My Internship at the Digital Humanities Project

cesr (2)

posted by Jessica Allen

When looking for an internship for your Year Abroad, definitely think outside the box and never be afraid to approach a company or organisation you might like to work for on the off chance they might be able to take you. As my time at Montaigne’s Château drew to a close last summer, my thoughts turned to the two month long Easter Vacation I would have from my German university. I knew I wanted to spend this in France but at that point, I was starting to doubt whether anywhere would take me for that amount of time.


However my fears were left unfounded and I quickly managed to secure the internship of my dreams. I mentioned to my boss at the château that I needed to find another placement and she knew that I’d spend much of my free time whilst I was there enjoying the books about Montaigne. One of my favourites focuses on the famous beams in Montaigne’s library, known for their Latin and Greek inscriptions. My boss then suggested that I contact Alain Legros, a frequent visitor to the château and the author of the book. So I quickly translated my CV into French and wrote a letter outlining my interests in 16th Century French literature, my future career plans, and my need for an internship. Within two days I had a reply. He couldn’t offer me anything himself, but he is an associate researcher at the CESR (Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance – the Centre for Renaissance Studies) attached to the University of Tours, so he passed my CV onto someone who could: Marie-Luce Demonet, a Professor of Renaissance French Literature and director of the BVH, the project on which I worked. Within three days, I had a positive response and everything was confirmed after a brief meeting in Oxford in September to discuss practicalities: I had a seven week internship in Digital Humanities in Tours!

Digital books

But before I could get too excited, I had to find somewhere to stay. Finding accommodation in France can be tricky at the best of times due to the huge amount of bureaucracy, and for a two month stay, I didn’t fancy that. Admittedly I started panicking when the university accommodation   website was incredibly unhelpful and looked at Tripadvisor on a whim. I managed to find a studio in the centre of Tours, a ten minute walk from where I would be working and which cost only a fraction more than the university accommodation. I could hardly believe my luck and spent eight wonderful weeks living an almost surreal grown-up existence in the city centre.

Loches chateau (2)

My daily life in Tours was similarly exciting. As an undergraduate who hopes to have a career in academia, I got the chance to experience life at a research centre. I worked on the Digital Humanities project MONLOE <> (MONtaigne à L’Œuvre), which aims to publish digital versions of the sixteenth century philosopher’s essays as well as the books which were once in his library or the sources of his essays. I spent most of my time learning how to edit transcripts and use TEI-XML coding, two transferable skills which were completely new for me, so it was a very intense and beneficial experience. I was trusted to work on a real project, the digitisation of this book,, which, after further editing and several control checks by other members of the team, will eventually appear online as part of the virtual library. It was very rewarding knowing that what I was doing was actually useful and part of a real project, something which can be rare in the world of internships. I also had the opportunity to go to conferences held at the CESR, looks at rare books in the reserve, use the extensive library, and meet professors working on the things which interest me. The other members of the team were friendly, welcoming, and easy to talk to – it’s always good to work in an environment where there are others who share your interests.

Loches donjon

I worked five days a week from nine until six with an hour for lunch. On Fridays, we would go out for lunch as a team, but on the other days I would go and read by the Loire, try out the cafés around the centre, or browse the nearby shops: you can achieve a surprising amount in an hour. Staring at a computer screen all day and doing everything in French was quite tiring, so after work I often just spent the evening relaxing. When I had more energy, Tours was a great city to be in. The cinema, theatre, ice rink, swimming pool, and other attractions, were all within walking distance and every week the university holds events for people interested in languages, so it was easy to meet new people.


Located in the Centre region and in the Loire Valley, Tours was an ideal place for weekend excursions. With a Carte Jeune (the equivalent of a Young Person’s Railcard), I went to Paris three times, Versailles, Orléans, Angers, and also numerous chateaux all over the region, without ever paying more than fifteen euros for a train ticket. At times it felt like I really was in the Renaissance.


Overall, this internship was thoroughly enjoyable, opened my mind to the possibilities offered by an academic career, and had relatively few disadvantages. Obviously an interest in the literature of the French Renaissance was essential and, having spent so many of my waking hours editing 16th Century French, I now often find myself spelling like a Renaissance person, although this is easily rectified. This kind of internship might not be suitable for someone who would prefer to be with lots of people their own age. I enjoy spending time with people older than me, so being the youngest in the office and the centre itself didn’t phase me, but it might not be for you if this would bother you. If there is somewhere you would really like to work but they don’t seem to offer internships, I would always suggest sending that speculative letter…you never know where that might take you!

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 94

“Ambassador, with this precariously balanced heap of nobbly chocolates you are really spoiling us!”

 posted by Simon Kemp

So, the thing is, the British Foreign Office has forgotten how to speak foreign languages. According to an alarming article in the Independent, which you can find here, our diplomats are now so desperately short of language skills that our government can’t even work out what’s going on in the rest of the world.

The UK Government was left in the dark while Russia annexed large parts of Ukraine because British diplomats can’t understand Russian, according to a scathing new report by MPs.

Language skills at the Foreign Office are said to have become so poor that officials were unable to adequately advise the Government on the unfolding annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

“British diplomacy towards Russia and elsewhere has suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office,” Sir Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, told the House of Lords External Affairs Sub-Committee.

“There was quite a lot of complaint in Whitehall after the annexation of Crimea that the Foreign Office had not been able to give the sort of advice that was needed at the time. I think that is regrettable and it marks a change from when I was there.”
The revelations came to light in a report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which has been scrutinising the Foreign Office’s performance.

The committee’s MPs found that only 27 per cent of Russian “speaker slots” at Britain’s foreign ministry were filled by someone who could speak the language to the specified level.

The figure across all languages was only 38 per cent, a fact the committee described as “alarming”.

The cross-party group of MPs found that cuts to the FCO’s budget meant the department was finding it difficult to retain the right level of expertise.

Further government cuts would “probably” mean a significant reduction in Britain’s world influence and a scaling back of its foreign policy ambitions, they concluded.
“The cuts imposed on the FCO since 2010 have been severe and have gone beyond just trimming fat: capacity now appears to be being damaged,” the committee’s MPs wrote.

“If further cuts are imposed, the UK’s diplomatic imprint and influence would probably reduce, and the Government would need to roll back some of its foreign policy objectives.”

The committee’s report also said there were serious shortages of capable Arabic speakers at the Foreign Office – despite a long history of instability in the region.

“It is alarming that the strongest criticisms that we hear about FCO capability relate to regions where there is particular instability and where there is the greatest need for FCO expertise in order to inform policy-making,” they said.

If you fancy helping this country play a role on the world stage, rather than just sitting in the world audience eating popcorn as we are apparently doing at present, then you might like to consider a modern languages degree at Oxford. A degree in Russian, perhaps, available with an A-level, or starting entirely from scratch… Or one in Arabic, maybe. Or why not both? Future ambassadors, conflict negotiators, and James Bonds apply here.

French Roots 2: The Romans (twice)

After the Gauls – whose contribution to the French language we looked at here – come the Romans. Julius Caesar launched an invasion of what would be modern-day France in 58 BCE, and by the end of the decade, Gaul was part of the Roman Empire, in which it would remain for the next five hundred years. With them came the Latin language, and the history of the centuries that followed is one of a gradual displacement of the Gaulish language, from the administrators and traders down to the ordinary people, by the language of the conquerors. In grammar and vocabulary, Latin forms the basis of modern French, as it does for modern Spanish and, more closely still, modern Italian.

The crossed swords mark the sites of battles in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul from 58 to 51 BCE.

The Gallo-Romans spoke a language that was coloured by the older languages of their region, and continued to evolve across the centuries into the various French dialects that made up the language by the medieval period. (The spread of a single, dominant variety of French, based largely on the dialect spoken in Paris, is a much more recent story.) The point in this evolution at which people are no longer speaking Latin, but are now speaking French, is a bit of an arbitrary one. Historians of the French language often point to a document written in the year 842, the Oaths of Strasbourg as the earliest example of written French. It’s an pact between two of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German and the unfortunately nicknamed Charles the Bald, who are ganging up against their brother, Lothair. Would you like a quick look? Here’s the first sentence:

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro cummun saluament d’ist di en auant, in quant Deus sauir et podir me dunat, si saluarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra saluar dift, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui mon uol cist mein fradre Karl in damno sit.

And here’s the same thing in modern French:

Pour l’amour de Dieu et pour le salut commun du peuple chrétien et le nôtre, à partir de ce jour, autant que Dieu m’en donne le savoir et le pouvoir, je soutiendrai mon frère Charles de mon aide et en toute chose, comme on doit justement soutenir un frère, à condition qu’il me fasse autant, et je ne prendrai jamais aucun arrangement avec Lothaire, qui, à ma volonté, soit au détriment de mondit frère Charles.

You might not totally agree that it’s right to call the top one French, but it’s definitely not Latin: the oaths actually include a Latin translation of the Old French text (as well as a German one), showing that people at the time thought of them as quite distinct languages.

What’s interesting here, though, is that precisely at this moment that French was breaking free of Latin to become a separate language in its own right, Latin was making a whole new invasion of France. This time it wasn’t being brought by Roman soldiers, but by French scholars.

In late 700s and 800s, when Charlemagne and his successors ruled much of Western Europe, there were rapid developments in literature, law, the arts, architecture and religion. (The period is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.) All this new scholarship needed new, more rigorous terms, and the scholars turned to Latin to coin new words. Over the preceding centuries, the latin words fragilem (fragile), frater (brother) and proxima (near) had drifted into the French words that would become today’s frêle, frère, and proche. In the Carolingian Renaissance, though, French scholars reached back to Latin to coin more formal words like fragile, or to fill in other parts of speech like fraternel (the adjective ‘brotherly’) or proximité (the noun ‘proximity’ or ‘nearness’). French today is full of pairs like these: a noun like père which has evolved  from the Latin pater over the long centuries since Caesar’s invasion is accompanied by the adjective paternel, coined from a return to the Latin from hundreds of years later . Some other double borrowings from Latin you’ll come across are vide and vacuité (empty and emptiness, both from Latin vacuus), entier and intégrité (whole and wholeness, from Latin integer), aigu and acuité (sharp and sharpness, from Latin acutus), even hôtel and hôpital (both from Latin hospitalis), along with many others. Of course, a similar process happened in English, where we often have words of Anglo-Saxon origin (king), Norman French origin (royal), and Latin origin (regal) rubbing up alongside one another, and becoming more formal the closer we get to Latin.

So that’s Gaulish and Latin as the roots of French. There’s one further important influence to come, though, which slots in between the two Latin waves of Caesar and Charlemagne. The last one, which I’ll tell you about in a future post, is a people who not only left their mark on the French language, but also gave their name to it, as well as to the people who speak it and the country they live in. Our last French root will be the Franks.





Translating Oksa Pollock


posted by Simon Kemp

I’ve written a couple of posts in the past on the particular challenges faced by the poor French translator of the Harry Potter saga, dealing with J. K. Rowling’s wordplay, funny names and made-up magical terms. So I was interested to come across this article by the British translator, Sue Rose, who’s had almost precisely the opposite challenge: translating the French fantasy novels in the Oksa Pollock series into English.

Here’s an extract from the article, in which she talks about finding equivalents in English for the made-up French words in Oksa’s world:

It was a hugely enjoyable challenge to introduce English teenagers to Oksa Pollock, the loveable French heroine with incredible magic powers. Being a translator is like putting on Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility or wearing a layer of Oksa Pollock’s Invisibuls — you don’t want anyone to see you’re there. You need to stay out of sight so that the reader has no idea how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the mix.

While trying to stay invisible, you also have to navigate what feels like a lengthy obstacle course! The first set of walls I had to clamber over was the names of the many adorable, quirky creatures that inhabit Oksa’s world. These were plays on words in French, which meant they couldn’t be left as they were because an English speaker wouldn’t get the joke. I’d take a long run up and launch myself at one of these walls, get half way up, then fall flat on my back. It was totally exhausting! Some of the names were really tough to beat! Here are a few examples to show how I finally overcame the obstacles they presented:

Lunatrix and Lunatrixa: the French—Foldingot and Foldingote—is a combination of “foldingue” (crazy) and “dingo” (nutcase). There are girl and boy Lunatrixes, which in the French is shown by the “e” ending for the girl, so whatever I came up with had to be able to be varied for male and female. We often add “ess” in English to a name to show they are female, as in Prince and Princess, but that didn’t work here. What I came up with was Lunatrix, which is a combination of loony (since they’re crazy little characters) and tricks (for their weird abilities and the tricks they always have up their sleeves). They also have very large, moon-like, eyes so the first part of the name sounds like “lunar”, which relates to the moon. It was then easy to add an “a” on the end to make the female form.

Croakette: the French—Grenette—combines “grenouille” (frog) and the suffix “ette” which refers to a small version of something in both French and English. I was very happy with “Croakette”, which combines “croak” (the sound a frog makes) with “ette”. I also liked the way it sounded like “croquette”, as in potato croquette.

Gargantuhen: the French—Gelinotte—refers to a type of hen of normal size, although the Gelinottes in the book are massive — six feet tall. I was delighted when I came up with Gargantuhen, which plays on the word Gargantuan (which means immense or gigantic and refers to the French author, Rabelais) and is combined here with hen.

That was only the first obstacle though. There were also the names of the amazing magical powers that Oksa and the other Runaways (who had been exiled from an incredible, invisible world somewhere within this world) could use as weapons or useful tools:

Volumiplus: the French—Chuchalotte—is based on the verb “chuchoter” which means to whisper. This power allows someone to hear the tiniest sounds clearly. What I came up with was a name that combined “volume” (which is the amount of sound) and “plus” (the idea of getting louder). Volumiplus also sounded like some of the other powers like Magnetus (which I left the same in French, as it was clear what it meant) and Alpinismus (“Varapus” in the French came from “la varappe”, which means rock-climbing. I used a combination of Alpinism, which means mountaineering in many European languages and refers to the mountain range of the Alps, with the same “us” ending).

You can read the rest here.

Bons mots: la licorne et l’écrevisse


posted by Simon Kemp

Today, we have a short piece of bilingual theatre for you:





A long time ago, in a castle in England. GUINEVERE, a damsel, is embroidering a needlepoint picture of a horse with a horn sticking out of its forehead.

Enter BISCLAVRET, a French knight on holiday, and ISEUT, his lady-friend.

BISCLAVRET (to Guinevere, trying out his best English): Is very nice! What is called?

GUINEVERE (without looking up): ‘Unicorn’.

BISCLAVRET: Excusing me, once again, how you say name?

GUINEVERE (with limited patience): Unicorn.

ISEUT (to Bisclavret): Qu’est-ce qu’elle a dit, l’anglaise?

BISCLAVRET : Elle dit que c’est une icorne.

ISEUT : Ah, bon ?



A château, somewhere in France. ISEUT is busy weaving a tapestry based on a new design she saw on a recent trip to England.

Enter BRENGAINE, her maid.

BRENGAINE: Que c’est beau, madame! En fait, c’est quoi le cheval avec la corne au front?

ISEUT : L’icorne.

BRENGAINE : Ah, ça s’appelle donc une licorne ! Je vais apprendre ce mot à tous mes amis !


OK, so it may not have happened precisely in that way. In fact, the route taken from the Latin unicornis to the French licorne more likely travels via the Italian alicorno. Either way, though, the evolution of the French word really does come through this kind of successive mishearings, adding and subtracting letters at the beginning of the word and then crystalizing  the mistake into the accepted form of the word.

Words invented by mistake like this are surprisingly common, especially when two languages are in contact and the speakers of one language are not always entirely clear what the speakers of the other one are on about. Famously, there are place names, such as Yucatán in Mexico, which were diligently recorded by European explorers as the local name for the area, but which apparently mean  ‘What?’ or ‘What are you saying?’ in the local language. With English and French, misunderstandings have happened in both directions between the two languages…



GUINEVERE and her friend MORGAN LE FAY are visiting ISEUT in her château. The three chums are eating crisps* and paddling in the moat.

MORGAN LE FAY (suddenly): Ugh! There are horrible things scuttling about under the water! Ow! One of them has pinched my toe! Iseut, ma chérie, comment s’appelle cette bête?

ISEUT (indistinctly, through a mouthful of crisps): L’écrevisse.

MORGAN LE FAY: Elles s’appellent les créviches?

ISEUT (already bored and not really listening): Oui, c’est ça.

GUINEVERE: What did she say it was? A cray-fish?

MORGAN LE FAY: Yeah, something like that.

GUINEVERE: Funny, looks more like a lobster to me.

*In pre-Columbian Europe, crisps were made out of thinly sliced fried turnips.


Again, a certain amount of dramatic licence is involved in this reconstruction. Strictly speaking, both the modern French  écrevisse and the English crayfish are descended from the Old French word, crevice. But the fish of crayfish most definitely arises from a corruption of the sound of that last syllable,‘veece’ in the French word, which someone at some point misheard as ‘fish’. And that, dear reader, is how this little fellow…


…who is clearly not a fish at all, came to be known in English as a crayfish.