All posts by Natasha Ryan

Open Days – what to expect

Last month, we brought you news that our open days are coming up in the next few weeks and months. As a reminder the dates are:

You need to book a place for all the open days above in February, March, and May, but you do not need to book for the July and September dates. You can make a booking here.

But you might be wondering what can I expect from an open day? How can I make the most out of my day? Which kind of open day is right for me?

Summer Open Days

Last year, we gave a detailed overview of the university-wide open days in the summer, which you can read here. Most of this advice will also pertain to the 2020 open days in July and September (although note that the dates are different from last year!). This is the right open day for you if you want to explore a few different colleges in one day, or if you’re not sure which subject you’re interested in, as most colleges and departments will be open on these dates. There’s a real buzz around these events but we highly recommend planning your day in advance as the city gets very busy!

Alex, who is currently in his second year of a degree in French and History, has this piece of advice for students coming to the summer open days: ” One piece of advice I have for prospective joint schools applicants would be to research which colleges do not offer your preferred combination before you attend a university-wide open day. That way, you’ll be able to prioritise visiting just the colleges which offer your degree, saving time on the open day and hugely simplifying the daunting college selection process!”

Language-specific open days

However, the Modern Languages-specific open days in the spring are a little different…

First, they include more academic content than a wider open day: because the smaller open days are so focussed in their scope, they can spend more time exploring a subject in depth. So, for example, on the German open day you can have an introduction to German film, linguistics, or different types of literature. On the Spanish and Portuguese open day, you can explore women’s writing in both languages, as well as begin to explore other peninsular languages like Catalan and Galician. The Italian open day will introduce you to one of Italian literature’s biggest names, Dante, and on the Slavonic languages open day you can learn about Czech pop stars!

While the bigger open days will provide a wealth of information about the courses we offer, as well as offer a fantastic opportunity to meet our students and tutors, the sheer scale of these bigger events limits the time and space we have to get stuck in academically. That’s why, if you already know you’re interested in a particualr language, we would encourage you to come along to a language-specific event if you can, as it will really give you a flavour of what it’s actually like to study at Oxford.

Second, the pace of the smaller open days is a little slower. While on the big summer open days you might find yourself rushing around the city, trying to fit in visits to three or four colleges and a couple of departments, the smaller open days are more measured and you will be escorted from one venue to the next. This gives you the time to have in-depth conversations with current undergraduates and tutors and to take in your surroundings.

Nadia, a current student, says: “I went on a Modern Languages Open Day. I found it very useful in giving me useful information on the course structure for both single and joint honours and helpful towards giving advice for the Oxbridge process for the admissions testing and courage to take my subject beyond the classroom. It was useful to also have taster sessions, which I found really enjoyable. It is an encouraging experience, so I would tell students on edge on whether to apply to go to these days as it will give you a gist whether the course and the place is the ‘best place’ for you.”

The general Modern Languages open day

If you’re interested in more than one language, or in studying a language in combination with another subject, you might consider coming to our general Modern Languages open day in May. The advantage of this event is that it offers both a wide overview of Modern Languages at Oxford in the morning, witha chance to ask questions about admissions, and plenty of time to speak to tutors from each language in the afternoon. You can therefore be exposed to more than one language but avoid the time pressures that can sometimes affect the summer open days.

So, if you would like to know more about several languages but you’re not able to attend more than one language-specific open day, this event will be a good opportunity for you to explore different options. There is also a separate Q&A especially for parents.

Fred, who is in his first year studying French and Linguistics, says: “I attended the Modern Languages open day in the May before I applied. I found it useful to understand how the individual subjects that interested me fit into the faculty as a whole, and how the faculty fit into the wider university. As someone applying for a more obscure subject (linguistics), the open day was a good opportunity to find out about the specifics of the course (how the teaching works, what module choices are available in second year) and meet the tutors in a more intimate environment.”

We hope that has given you a sense of which kind of open day might be best for you. Our top tips for any open day are:

  • plan your day in advance, particularly your route to and around Oxford. The city is not very car-friendly and open days can be congested so you will want to research transport options well in advance.
  • research the degrees ahead of time. The University outlines its courses online. Come to an open day with a list of questions to make best use of your time spent with the tutors.
  • talk to our current students. They have been in your shoes in the last couple of years and they remember what it’s like to be making a big decision about your future. Their advice will be friendly, honest and a fair reflection of what it’s really like to study at Oxford.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The tutors are very happy to talk to you about the degree, the way they teach, and how to apply. If something is worrying you or you’re not sure, we would much rather you ask for clarification or advice. As always, we’re happy to answer any questions about the degree(s) we offer and the admissions process if you email schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Hope to see some of you at one of our open days very soon!

Artificial Intelligence in the World of Languages

This post originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog, an AHRC-funded research project that explores the role of creativity in language learning.

What role will Artificial Intelligence play in the world of languages – will it be an opportunity or a threat for language learners? What impact might AI have on endangered languages? Will machine translation ever replace the need for language learning?

In September 2019, Creative Multilingualism worked in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and JNCL (Joint National Committee for Languages) to hold a workshop on the topic of Artificial Intelligence in the World of Languages.

The event brought together academics, teachers and leaders in tech and AI to discuss the impact of improvements in machine translation and language learning technology on future language learners, teachers and speakers of endangered languages.

Watch the below film to hear from the workshop’s participants on three key questions:

  1. Is AI a threat or an opportunity for language learning?
  2. Could Google Translate replace the need for language learning?
  3. Why should we learn languages?

What do you think? Are the machines going to replace us?

Oxford German Olympiad – Round 2 launches

Readers of the blog may remember that Round 1 of the ever-popular Oxford German Network’s Olympiad opened in September, this year on the theme of ‘Natur und Technik‘. We are now pleased to announce that Round 2 has now launched, with a further set of competitions for students in Year 10 upwards. The deadline is 24 April 2020. Read on to find out more about Round 2, and remember – Round 1 remains open until 13 March 2020.

Task 1 – for students in Years 10-13

Ludwig van Beethoven. Prize: £100

Task:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) is reckoned to be the most widely performed composer in the world. Contribute to his 250th anniversary!

Write a blog post (max. 350 words) or create a video (max. 4 minutes) on one of the following topics, or invent your own:

  • Der taube Komponist
  • Beethoven und die Französische Revolution
  • Rock mit Beethoven

Alternatively write a review of a real or fictional Beethoven concert (max. 350 words).

For full details of the competition, download the entry guidelines. Enter using the online form.

Task 2 – for students in Years 12-13

White Rose Project:

In 1943 five students and a professor at the University of Munich were arrested, interrogated, tried, and executed. They were members of The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose), a group that secretly wrote and distributed leaflets calling on the Germans to resist Hitler. The White Rose Project is a research and outreach initiative at the University of Oxford telling the story of the White Rose (Weiße Rose) resistance group in the UK. It currently works in collaboration with the Munich-based Weiße Rose Stiftung, whose mission is to uphold the resistance group’s memory and ‘to contribute to civic courage and individual responsibility and to promote democratic consciousness’.
 

The White Rose Project Writing Competition. Prize: £100. The winning essay will also be featured on the White Rose Project website.

Find out about the White Rose resistance group (die Weiße Rose) and write an essay in German (max. 350 words):
„Was können wir heute noch von der Weißen Rose lernen?“

You can find out more about the group here and on the White Rose Project website.

For full details of the competition, download the entry guidelines. Enter using the online form

Task 3

For undergraduates (second year and above) and postgraduates of German studying at a British or Irish university.
Prize:
£100. The winning translation will also be featured on the White Rose Project website.

Writing Resistance – ‘Flugblattentwurf von Christoph Probst’ (1943)
(Please download the draft of the leaflet here.)
Each submission should consist of two parts:

  1. Produce a translation into English of the draft leaflet written by Christoph Probst in January 1943. Had it been completed and printed, it would have been the seventh leaflet produced by the White Rose group.
  2. Write a commentary on the text (max. 400 words), in English or German,
    referring both to the leaflet itself (its style and historical references) and your approach to translating it.

The competition will be judged by members of The White Rose Project. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

For full details of the competition, download the entry guidelines. Enter using the online form

Task 4: Camden House Book Proposal
Competition open to postgraduates and early-career researchers at a UK or Irish university

Prize: £250 and consideration for publication with Camden House.

Task:
Submit a book proposal for a book that would fit the profile established by Camden House in German studies. In association with Camden House.

For full details of the competition, download the entry guidelines. Enter using the online form

If you have any questions about the Olympiad, please contact the coordinator at olympiad@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.
We hope to see lots of entries to both rounds of the German Olympiad. And to all the Germanists out there – viel Glück!

A Year Abroad on the Côte d’Azur

This post was written by Charlotte, who studies French at Worcester College. Here, Charlotte tells us about her year abroad in France.

2018 was an exciting time to be in France for a year abroad. Over the summer temperatures rose in France with the thrill of the World Cup. Bars were brimming with enthused fans, roars matched every goal and with each win the streets became crowded with waving flags, trumpets and cheers of “Allez les bleus!”. In Montpellier, French football fans climbed on historic monuments and beeped car horns throughout the night. When I was caught watching a football match on my computer at work my boss sat down and joined!

In Montpellier there was a heatwave, or canicule, that summer so I spent my time between the beach and a natural lake, both of which were easy to get to by the tram system running through the city. It was warm enough to swim in the ocean up until the end of September! Every Friday in August there was a wine festival Les Estivales with live music and a range of food stands, every Wednesday there was a firework display at the beach, and every evening in the park Peyrou students relaxed in the cool evening, sometimes playing sport or dancing to music.

Autumn was an important time for me as I was working in a yacht brokerage, and autumn is the season of boat shows so I got to work on the marketing of several yachts across various regions in the South of France. September is also the season of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, a sailboat race in St.Tropez which attracts yachting teams from across the world to compete in.

Winter in Montpellier is very special. The Christmas markets opened at the beginning of December, and their opening was celebrated by a huge light show which saw historic buildings lit up with dazzling light projections.

Winter season also coincided with the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in France, an important event which saw the President, Emmanuel Macron, cave to the demands of the protestors. A year later they are still to be seen on the streets of Paris. At a practical level, it meant that there was less food in the supermarket and it was more difficult to drive to places. Some students I met there got involved with the protests, it was a chance to engage in French social and political issues beyond reading about them in Le Monde.

Years abroad are not a holiday – I was working a full-time job! – but they are an opportunity to make the most of local events and culture which is not always possible in Oxford with the workload and tight deadlines. Towns and regions have different personalities throughout the year, and living abroad allows you to see and experience them all, getting to engage with language and culture beyond the textbook.

Received an offer from Oxford? Here’s some pointers.

This post was written by Ben, a first-year student in French and Spanish at St Hilda’s College. Reflecting on where he was a year ago, at which point he had just received his offer from St Hilda’s, Ben has some handy advice forYear 13 students who have received an offer to study at Oxford.

With a history spanning longer than that of the United Kingdom, a rich diversity of colleges each functioning in a slightly different manner, and the bragging rights of being known as the ‘place where Harry Potter was filmed’, the University of Oxford might appear to be shrouded in mystery and magic. Perhaps it’s for this very reason that all those on the inside (myself included) are consistently asked variations on the question, “what’s it like to be an Oxford student?”.

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, it’s this very question I found myself pondering about this time last year. Following the eternity that the month or so awaiting a response after interviews seems to last, I received that fateful email confirming my place to study French and Spanish at my current college, St Hilda’s. Relief, joy, excitement, uncertainty, a faint nervousness – these are all emotions I would use to describe my reaction to that moment, and emotions I’m certain that some of you kind enough to be reading this blog will be all too familiar with right now, offer obtained, yet unsure as to what to expect.

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash

Thankfully, help is at hand. Now a term into my first year, perhaps the benefit of hindsight will help to shine some light on the process of receiving an offer from Oxford. Here are ­­four pieces of advice if you do so happen to be about to embark on your journey with the University.

1. If you have been made an offer by a college different to the one you originally applied for, don’t sweat it. Whilst it is true that each has a different atmosphere, every student I have spoken to in the first year already cherishes the college that they have ended up at. And this isn’t just smooth phrasing copied and pasted from the university website, no – I’m speaking from personal experience. I myself originally applied to another college, and if I can settle in perfectly, you most certainly will too.

2. Keep an eye on your inbox. Oxford’s team of tutors and academics will often give you advice and support from the moment you’re made an offer – be that in the form of answers to any academic questions you may have, or reading lists to prepare you for the course. If you haven’t turned on notifications for your email app, now’s the time.

3. Go to an offer holder day. Many colleges will run a day specifically designed for the incoming year group. Meet others you may well be sharing a tutorial with, grill those already on the course, perhaps even just get to know the college a little better – regardless of how you spend it, it’s an event well worth attending.

4. Join Freshers’ pages. Oxford students come from a wide range of different places, yet that distance is nothing social media can’t handle. Prospective language students’ group chats are particularly lively, and a great way to meet people if talking to those on the offer holder day is just too twentieth century.

To finish this blog, whilst it may seem daunting at first, arguably the most important piece of advice is that of not panicking. Both your college and other students are fully aware that everything is novel, and that the jump from Sixth Form to university requires some getting used to. Surprising though it may sound, Freshers’ Week is in this sense far more than a social event: it will give you all the valuable information you could possibly need, settling any doubts whose answers you haven’t already found.

And so for now at least, as the expression goes, ‘keep calm and carry on’.

Oxford is open!

If you’re considering your university choices, one of the best ways to get a feel for different universities is to visit them. To that end, we offer a number of open days for propspective students – a chance for you to meet current students and tutors, look around the facilities, find out about the course and the lifestyle, and get a taster of what it’s like to study a particular subject at that university.

In the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford, we organise several different kinds of open day: some are small open days for individual languages, where you can attend sample lectures and immerse yourself in a specific language; we also run a big open day in May which covers all of our languages in one day, offering an overview of Modern Languages at Oxford and Q&A sessions for the different languages and joint degrees; and finally, there are University-wide open days in the summer when most of the departments and colleges are open so that you can get a sense of the University as a whole.

Below you will find the dates of our 2020 open days. You need to book a place on the language-specific open days and on the main Modern Languages open day, but you do not need to book for the university-wide summer open days. You can book here.

  • German, Saturday 29 February
  • Spanish and Portuguese, Friday 6 March
  • Russian and other Slavonic Languages, Saturday 7 March
  • Italian, Saturday 14 March
  • General Modern Languages (all languages we offer and joint schools), Saturday 2 May
  • University-wide open days, Weds 1 and Thurs 2 July, Friday 20 September

Programmes for each of these open days are available here. Please note that there is no specific open day for French: students interested in French should attend the open day in May or one of the open days in July or September.

Stay tuned for more posts about open days – what to expect and how to prepare – but, in the meantime, if you’d like to meet us in person do book a place on one of these events. If you have any questions please get in touch at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk and we look forward to meeting you later in the year!

Multilingual Moon Metaphors

This post was written by Sally Zacahrias, a lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow, and originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is an AHRC-funded project investigating the creative dimension of languages – extending from cognition and production through to performance, texts and translation to language learning.

The year 2019 will be remembered by some as the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. It has been for Moon enthusiasts the chance not only to reflect on Armstrong’s first steps but also what the Moon means to them on a more personal level. The Moon has been compared to a mirror that reflects our passions and beliefs.

As Philip Morton in ‘The Moon. A history for the future’ wrote:

…what people see when they look at the Moon is indeed, for the most part a reflection of themselves – of their preoccupations and theories, their dreams and fears. It has been used for such reflection, or projection in science and fiction alike (Morton 2019:20).

These Moon celebrations also provided me with an opportunity to explore what the Moon meant to people of different cultural and language backgrounds. The Moon is a powerful lens for understanding and comparing different cultures as, firstly, it features so strongly in all cultures and, secondly, it has come to symbolise many everyday concepts (love, friendship, beauty, time) that are shared between members of different cultural groups.

Culture can be thought of as a set of shared ways to frame concepts that characterise groups of people and often these understandings are reflected in the metaphors used by people belonging to those cultural groups. When linguists talk about metaphors they mean that they describe one thing in terms of another, so ‘The Moon is made of cheese’ is an example of a metaphor. The surface of the Moon (which is strange and a bit abstract) is being compared to a cheese with holes in it. One way to find out what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is to look at the various Moon idioms they use, a specific type of metaphorical expression. Here are some examples that I have collected as part of this project:

IdiomLanguageLiteral
Translation
MeaningAbstract
concept
associated with the

Moon
être dans
la lune
Frenchto be in
the Moon
head in the
clouds
thinking/day-dreaming
spadł z
księżyca
Polishto fall from
the Moon
behaving
strangely
thinking/
irrationality
er lebt
hinter dem Mond
Germanhe lives
behind the Moon
he has no
idea what’s
going on in
the world
irrationality/
strange
behaviour
I love you to the Moon
and back
English to love
someone
very much
love
oli mumanzi nka kwezi Rutooro you’re as
brave as the Moon
very bravebravery/
emotional
strength
many
Moons
ago
Englisha long time
ago
time
月有陰晴圓缺 Mandarinthe moon is dark bright
round and
missing a
piece
to say life is uncertain,
not all plain
sailing
life
14 قمر Arabicfull Moon/
Moon of 14
beauty
(woman’s)
beauty

During the summer, I and a team of science and language students from the School of Education at University of Glasgow ran a couple of workshops, ‘Stories and Science of the Moon’, for families as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. One activity involved asking family members what they thought each of these Moon idioms meant. I showed them the idiom in the original language and its literal translation. Interestingly, although the participants said they didn’t know the language about 70% of the answers were correct!

One plausible explanation for this is that many of these idioms are based on what we call ‘embodied’ metaphors. These are when mental images that we have developed through our interaction with the physical world are used to understand more abstract concepts. So, ‘I love you to the Moon and back’ is based on the image of a long distance representing the intensity of a feeling. These embodied metaphors are thought to be understood across almost all languages and cultures. So, when trying to understand an unfamiliar expression, such as an unknown idiom, we use these embodied metaphors as sense-making resources.

During the workshop, we also explored how narratives and images of the Moon from around the world have changed our perspective of how we understand the universe and our place in it. For example, we looked at how Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer-mathematician, wrote about travelling to the Moon in ‘Somnium – the Dream’ in 1609, considered by many to be the first ever piece of science fiction. The story was written in Latin, at a time when people thought that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. However, Kepler believed differently. By telling a story in which a boy and his mother are taken to the Moon by the moon spirit, and by using the Moon as an analogy of the Earth, Kepler was able to change people’s perspectives of what they normally take for granted. Seeing the everyday through a different image, narrative or language can really transform our sense of reality!

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

We also explored how almost every civilisation has used the Moon to govern daily life. Its regular phases and movements have been used for calendrical purposes to mark time in many cultures. Ancient time was both measured by the phases of the Moon but it was also the measure of our activities: certain behaviours were assigned to particular phases of the Moon. This can be still seen today in certain religious and cultural festivals that are orchestrated by the Moon, for example, Easter, Ramadan and the Chinese Moon festival.

To explore how the Moon features in people’s lives today at a more individual level, and to discover what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I have interviewed a number of families, all living in Glasgow, over a period of six months. The families spoke either Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or English: some of the languages that make up Glasgow’s vibrant linguistic landscape. I have been looking at how the family members use metaphor to talk about time, and other abstract concepts, in relation to the Moon. We tend to think that time is a universal concept, experienced the same way by everyone. However, my data shows that people’s conceptions of time, when talking about the Moon, vary in interesting and subtle ways depending on their cultural background, the stories and books they’ve read, the languages they speak and their age.

This study shows that although we all share and know the Moon, different cultures and languages have responded to the Moon in contrasting ways. Understanding this diversity allows for a more complete picture of what makes us human, and how we through our different languages relate to our natural world.

A special thank you to all my language enthusiasts who have been part of this project’s creation: Dangeni, Rui He, Nourah Alshalhoub, Heba Elmaraghi, Idris Al Adawi, Agnieszka Uflewska, Aneta Marren, Annette Islei, Colin Reilly, and to the families I interviewed!

A New Year’s Gift

In this last blog post before Christmas, we take a look at a festively themed quatrain written by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in 1896. One of a group of poems called ‘Dons de fruits glacés au Nouvel an’ [Gifts of glazed fruits at the New Year], these four lines commemorate the turning of the year in a single crystallised image:

Le temps
                nous y succombons
Sans l’amitié pour revivre
Ne glace que ces bonbons
A son plumage de givre.

[Time
                we succumb to it
Without friendship to relive
It glazes only these sweets
With its feathers of frost.]

Stéphane Mallarmé

A very brief bit of background about Mallarmé…

Stéphane [Étienne] Mallarmé was born in Paris in 1842 and died in 1898 in Valvins, near Fontainebleau. He is one of the most famous French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century and is often linked to the Symbolist movement, although Mallarmé himself resisted this categorisation to a degree. The Symbolists were broadly interested in pursuing the ‘Idée’ and adopted Mallarmé’s attempt to ‘peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit’ [paint, not the thing itself, but the effect it produces]. They sometimes took an avant-garde approach to poetic form, and were amongst the earliest writers to experiment with vers libre and prose poetry. Mallarmé himself produced poetry in both verse and prose, as well as critical work and the long experimental poem Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. His poetry is known for its syntactic playfulness and linguistic precision, each poem representing a challenge to the reader and opening up a space for potentially limitless interpretation. Blank space, nothingness, the void – these become the source of artistic creation as the poet sought to bring something out of nothing, striving to evoke no one flower but, rather, ‘l’absente de tous bouquets’ – the ideal flower that cannot be found in any real bouquet.

So what about the poem itself?

This quatrain is an example of what Mallarmé called ‘vers de circonstance’: circumstantial poems, written for a particular occasion or in response to stimuli he encountered in his everyday life. For instance, in addition to writing a number of poems around holiday times to mark the Christmas, New Year, and Easter periods, he wrote toasts to be given at special dinners, birthday poems for his friends, and even snippets of poetry to his correspondents when he sent them letters, the poems a playful way of representing the recipient’s address.

These vers de circonstance are often amusing but they can also gesture towards some of the more serious themes within Mallarmé’s wider work, a more lighthearted way for him to reflect on the deeper questions he had explored elsewhere. Let’s dive deeper into this example…

Close reading

The opening words of the poem reveal its central concern: time and the effect of time on personal relationships and on the writing process. We are told that ‘nous succombons‘ – we succumb – to time, thereby personifying it in an image that suggests oppression or temptation and yielding. Time is also the subject of the verb ‘glacer’ and the possessor of a ‘plumage de givre’: two icy images of an abstract temporal figure.

And yet, there is someone else also present in this poem: the speaker. And the speaker is not isolated and solitary, but speaks in the first person plural, ‘nous succombons’. Who is this ‘nous’? With whom is the speaker interacting? We don’t know exactly, but what we do know is that the poem accompanies a ‘don de fruits glacés au nouvel an’, a gift of glazed or candied fruits, or bonbons, to commemorate the new year. We might therefore assume a degree of friendship between the speaker and the addressee as they are close enough to exhange this gift. The bonbons are an illustration of intimacy and this is also true of the poem itself, where that ‘nous’ acts as a link binding two people, a textual representation of their friendship.

Speaking of friendship, that ‘sans amitié’ might feel out of place at first (this is one of the challenges of reading Mallarmé!). Who, we might ask, is friendless? We are tempted to assume it is the person most recently referred to in the line above – the speaker and his nameless addressee. But this does not make sense, because we know that the speaker and his addressee are exchanging a festive gift and that neither of them can therefore be thought friendless. The only other option is that time itself must be friendless. The personification of time, together with the icy imagery, suggests that time is a lonesome figure, which can only freeze the world around it, whereas the speaker and his addressee have the warmth of companionship.

Candied orange slice.

But it’s not all solitude and misery because there’s an element of humour at work in this poem as well. Immediately, our eye is drawn to the split first line: by breaking the line in this place and indenting ‘nous succombons’, Mallarmé offers us a visual pun on the verb ‘succomber’ as the second half of the line submits to the first by continuing below it.

Moreover, the more oppressive tone of ‘succombons’ is offset by the fact that it rhymes with ‘bonbons’. The reference to sweets lightens the mood: we may be talking about submission but we are also talking about candy. Putting aside the possibility of some nightmarish Willy Wonka vision, the bonbons add a dose of characteristic Mallarméan playfulness to a serious reflection on our relationship to time. In this reading, time might appear less as an oppressor exerting pressure, and more as a temptation to which we might reluctantly give in – and it is difficult not to hear the echo of ‘temps’ in ‘tentation’.

Besides the succombons/bonbons pairing, there is another important rhyme in the poem: revivre/givre. ‘Givre’, meaning frost, is a reference to the sugar which coats the fruit offered in the poem. If we speak of ‘une orange givrée’, we mean a candied orange, with ‘givré’ in this sense a synonym for ‘glacé’. If you picture a slice of candied orange, it is easy to see how the sugar resembles frost. But this is no accidental allusion to frost, just as ‘glacer’ is no accidental allusion to ice: winter imagery is common in Mallarmé’s poetry and is a means for him to think about the creative process. In his earlier poetry, this is a way of figuring sterility, an anxiety about writing in the fin de siècle (the late nineteenth century) when Mallarmé would write in another poem, ‘Brise marine’: “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres” [The Flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books]. Creativity has been exhausted and time, that icy figure, has rendered poetry infertile.

In this sense, the winter imagery of this quatrain is in dialogue with some of Mallarmé’s other, more extensive texts. We might think particularly of his text ‘Hérodiade’, a dramatic poem related to the story of Salomé, and which centres around a virgin princess who frets over her own purity. Sterility is a central theme in this text, and Hérodiade expresses this with reference to both coldness and her mirror: ” la froideur stérile du métal,/ […]/ Assez! Tiens devant moi ce miroir./ Ô miroir!/ Eau froide par l’ennui dans ton cadre gelée […]” [the sterile coldness of the metal,/ […]/ Enough! Hold this mirror before me./ O mirror! Cold water frozen by ennui in your frame […].].
This alignment of the mirror with coldness recalls the double meaning of ‘glace’ as both ice and mirror. Thus, when this new year’s quatrain refers to time’s ability to ‘glacer’ the bonbons, we might consider that time is not only glazing the fruit but is also mirroring it or rendering it double. Where might we look for the reflection or double of the fruit? Perhaps to the poem itself, which acts as the fruit’s double, a glazed offering of friendship as a riposte to temporal suspension.

Besides ‘Herodiade’, the other clear intertextual reference is to Mallarmé’s sonnet ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, which focuses on the image of a swan trapped on a frozen lake, unable to fly. Traditionally, swans have been a metaphor for poets, and the fact that Mallarmé’s swan is grounded indicates we are once again dealing with the question of poetic sterility. This poem alludes to many of the things mentioned in our New Year’s quatrain, evoking in particular “Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre/ Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!” [This hard, forgotten lake which is haunted beneath the ice/ By the transparent glacier of flights which have not taken off!] and also referring to the swan’s ‘plumage’. The fact that ‘plumage’ appears again in the New Year’s quatrain reinforces the suggestion that this quatrain was written with Mallarmé’s earlier sonnet in mind. In the quatrain, the word ‘plumage’ gestures towards the fronds of sugar on the candied fruit which may resemble feathers, but it also alludes to a ‘plume’, a feather or quill, and is therefore a nod to the act of writing. By reading this quatrain alongside Mallarmé’s other writing, we see the themes of sterility and writing come to light.

So it becomes clear that this is a poem about poetry: about what it means to write and the frustrations of the creative process, which can feel sterile or infertile. Nonetheless, while the Mallarmé of the 1860s, who wrote ‘Hérodiade’ and ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, was anxious about sterility, we should bear in mind that Mallarmé’s later poetry moved away from this preoccupation and towards a different way of understanding the bare white space of winter: as a blank canvas waiting for the writer and reader to bring it to life. The mirror’s surface, the icy lake, the blank page: these become a space of endless potentiality. The New Year’s quatrain, written in 1896, may be more reflective of this later Mallarmé than the early Mallarmé. This is why it is important that ‘givre’ rhymes with ‘revivre’: there is room here for renewal and creative hope. What’s more, the ghost rhyme latent in a poem such as this must surely be ‘livre’, another reference to writing. In this light, time may offer potential for renewal as opposed to a sterilising of creativity, and we might indeed read that ‘succomber’ as an indication of temptation rather than oppression.

This lighthearted quatrain, therefore, is more than simply a few trite lines composed on the occasion of sending a friend a gift of candied fruit. The poem itself is a present, an embodiment of friendship, and it is also a comment on the writing process. Permanence, the act of creation across the blank page, fin-de-siècle stasis and renewal: all are encompassed in this small text. Poetry thus becomes a way of submitting to, but also resisting, time. It is a new year’s gift to us, as readers, an offering of renewal.

We hope you enjoyed that reading of a festive quatrain in our last post before Christmas. We’ll be back on 8th January and all that remains to be said is Happy New Year – or bonne année!

Flash Fiction Competitions Launch

It’s the time of year again when we launch our annual competitions in French and Spanish! If you are learning French and/or Spanish in Years 7-13, you are invited to send us a very short story to be in with a chance of winning up to £100. Read on to find out more…

What is Flash Fiction?

We’re looking for a complete story, written in French or Spanish, using NO MORE THAN 100 WORDS.

How short can it be?

Well, candidates for the World’s Shortest Story include a six-word story in English by Ernest Hemingway:

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

Or a seven-word story in Spanish by Augusto Monterroso, called El dinosaurio:

‘Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.’

You don’t have to be as brief as that, but anything from six to a hundred words will do. Just not a single word more.

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

What are the judges looking for?

We’ll be looking for imagination and narrative flair, as well as your ability to write in French or Spanish. Your use of French or Spanish will be considered in the context of your age and year group: in other words, we will not expect younger pupils to compete against older pupils linguistically. For inspiration, you can read some of last year’s winning entries and runners up for French here, or for Spanish here.

What do I win?

There are two categories: Years 7-11 and Years 12-13. A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. The winning entries will be published on our this blog, if you give us permission to do so.

How do I enter?

The deadline for submissions is noon on Tuesday 31st March 2020.

If you would like to submit a story in French please do so via our online sumission portal here.

If you would like to submit a story in Spanish please do so here.

You may only submit one story per language but you are welcome to submit one story in French AND one story in Spanish if you would like to. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or pdf.

The online page will ask you to fill in some details, which are used for the purpose of administering our outreach activity. To understand how your data is used for this purpose, please read the Privacy Policy. Please note that, because of GDPR, teachers cannot enter on their students’ behalf: students must submit their entries themselves.
If this is the first time you have entered a competition with us, you will be sent an automated email (check your spam folder if you can’t find this), which will include a link to verify your email address. Please click this link, which will take you to the Modern Languages Faculty website (you will be given an option to sign up to the newsletter. You do not have to sign up to the newsletter in order to enter the competition, although you are welcome to do so). Once you have clicked the confirmation link in the email, your entry has been submitted.
If you have entered this competition before you won’t receive an automated email as it is simply to check that the email address you’ve submitted works so that we can email you the results.

If you have any questions, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Good luck! Bonne chance! ¡ Mucha suerte!

Paper Frenchmen: Francophone Indian literature

In late November, Oxford welcomed the writer Ari Gautier and his translator into English, Prof. Blake Smith, for a discussion about Francophone Indian Literature and about Gautier’s writing in particular. Part of the ‘World Literatures’ strand of the Creative Multilingualism programme, this event was convened by Prof. Jane Hiddleston and Sheela Mahadevan. Here we reflect on a few highlights…

Currently based in Oslo, Ari Gautier spent his childhood in former French colony Pondichéry, India. He is the author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, two novels which creatively intersperse Tamil, Hindi, Créole and English with French, reflecting the multilingual identities of those living in Pondichéry. His works give an insight into the impact of the French rule on the lives of Pondichéry citizens, their constantly vacillating identities, the multicultural aspect of the city, the Indian caste system, and the history of Pondichéry.

The ‘World Literatures’ strand of Creative Multilingualism is interested in texts where multiple languages brush up against one another, prompting questions about the boundaries of what a language is. This research wants to explore how worldliness and cultural transfer is present within a text from the moment of its inception, and how multilingualism speaks to multiculturalism. The research aims to expose interactions between different languages within a text, not just by examining the different languages in which a text is written, but also seeking out the traces of other languages through allusions to them or even by the notable absence of certain languages in a text. Gautier’s novels, with their interspersing of at least five languages, therefore seem like a perfect fit.

Prof. Smith gave a useful overview of the status of Francophone Indian Literature. To begin with, he acknowledged that it’s not necessarily something the general English reader will be aware of. When we think of Francophonie, we perhaps automatically think of certain countries in West Africa, Canada, or French-speaking East Asia or Oceania. However, France had a colonial presence in India from the seventeenth century. That said, Francophone Indian Literature was only really published from the late nineteenth century onwards and, during the twentieth century, French acted as a secondary language for many writers who were primarily writing in other languages. Academic interest in the French colonial legacy within Indian writing is fairly recent, and Prof. Smith recommended an anthology of Francophone Indian short stories for anyone who wishes to explore further: Écriture indienne d’expression française, edited by Vijaya Rao (Yoda Press & La Reunion par Le GERM, 2008).

Photo by Muhammed Jiyadh on Unsplash

The panel then turned to a discussion of how multilingualism operates within Gautier’s writing. Here is an extract from Gautier’s novel, Le Thinnai:

— Gilbert, va m’acheter un Suruttu à la boutique. Il te reste encore de la monnaie, n’est-ce pas ?
Voyant Gilbert fouiller désespérément ses poches, mon père lui dit d’aller chez Karika Bhai et d’acheter un paquet de Suruttus sur son compte.
— Oh, je suis à la retraite depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. J’ai fait le strict nécessaire sous les drapeaux pour pouvoir bénéficier de la retraite et je suis retourné au pays, répondit mon père après s’être allumé une cigarette.
— Pourquoi vous n’y êtes pas resté ? Vous ne vous plaisiez pas en métropole ?
— Ce n’est pas une question de s’y plaire ou pas. J’avais juste envie de revenir parmi les miens. Même si je m’étais fondé une famille là-bas, il me paraissait tout à fait naturel de rentrer chez moi.
— Mais la France, c’est aussi chez vous ! Vous êtes citoyen français.
Papa laissa échapper une bouffée de fumée ; il tapotait la cigarette sur le bord du cendrier et parut réfléchir.
— Oui, je suis français. Mais je suis indien en même temps. C’est ici que je suis né, mes ancêtres sont d’ici. Mes racines sont là. Même si j’ai vécu en métropole pendant quelque temps, il m’a paru normal de rentrer chez moi. Il n’y a aucune différence entre moi et un Breton ou un Normand qui aurait envie de retourner chez lui après avoir passé du temps en dehors de sa région natale. Sauf que moi, c’est un peu plus loin… Il marqua un temps d’arrêt pour tirer une bouffée. Mais vous connaissez aussi bien que moi l’histoire de notre pays ; surtout, l’histoire de Pondichéry. Ma famille est française depuis deux générations et je fus le premier à partir en métropole. Jusqu’ici nous n’avions que le statut de Français sur les documents ; mais nous étions profondément indiens. Enfin, nous le sommes toujours. Comment pouvez-vous vous sentir français, sans avoir jamais mis les pieds dans ce pays. Mes parents viennent d’un milieu modeste et n’ont pas eu accès ni à la langue ni à la culture française. L’univers français nous était totalement étranger. La seule chose qui nous rapprochait des Européens était le culte de la religion catholique. À part ça, nous vivions dans deux mondes différents. Notre allégeance à la France se trouvait enfermée dans une vieille malle en ferraille dans l’espoir qu’un jour, un des descendants l’ouvrirait et utiliserait ce morceau de papier. Pendant longtemps, nous ne fûmes pas considérés comme citoyens français ; nous n’étions que des sujets de la nation.
—Mais, toute ces années passées dans l’armée française n’ont pas su éveiller en vous un sentiment d’appartenance à ce pays ?
Mon père écrasa la cigarette au fond du cendrier et se versa une nouvelle rasade. Il se leva pour aller servir le vieil homme et vint s’asseoir sur le petit thinnai. Il tenait le verre de whisky dans sa main droite et regardait les bulles de soda qui remontaient à la surface du verre. Il reprit la parole en se passant la main gauche sur les cheveux d’avant en arrière ; geste qu’il avait l’habitude de faire quand il réfléchissait longuement.
— Je ne connais pas votre histoire, l’ancien, mais vous avez l’air de quelqu’un qui connaît la vie. Vivre en exil est une énorme malédiction. Certes, mon éloignement fut volontaire ; mais à mon époque, nous n’avions pas beaucoup de choix. Partir était le seul moyen d’échapper à une vie indigente. Nos parents et grands-parents qui avaient opté pour la nationalité française avaient fait de nous une génération d’immigrés dans notre pays qui était la France. Indigènes de la nation, nos vies n’ont connu que les tranchées, les coups de feu et les rations militaires. Inconscients et aveugles ignorants, nous sommes partis combattre nos frères malgaches, indochinois et algériens. À aucun moment, la notion que nous étions coupables de complicité involontaire aux massacres d’un pouvoir colonial ne nous a effleurés. Nous nous battions contre des ennemis de notre Mère patrie. Nous en étions fiers. Mais malgré notre fidélité envers elle, l’idée du retour fut plus instinctive. Après tout, nous n’étions que des indigènes des Troupes Coloniales ; la France n’a jamais été notre patrie. Cet attachement ambivalent que nous avons envers elle est une anomalie de l’histoire.  

And here it is in Prof. Smith’s English translation:

 “Gilbert, go buy me a suruttu at the shop. You still have money, don’t you?”
Watching Little Gilbert fumble despairingly in his pockets, my father told him to buy a suruttu from Karika Bhai, and add it to the soldier’s account.
“Oh, I’ve been retired for twelve years now. I did the absolute minimum to earn my pension, and now I’m back.” My father answered, lighting a cigarette.
“Why didn’t you stay? You didn’t like it in France?”
“It wasn’t a question of liking it or not. I just wanted to come back to my own people. Even if I started a family there, it seemed natural to come back home.”
“But France, that’s home too! You’re a French citizen.”
My father exhaled a puff of smoke. He tapped the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and seemed to think it over.
“Oh, I’m French. But Indian, too. I was born here. So were my ancestors. My roots are here. And after spending some time outside their own province, even a Breton or a Norman wants to go home. It’s the same with me. But my home is a little farther… you must know the history of Pondicherry as well as I do. My family has been French for generations, but I was the first one to go to France. Until then we were just paper Frenchmen; really we were Indians. Really we still are. How can you feel French, if you’ve never set foot there? My parents came from nothing; they didn’t know French or French culture. The only thing that connected us to the Europeans was the church. Besides that, it was two different worlds.”
“But all those years in the French army, didn’t they make you feel like you were part of the nation?”
My father crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and poured another drink. He got up to fill the old man’s glass and sat back down. He held his whisky in his right hand, watching the soda bubbles rise to the surface. He ran his left hand through his hair, which he always did when he had to think hard about something.
“I don’t know your story, old one, but you seem like you know a thing or two about life. Living in exile is a curse. Sure, I chose it, but back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Leaving was the only way out of poverty. Trenches, gunshots, and rations, that was all we knew. We fought our brothers in Madagascar, Indochina and Algeria. We never thought we might be guilty of anything. We felt nothing, saw nothing, understood nothing. We fought the enemies of the motherland. We were proud. But in spite of our faithful service, we wanted to come home. We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk of history.”

The question of French culture and how far it can coexist alongside an Indian identity is central to this passage, a fact that is emphasised and complicated by the fact that the novel is written largely in French. But, of course, this passage is not entirely in French. What about that reference to a suruttu? A suruttu is a cigar, what we would call in English a ‘cheroot’, from the French cheroute, which itself comes from the Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu/suruttu. In this way, a single word, referring to an everyday item, can illuminate a complicated multilingual interaction.

Similarly the reference to the Tamil word thinnai is an example of what we might think of as an untranslatable word. A thinnai is a raised platform built adjacent to the main entrance of a house. It is common in Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. Traditionally, it was a place where elders could rest to talk to neighbours and friends, and where strangers could stop for respite when passing through the town. Thus, in a text written mostly in French we see how a reference to another language can evoke a whole set of cultural values – hospitality, community, conversation. The porous borders between languages can facilitate and reveal the coexistence of multiple cultures.

Gautier talked about his own multilingual background, explaining that he spoke French with his father but Tamil with his uncle. Growing up in Pondicherry, he said that every street seemed to have its own language and he moved around a lot: his universe evolved with languages. When asked about the fact that his first novel included footnotes to explain Tamil words to non-Tamil speakers, but his second novel did not, Gautier confirmed that this was a deliberate decision. Footnotes could be seen as a form of linguistic colonisation – an attempt to make the Tamil words fit more comfortably within a French-language text. By deciding not to explain the Tamil in his second novel, Gautier refused to compromise Tamil. He said that using footnotes made him feel alien to his own language.

The wide-ranging discussion moved on to cover many aspects of Gautier’s writing, including its cinematic quality, the role of received memory in constructing his narratives and the question of mythology. While we don’t have room to touch on all those topics here, we will end by mentioning one further question that was raised, and which again highlights the porous potentiality of multilingualism: the use of Creole in Gautier’s novels.

Le Thinnai includes a character called Lourdes, a servant who speaks in Creole. One of the important roles Creole plays in a novel written largely in French is to recognise a community that has been overlooked. Gautier explained that in Pondicherry there is a problematic hierarchy between what is known as ‘haut-créole’ and ‘bas-créole’. Someone who is ‘haut-créole’ is of mixed French and Indian descent, whereas someone who is ‘bas-créole’ is not of French descent but nonetheless speaks a creolised form of French. The character Lourdes is ‘bas-créole’. She insists that she speaks French but other characters think she is speaking in Creole. The inclusion of Creole in this novel therefore performs the difficulties of thinking about translingualism: how far is it a language in its own right? How far is it a corrupted form of French? Might we think of it as an enhanced form of French?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the notion of multilingualism and translingualism in World Literatures. You can dig a little deeper into Francophone Indian literature by reading Prof. Smith’s piece ‘Indian Literature speaks French‘ or follow Ari Gautier on Twitter.