Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s legacy to the French language may not be as useful an addition to your everyday vocabulary as that provided by Eugène Poubelle, but it’s perhaps more distinctively French. As well as the name for the execution device itself (la guillotine), Guillotin has also supplied us with a verb, (guillotiner, to guillotine), two further nouns (le guillotineur/la guillotineuse, who does the guillotining, and the rather less fortunate le guillotiné/la guillotinée at the business end of the device), plus, the excellent term, la fenêtre à guillotine, which sounds very much more architecturally exciting than the English sash window. Note that, like la Bastille (and unlike, say, la ville), the double-l of Guillotin and guillotine has a y-sound rather than an l-sound in French (and apparently also commonly in American English – it’s only the British that always get it wrong).

Here are three things that many people can tell you about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin:

1. He was keen on executing people.

2. He invented the guillotine.

3. He ended up getting executed himself by the device he invented.

Here, on the other hand, are three facts about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that are actually true:

1. He was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

2. He didn’t invent the guillotine.

3. He died of natural causes in 1814.

Guillotin considered the death penalty barbarous, and was particularly sickened by the suffering inflicted by botched executions, and by the double standards that afforded more humane forms of execution to the aristocracy than to the common people.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, abolition of the death penalty was most definitely not on the cards, but as an alternative measure, and a step in the right direction, he proposed to the National Assembly the following legal reform:

“Les délits du même genre seront punis du même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l’état du coupable; dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort, le supplice sera le même (décapitation), et l’exécution se fera par un simple mécanisme.”

Crimes if the same type will be punished with the same type of penalty, regardless of the rank and estate of the guilty party: in every case where the death penalty is given out, the method will be the same (decapitation), and the execution will be carried out by simple mechanical means.

The motion was accepted, and the Assembly set about finding itself an inventor to come up a device that would fit the bill. The credit for the design and construction of the prototype guillotine goes to the trio of Jean Laquiante, Tobias Schmidt and Antoine Louis (for a short while, it seemed possible that the machine might become known as a ‘Louison’). Guillotin’s name attached to the machine as the legislator who proposed that something should be done, not as the man who created the actual solution to the problem. In fact, the naming of the device after him proved an enduring embarrassment to Guillotin and his family, so much so that the family later petitioned the government to rename the machine, and, when this was rejected, changed their own surname to avoid the association.

The story that Guillotin ended up guillotined himself is entirely mythical. There was in fact a certain Dr J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon (no relation) who met that fate, and it’s also true that Joseph-Ignace fell foul of the Revolutionary authorities and was imprisoned for a short time during the Terror. From these two facts the myth seems to have arisen, and as usual, the truth has trouble getting in the way of a good story.

Lastly, guillotine is not the French word for that machine your school has for cutting multiple sheets of paper with very straight lines. The French call that un massicot. And yes, it’s because it was invented by a certain M. Massiquot.

Young Translators

Juvenes translatores

posted by Toby Garfitt

Why bother to expend any effort on translating from one language to another, when Google will do it for you? These days you can simply point your smartphone’s camera at any word or phrase in a sign or menu, and an app will give you its meaning. But translating literature is not quite so easy. If literary translation has always been at the heart of university language study, it is because it takes you below the surface of both language and culture. To translate even the shortest passage you have to have a developed sensitivity to nuance and register in both the languages you are dealing with, and also to the cultural connotations of the words. Is bourgeois the same as middle-class? What is ‘pride’ referring to in this particular context?

As well as the compulsory translation exercises, students of French and German at Oxford can opt to do a special “advanced translation” course in which they reflect on their own practice and on the insights of translation theory. Some of them then go on to do a master’s course in translation and/or interpreting, for instance at Bath or Edinburgh or London Metropolitan University.

Many of the Oxford tutors have published translations as well as their academic research, and some of them have won translation prizes. It is exciting to see that our undergraduates are already winning prizes before they join us. This year’s UK winner of the European Juvenes Translatores competition for 17-year-olds is Jonah Cowen, who will be coming to Magdalen College in 2016 (after a gap year) to study German and Linguistics. Here’s his video interview:

Last year’s winner, Walker Thompson, is currently at Magdalen studying German and Russian, although his winning translation was from French.

If you’re interested in entering a future competition through your school, the Juvenes Translatores website is here, and they also have a Facebook page here.


Bookshelf Book Club: Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women) by Marie NDiaye

posted by Simon Kemp

One of my very favourite French authors writing today is Marie NDiaye. Her stories of ordinary people and everyday situations heading disturbingly off-kilter are like a gradual slide from reality into anxiety dreams. (If you’re familiar with the work of the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, like the novel or film Never Let Me Go, you have some idea of what I mean).

I was planning on putting NDiaye’s La Sorcière in the book club at some point, since it’s short and accessible, funny and terrifying by turns, and has the most chilling pair of teenage girls in it that you’re ever likely to come across. I will do at some point, but since NDiaye is currently making rather a splash in the English-speaking world with a more recent novel, let’s start instead with her 2009 best-seller, Trois Femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women).


Marie NDiaye


Trois Femmes puissantes won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in the year of publication, and its translation was a runner-up for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not so much a novel as three interlinked stories. The three women of the title, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba are connected tangentially but lead very different lives. Norah is a successful French lawyer who visits her estranged father in Senegal to find her brother accused of murdering her stepmother. Fanta’s story is seen through the eyes of her husband, haunted by another Senegalese murder and the disintegration of his marriage. And Khady Demba, glimpsed in the first story as Norah’s father’s maid, sets out in her own story to start a new life in Europe.

The plots of the three stories are less important than their atmosphere, which builds a sense of foreboding that terrible things may occur, and disorients the reader with unexplained events, such as the sudden appearance of Norah’s French family in Senegal, or hints of magic in the uncanny behaviour of birds that may or may not betray the presence of a human soul.

The particular reason for mentioning the novel now is that an adaptation of it is currently being broadcast on UK radio. BBC Radio Four has turned the book into an audio drama in two parts. If you’re based in the UK, Episode One is available to listen to here for the next four weeks, and the second and final episode will be broadcast next Sunday, and available on the iPlayer after that. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve gone for a two-part adaptation, which gives you one-and-a-half strong women per episode. If I were you, I’d reconstitute it into its three stories (each story is about 40 minutes long), and iPlayer them to yourself one by one. The adaptation is very faithful (unlike certain current BBC adaptations of great French literature we could mention…) and will give you an idea of what makes NDiaye such a major figure in contemporary French writing. It may even inspire you to seek out more of her work.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 95

A planetary disk of white cloud formations, brown and green land masses, and dark blue oceans against a black background. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disk, while Antarctica is at the bottom.

There are seven billion people on the planet. Fewer than four hundred million of them speak English as their first language. Five billion of them don’t speak English at all. If you want to talk to them, you’re going to have to learn a foreign language.  Even with the ones that do speak English, you’re not going to get very far if you know nothing of their culture, and can’t understand anything they say to each other.

That should be reason enough to be considering a degree in modern languages. At Oxford, we offer courses in the two most widely spoken first languages on the planet, Chinese and Spanish,  the other major languages of Europe (German, French, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Greek, Polish, Portuguese), and of the increasingly important BRIC economies (Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Bengali), and of East Asia and the Middle East (Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish), as well as minority languages like Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Gaelic and Welsh. Most of these are available to learn from scratch, on their own or in tandem with another language or another subject. You can explore all the possibilities and combinations on our admissions pages.

How does French measure up against these other choices? Well, according to the French government, there are more than 220  million French speakers in the world, spread across five continents and 77 countries with French as an official language. It is the second most widely learned foreign language after English, and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. French is also the only language, alongside English, that is taught in every country in the world. France operates the biggest international network of cultural institutes, which run French-language courses for close on a million learners.

The majority of French-speakers live outside Europe (which has approximately 87.5 million French speakers).

There are:

16.8 million French speakers in the Americas and the Caribbean (notably in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Quebec and French Guyana),

2.6 million speakers in Asia and Oceania (particularly in the former colonies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia),

33.6 million in North Africa and the Middle East (especially the ‘Maghreb’ countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Lebanon and Syria in the Middle East),

and 79.1 million speakers in sub-Saharan Africa (including Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mozambique, Niger, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and several others.)

French is very much a global language of the twenty-first century, and studying it at university opens doors that lead far beyond our nearest European neighbour.