Bookshelf Film Club: The Class (Entre les murs)

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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.

 

posted by Simon Kemp

An Admissions Interviewer Speaks Out

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.

posted by Simon Kemp

Bookshelf Book Club: Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb

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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.

posted by Simon Kemp

‘…and then the cinema manager called the police and had us all arrested.’

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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.

posted by Simon Kemp

Harry Potter and the Translator’s Headache

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posted by Simon Kemp

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?

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!