salazar Slytherin, who goes by the name of Marvolo Gaunt. And yes, in Harry Potter et le Prince de sang mêlé, penultimate volume of the French saga, we meet a vile, abusive, squalid and half-insane dark wizard, obsessed with his aristocratic descent from Salazar Serpentard, who does indeed go by the name of Elvis.

From Sixth Form to Second Year

posted by Jessica Allen, second-year student of French and German at Jesus College

The Oxford modern languages degree places considerable emphasis on the study of literature. With most schools teaching very little or even no literature as part of their modern languages curriculum, it can be very difficult to know where to start. Here I’m going to share my own literary journey thus far to hopefully inspire those who are still at school to develop their interests and to not be intimidated by the really quite challenging task of tackling their first foreign novel.

This story actually begins with my discovery of German literature. I was fifteen years old and inspired by the fleeting reference to Kafka in Bridget Jones’ Diary to read some of his work in the original German. My German teacher told me that this would be impossible for someone who hadn’t even done her GCSEs, so, determined to prove her wrong, I spent three months teaching myself advanced German grammar and reading children’s books. Then suddenly I was reading Kafka’s works and understanding them in German. I felt a great sense of achievement and knew then that what I wanted to study was German literature.

I was also curious about French, the other language I was studying. I wanted to do the same thing, although I had no natural starting point to lead me into the literature. So one lunchtime I went into the school library and headed over to the solitary shelf of French literature. I picked up Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, mainly because it was the shortest. It was also the best introduction to French literature I could have had at the age of sixteen. From next year, this will be a prescribed text for first years at Oxford, therefore it’s an ideal book for those who are just starting their literary studies. It’s written in dialogue form and when I read it for the first time I had never seen anything like it, which instantly made it more interesting. It also means that it’s easier to understand it, for the two opposing points of view are always clearly represented by the dialogue participants, and it’s certainly easier to get through than a six hundred page novel. When I first read it I was ignorant of the context in which it was written and applied the book’s lesson about universal values and a return to nature to my own teenage existence. It all began to truly make sense as I found out about the original context of the text: it was written in the eighteenth century in order to criticise the social and political structures in France prior to the Revolution by comparing them to the basic moral codes based upon nature which governed Tahiti. I began to actively consider the concept of universal values and luckily my google searches led me to more eighteenth century texts which explore similar themes in the same context: Voltaire’s Candide, Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Rousseau’s Le Contrat social. I devoured them and eventually made them the subject of my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification). I had fallen in love and I knew that wherever I went to university, there had to be lots of eighteenth century French literature. So if you’re in sixth form, I would definitely recommend these texts as a way into French literature. Eighteenth century French is often easier to understand than that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plus the idea of challenging a long-established regime and system of values as expressed in these texts certainly appeals to frustrated teenagers.

 

So where did I go from there? Well I spent the rest of sixth form reading any French and German literature I could find. This was helpful not just in terms of my Oxford application, because it gave me plenty of ways to show that I was interested in taking languages further, but also because when I arrived here for first year I wasn’t daunted by the reading list or by the task of tackling foreign texts because I’d already been doing it for a couple of years. Okay, as a second year I now look back and laugh at the naïve and simplistic views of these texts that I often expressed whilst still at school, but even as you progress through Oxford your thought process is always changing and it’s often fun to contrast your current interpretation with your previous. Above all, I genuinely enjoyed discovering the wonders of French literature and it is certainly the best way to practice your language skills outside of the classroom, as teachers always encourage you to do. So my advice to sixth formers is to read any French texts which take your fancy and hopefully find some that really interest you. Don’t worry if you don’t understand certain phrases or references and try to work on grammar and vocabulary before you do it, however tedious it might seem, because it all really helps in the long run!

Open Days

posted by Simon Kemp

It was lovely to meet those blog readers who came along to the Modern Languages Faculty Open Day on Saturday, which we held in the university’s swish new Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. The day was fully booked, and everyone seemed to have come armed with all kinds of challenging questions to test my detailed knowledge of how the university’s courses and admissions process work. I think it went very well, at least after someone pointed out to me that I was trying to talk into the reading light on the lectern in the brand-new lecture theatre rather than the microphone, and I hope those who were there found it a useful experience. Our brilliant undergraduate volunteers were also there to help, and obviously did a much better than people like me at telling prospective applicants what it’s Really Like to apply here, go through the interview process, and study on the course. One of those volunteers, Jessica Allen, will be offering her further thoughts on the transition from sixth-former to undergraduate in next week’s post.

The Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford runs three more open days this summer, on 2nd and 3rd July, and 19th September. Do think about coming to see us, if you’re at all interested in applying to study here in the future. You can book your place for the modern languages events here. Plus, the colleges and other sites of the university will be open for visitors (for which you won’t need to book). I hope to see some of you there.

One Hundred Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University

posted by Simon Kemp

There are lots more than a hundred good reasons to study modern languages, but if I’m going to drip-feed them to you at one reason per post, and no more than a couple of posts per month on this topic, then a hundred will keep us going nicely for a while. Many of these reasons are about the pleasures of discovering a foreign culture, exploring its history, literature and film. Others are about learning to handle another language confidently, discovering how languages work, how they develop, and how your own language connects with or differs from the language you’re learning. Still others will be about the experience of meeting new people on your year abroad, getting by in an exciting, unfamiliar environment and broadening your horizons. But of course, in the age of tuition fees and economic austerity, we also need some hard, cold facts about your prospects for employment and earnings at the end of your degree. Luckily, as well as being one of the most stimulating, adventurous and intellectually fulfilling choices of university course, a modern languages degree aces the career statistics too. So let’s start there.

Counting down, then, we’ll begin with Good Reason to Study Modern Languages at University, Number 100…

The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey asks recent UK university graduates what they are doing six months after graduation. The most recent data is from graduates in 2012, which found that only 9% of modern languages graduates were unemployed six months after graduating. That compares with 10% unemployment rates for business studies, engineering, architecture and physical sciences, 11% in creative arts and design, 12% in media studies and 14% unemployment for computer science graduates. In fact, only teaching, law and medical/biological sciences have lower unemployment rates than modern languages for their graduates.

So modern linguists go on to many different things after graduation, but the dole queue is not one of them. We’ll delve further into these Destination of Leavers statistics later on to find out more about what these graduates are actually doing, but I thought this might be the most important place to start.

Translating Cats

posted by Simon Kemp

In the previous 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.

Bons mots: chat tigré

posted by Simon Kemp

Given that the internet is made of cats, there’s no reason for this blog to be an exception, so here, accompanied by an image of my own overweight and slightly moth-eaten chat tigré, is a post on the subject. Tigré is another of my favourite words, not just because I own a chat tigré myself, but because it makes the cat sound very much cooler than in its English translation, tabby cat. My Larousse dictionary lists tigré as a simple adjective, which ‘se dit d’un pelage marquée de taches, de bandes plus foncées’ [‘refers to fur marked with darker patches or stripes’]. The online Trésor de la langue française goes one better, though, identifying it as the past participle of a rare verb, tigrer quelque chose, ‘to tiger-stripe something’. It even has a few literary examples of usage, including the following from Huysmans: ‘l’épiderme se tigre de taches jaunes’  [‘the epidermis is tiger-striped with yellow marks’]. It strikes me as an unfortunate lapse that English never thought to make tigering a verb, and it never occurred to us that our tabby cats might have been tigered.

Cats turn up in all kinds of idioms and proverbs in French. I think, although I’m not sure of this, rather more frequently than they do in English. Rarely the same ones though. You don’t set the cat among the pigeons in French, for instance, on jette un pavé dans la mare (‘throw a cobblestone into the pond’). You don’t let the cat out of the bag but vendre la mèche (literally, ‘sell the wick’, but in an archaic sense meaning, more or less, ‘reveal the fuse that leads to the hidden gunpowder’). And nor does it rain cats and dogs: in France, rather less surreally, il pleut des cordes (‘it rains ropes’). Weirdly, though, a French idiom will often map exactly onto its English equivalent in image and sense, except for the fact that the French have substituted a cat for various items used in the English expressions. French people do not have a frog in their throat, ils ont un chat dans la gorge; they do not call a spade a spade, ils appellent un chat un chat; they do not tell each other to let sleeping dogs lie, they warn that il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort;and they do not have other fish to fry, ils ont d’autres chats à fouetter. And yes, the French are whipping those cats in that last expression, but English speakers have no cause to feel morally superior: the French simply complain about cramped accommodation that il n’y a pas la place de se retourner (‘there isn’t room to turn around’), without having recourse to cruel and unusual cat-swinging to express their dissatisfaction.

Occasionally the two languages agree on the uses of cats: both of us can play cat and mouse with someone / jouer au chat et à la souris avec quelqu’un, for instance. And there must presumably be some link between the French expression, donner sa langue au chat, meaning to give up trying to guess something, and the not-quite-matching English idea that a ‘cat’s got your tongue’ when you’re too inhibited to speak, with its equally peculiar image. They also have a good stock of cat-expressions all their own, such as the proverbs, chat échaudé craint l’eau froide’ (‘a scalded cat fears cold water’), which is near-equivalent to our ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but, when you think about it, isn’t exactly the same idea, plus the wonderfulla nuit, tous les chats sont gris’ (‘at night, all cats are grey’), which has nothing like it at all in English, and refers in French to how darkness (and, perhaps, other kinds of obscurity) hide the differences by which we classify and distinguish people. It’s incidentally also the title of the chapter of Les Trois Mousquetaires I talked about here, where d’Artagnan pretends to be the Comte de Wardes in Milady’s darkened bedroom.

Finally, it’s not just in language, but in French culture generally that cats have prominence. No less than three of the poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal are about cats. Here’s my favourite:

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.

And (loosely) translated by Roy Campbell :

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.

The others are here and here. Better known even than Baudelaire’s cats, though, is the cat belonging to sixteenth-century essayist, and master of thought-provoking quirkiness as literary style, Michel de Montaigne:

Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle?’

(‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’)

… he famously wondered, as has many a cat-owner in his wake.

Bookshelf Book Club: Un secret, by Philippe Grimbert

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

In Context

posted by Simon Kemp

You may have seen in the news recently that state-school students are said to be likely to do better in their university degree than independent-school students who start university with identical qualifications. The news is reported here, and you can find the original study, carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, here.

The BBC gives the findings as follows:

The Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) tracked 130,000 students beginning degrees in 2007, looking at schooling, background and ethnicity.

It found on some measures state pupils were significantly more likely to get a 2:1 than their private school peers.

Of those students who achieved ABB at A-level, some 69% of students from independent schools went on to gain 2:1 or a above compared with about 77% of students educated at state schools.

And at three Bs, 61% of independent students pupils got a 2:1 or above compared with 70% of state school students.

It’s not the first such study, but it is the biggest, and its findings confirm the results of earlier studies, including a 2009 study of Oxford admissions.

The first question, if you are currently a student at a UK state or independent school and worried about your chances of getting to university, is: what does this finding mean for you as an individual?

The answer to that question is: nothing. It has no significant bearing on the likelihood of you personally getting into the university of your choice, and no impact on the likelihood of you doing well in your degree once you get there. It’s a large-scale study, looking at over a hundred thousand students, and extrapolating from that data that the performance of the average state-school student at university may exceed that of the average private-school student with the same grades.

You are not an average student.

In fact, nobody is: it’s a mathematical construct, obviously. And there’s nothing very useful you can infer from it about your own particular case, no matter what kind of school you may be attending.

What the study will do, though, is reopen the debate about whether universities should use ‘contextual data’ about applicants’ backgrounds in their admissions process, along with qualifications acquired and predicted grades, to decide whether to offer a place. As we’ve already talked about here, Oxford already takes into account a great deal of information beyond your qualifications in deciding who to offer places to, including (in modern languages) personal statements, schoolwork, language tests, and interview performance. Among this extra information is precisely this contextual data, and has been for some years now. Here’s the university’s official statement on the topic.

With every UCAS form that comes in for a UK student, I’m told what kind of school you attended (state or private, comprehensive, grammar or sixth-form college), and I’m also told whether that school performs better or worse than the UK average at GCSEs and at A-level or equivalent. The forms ‘flag up’ below-average schools in either category, to show if your grades are outperforming those of your peer group. I also know, provided you’ve opted to disclose this information, if you have a disability of any kind (about which you can give details on the form), and whether you’ve spent time in care. The form will also tell me if the postcode of your home address indicates that you may come from an area designated ‘moderate means’ or ‘hard pressed’ economically, or if people from your area generally have low participation in higher education.

The university’s policy states that, if your predicted grades and your performance on pre-interview tests suggest there’s a possibility you may be able to get a place, then candidates flagged for postcode and school performance, or candidates flagged as having been in care, are strongly recommended to be invited to interview, and admissions tutors must explain to their departments if there are any exceptional reasons why they might not do so.

It’s not, however, the university’s policy to make lower offers to some candidates on grounds of school type or contextual data. In modern languages, all candidates who successfully pass the admissions process are given an offer of AAA at A-level or equivalent for other sixth-form qualifications. Should you happen to miss your offer by a small margin, though, we do at that stage reopen your application file and re-examine all the data we have on you, including the contextual data, to see whether at that stage there might be grounds for relaxing the requirements. In my personal experience as an admissions tutor, on several occasions in the recent past, there have been.

There’s obviously much to be debated on the rights and wrongs of Oxford’s policy on admissions, and on how well it works, and I’m sure some of that will be spread across the media in the wake of this report. But I thought it would be useful to lay out the basic facts of our approach, so you can at least see how we go about looking for academic potential, wherever it might be found.

Bookshelf Film Club: Panique au village (A Town Called Panic)

Perhaps not destined for immortality alongside the films of Renoir, Truffaut and Godard (we’ll get around to them later), Panique au village (2010) is nevertheless one of the most striking and original French-language films this decade. I mention it now because, as The Lego Movie sweeps the planet with wild enthusiasm for manic silliness, delirious inventiveness and non-stop action performed by small plastic children’s toys, it’s a good moment to hunt out that film’s spiritual godfather. In fact, if the makers of The Lego Movie didn’t watch A Town Called Panic while they were coming up with their ideas, then there’s a surprising coincidence of tone between the two films.

The main characters of A Town Called Panic are a house-sharing group of three friends, one of whom happens to be a small plastic cowboy, one of whom is a small plastic Indian, and the third a small plastic horse. All three of them live in a perpetual state of frenetic excitement, speak very fast, and have a tendency to panic. If they seem familiar, it may be because they also starred in adverts for Cravendale milk on British TV a few years ago. The story begins when Cowboy and Indian plan to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday party, but accidentally order over the internet a billion times more bricks than they require to build it. The resulting delivery destroys their house, but each time they try to rebuild it, someone steals the walls during the night. They discover the thieves to be a group of sea-monsters, who…

Actually, that’s as far as I can really get with summarizing the plot, which seemed to make sense when I watched the film, but now just leaves me confused and giggling. Let me just say that it’s very funny, and if you liked Emmet, Wyldstyle and Unikitty, you’ll like these too. Here’s a flavour of it from the trailer:

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in French language and culture, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!