All posts by Natasha Ryan

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.

Literature Masterclass: Dürrenmatt

You may remember that in the past this blog has featured clips from our sixth form literary masterclass: our tools and tips for sixth formers approaching literature in a foreign language for the first time. Past episodes have included a French introduction to ‘Time and Tense’ and an introduction to ‘Theatricality’, also with a French focus. Today, we shift the focus to German and consider the theme of ‘Perspective’ in a text that is commonly studied as part of the German A Level: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Dr Karolina Watroba explores this topic in the video below, showing how a few key quotations can reveal the shifting points of view represented in the play.

Humanities at Work

Earlier this month, The Oxford Reseach Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) hosted an event which shone a spotlight on why the humanities are valued in the world of work. Entitled ‘Humanities at Work: a panel discussion on why employers value humanities degrees’, the event took the form of a discussion between three professionals who studied humanities subjects and have gone on to successful careers in business and finance. Here we cover some of the highlights of the discussion.

The discussion was chaired by Philip Bullock, Professor of Russian Literature and Music, and Director of TORCH. The three panelists were:

  • Jiaxi Liu, from the investment business Baillie Gifford. Dr Jiaxi Liu trained as a classical pianist and has a PhD in music cognition. She has been working as an investment analyst for three years.
  • Adam Lisle, from the supermarket Lidl. Adam Lisle is a senior HR professional, who works at Lidl GB as Head of Recruitment and Employer Brand. He has worked for Lidl for 14 years, including 17 months in Germany, where he gained valuable language skills. He studied European Business Management at university.
  • Micah Coston, Perrett Laver. Dr Micah Coston is a Senior Research Associate at Perrett Laver, a company which identifies and engages global candidates for leadership roles in Higher Education. His undergraduate degree was in Music and he has an MA in Performance Studies and another in Shakespeare Studies, as well as D. Phil. in English Literature.

Does choosing a degree subject limit you?

Mr Lisle said that he remembers agonising over which subject to study, and even doubting his choice during the degree itself. But employers look across a wide range of degrees and are interested in what you learn during the experience of gaining a degree and how you translate that to a professional context, rather than necessarily focussing on the subject itself. Dr Liu emphasised the role of critical thinking, literacy, and the ability to construct an argument – all skills acquired in a humanities degree. Dr Coston added that you are only limited by yourself so it is important to know your own skill set and follow your strengths, regardless of degree choice.

How do we differentiate between the subject studied and the skills acquired during a degree?

Dr Liu and Mr Lisle agreed that humanities students have a different way of approaching a problem, and that this is useful in the workplace, where sometimes a variety of viewpoints are needed in order to solve problems collaboratively. Dr Coston felt we should not necessarily be putting the emphasis on vocation when we think about degree choice. In other words, we should not only think of a degree as a route to a job but also value it for what we learn in terms of personal development: learning how to think, feel, and grow.

Is there anything a humanities degree does not equip us with? Where are the gaps between what we learn at degree level and the world of work?

The panelists made the point that adapting to the world of work is hard. It takes time to understand how to apply what you’ve learned to a professional context. The work is never really complete in that each report you produce, for example, will be a prompt for future discussion in a constant process of development and learning. We have to recognise that, even when in a job, we are engaged in a workin progress, always building. Deadlines are important, as is being able to deliver something well, but we also need to undertand that everything we produce serves as inspiration for the next step.

What advice should we give to humanities graduates when preparing for a job?

Research the company and make sure it’s a good fit for you and that you share the company’s values. Understand what you’re getting into before applying and try to find out what the company doesn’t know about itself. Think about your own goals: if you are approaching an employer to explore your options e.g. at a careers fair, the conversation will be smoother if you know what you want and can help steer the discussion. It’s also worth recognising that if a challenge seems insurmountable during the application process, it might simply not be the right job for you. When you’re looking for jobs try to talk to people as much as possible because online applications can be demoralising if you do lots of them. It’s important to meet the people behind the company and talk to them – this is where humanities students have an advantage.

What are the key employability skills humanities graduates have? Are there any they don’t have?

Communication is a key pillar of any big, varied company. Humanities students who know how to communicate clearly and precisely will be valued. Teamwork and leadership are also important: the humanities teach us to think independently, so that we learn to define and own a project. The danger, however, is that we may become too attached to a project and reluctant to let it go. Businesses sometimes require us to let go and move on to the next project.

Do employers value freelance experience?

It’s important to have some experience of applying skills to a practical context so it may be worth doing an internship or a bit of freelancing, or even a micro-internship, so that you start to adjust your perspective early on. But don’t neglect your degree! Focus on developing you as yourself, rather than trying to fit a particular company while you’re still studying.

How will technology change the skills employers are looking for?

We have to work with technology and make it work for us, not vice versa. Technology is not a replacement but a collaborator. We will need new skills to deal with technology, and technology cannot replace creativity, which humanities students have in abundance.

What should humanities students do now to prepare for the job market?

Explore what’s on offer in terms of jobs and figure out what drives you. Above all, enjoy your degree and make the most of it!

Thanks to all the speakers, TORCH, and St Cross College who hosted the event. If you’re thinking of applying to Oxford, you might like to know that we have a brilliant Careers Service, staffed by a team with lots of expert knowledge, advice and experience. As well as offering a comprehensive skill-building programme they offer hundreds of internships in over 40 countries and advertise thousands of job opportunities on their own CareersConnect website. This is open not just to current students, but to alumni throughout their life.

German at Oxford: Learning more than the language

In past weeks we have heard from two of the inaugural Lidl prize winners for German, Anna and Cecilia. Today we hear from a third winner. Rachel studies German and History at Merton College. Here she tells us what it’s like to study German at Oxford and how the linguistic and literary sides of the degree intertwine...

A common misconception about studying languages both at school and university is that its sole function is to learn the language in question. Although this may be the case at GCSE, A level students will soon discover that culture, identity, politics and history come hand in hand with any linguistic studies. These themes become far more prominent at degree level, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that languages at university is an incredibly exciting and varied area which encapsulates all humanities subjects.

Although the importance of multilingualism in business and diplomacy is often (and rightly) emphasised in the promotion of language learning, studying German at Oxford has so far taught me that a language degree offers even more than these highly employable skills. As a joint schools student studying History alongside German I have always seen the main focus of my degree as culture; the combination of linguistic and historical awareness is what gives us the greatest understanding of societal and national identities. Oxford’s emphasis on literature as a way of accessing foreign culture is incredibly powerful, as it not only explores the use and intricacies of the language, but also addresses the country’s history and art. This became particularly evident to me during our term of studying German poetry, which explores history and philosophy through methods whose effects would be completely lost in translation. The depth of literary study at Oxford can be daunting given the limited experience A level offers in this area, but the support given through lectures and tutorials means that even the most impenetrable novels can be discussed and appreciated as gateways to foreign language and culture.

The most important thing my first year has taught me is that languages at Oxford does not demand heavy pre-reading and prior knowledge; I had only read two German books before and had never even considered being able to read any pre-twentieth century literature! Understanding of the language and methods comes with time, but is made easier by enthusiasm and an open mind to the history and ideas which it is trying to share.

At the Library door in Oxford: an imaginary interview between a Librarian and a Philanthropist

We have an unusual post on this week’s Adventures on the Bookshelf, but one very much in keeping with the blog’s name as today’s post touches on both adventure and bookshelves! Last week, Frank Egerton gave us a brilliant introduction to the Modern Languages Library at Oxford, the Taylor Institution. Now, continuing the theme of libraries, we are pleased to feature an imaginary interview with Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This interview comes once again courtesy of Frank, who has imagined Sir Thomas’s responses to some probing questions about his life and his library.
The interview has been published in English on the blog Clio – la muse de l’histoire, and Francophiles among you will be pleased to hear that it is also available in a French translation on the blog Le mot juste en anglais. Many thanks to Jonathan Goldberg for inviting us to reblog this fascinating creative insight into the library at the heart of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library

“There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.”
— Hilaire Belloc

The Bodleian Library (“Bodley” or “the Bod”) is the main research library of the University of Oxford and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It is second in size in the United Kingdom only to the British Library. It serves principally as a  reference library. Formally established in 1602, it bears the name of Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, one of the 38 colleges making up the University. In 2000, a number of libraries within the University of Oxford were brought together for administrative purposes under the aegis of what was initially known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and since 2010 as the Bodleian Libraries, of which the Bodleian Library is the largest component. Over its various sites the Bod keeps 12 million printed books and allows access to more than 80,000 electronic journal titles. It also keeps ancient documents, manuscripts, papyrus, cards and sketches.  Much of the library’s archives were digitized and put online for public access in 2015.

The Interview…

Frank: Don’t ask me how this works but it does. Hello, Sir Thomas.

Sir Thomas: Hello, Frank. It is an honour to meet you.

Frank: The honour’s all mine Sir Thomas. So, for the benefit of our audience, it’s with great pleasure that I’m here to interview Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom the world-famous Bodleian Library was named. Sir Thomas personally paid for and masterminded the library’s refurbishment, the original building having been abandoned and its book collection destroyed during the English Reformation. An outstanding achievement, Sir Thomas, for which the world will always be grateful.

Sir Thomas: It’s kind of you to say so.

Frank: I should mention that earlier I took Sir Thomas on a tour of the library as it is now. First impressions, Sir Thomas?

Sir Thomas: Still recognisable – and I’m always pleased to see the extension at the western end. That happened after my death. It balances the building and provides lots of additional space. I’m intrigued by the glowing glass windows that readers look into on the desks. I’d like to find out more about those and these ebooks you mentioned. No swords, of course.

Frank: No, I think they were banned quite some time ago. No coffee in this part of the building either. And definitely no smoking anywhere. But perhaps—

Sir Thomas: I like to keep abreast of new things. I may not have caught up with ebooks but coffee – well that only came in fifty years after my time. And smoking – I remember Sir Walter [Raleigh] persuading Her Royal Highness [Elizabeth I] to try some. Clouds of smoke and everyone coughing. I think she saw the funny side in the end.

Queen Elizabeth I, Unknown continental artist, oil on panel, circa 1575. National Portrait Gallery.

Frank: Now, Sir Thomas, as you know, we’re particularly interested in languages and European culture here – as well as books and libraries —

Sir Thomas: All interconnected.

Frank: Quite! Your experience of Europe came at an early age, Sir Thomas, didn’t it?

Sir Thomas: Yes. I was born on 2nd March 1545 and my first journey to Europe was undertaken in 1555. Dad was a merchant in Exeter who had strong Protestant faith and who’d helped pay for the suppression of a Catholic rebellion in the west country. When Queen Mary [Tudor] came to the throne, our family fled, initially to Frankfurt and from thence to Geneva, where Dad set up a printing business – that must have had some influence on my love of the printed word! Europe seemed then to be the heart of Protestantism – at least where we were. We were with John Knox in Frankfurt and at Geneva I studied Divinity at the feet of Calvin himself – a tireless worker and an inspiration to us all. I also studied Hebrew and Greek. And of course, we were surrounded by people speaking different languages. After Mary died we returned but by then my west country childhood was but a distant memory.

Frank: What memories of Europe you must have had, though.

Sir Thomas: True, but there was something frustrating about being so close to European culture and yet cut off from it by the discipline of the school room. I vowed to go back.

Frank: But first to Oxford, the city that became synonymous with the name of Sir Thomas Bodley.

Sir Thomas: No sooner did we return than I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College. Back on English soil in September 1559 and a matriculated student before the year was out. My studies at the Geneva Academy stood me in good stead. I did well and in 1564 I became a fellow of Merton College. I was its first lecturer in Greek a year later. For a time I thought my career would begin and end in Oxford. But, there’s this restlessness in me – perhaps it was being uprooted at a tender age then glimpsing how huge the world is. Questing, questing – I always wanted more. I tried many different things. Languages were at the heart of things – don’t get me wrong – Greek and in particular Hebrew, the study of which I and another fellow promoted energetically, opening up the knowledge contained in texts written in that language. But then there was a string of other posts alongside my academic life – college bursar, garden master, deputy public orator. What opportunities there were!

Frank: And friendships,

Sir Thomas: Certainly – one especially. At Oxford I got to know Sir Henry Savile – a cultured and steadfast man who would teach me so much when I started the library project at the end of the century.

Frank: But before that, travel and diplomacy.

Sir Thomas: Travel, yes. I’d never forgotten the vow I made when I returned in 1559. Here’s what I wrote in my autobiography: “I waxed desirous to travel beyond the seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some special modern tongues, and for the increase of my experience in the managing of affairs…” I journeyed to France then to Germany and Italy, learning French, Italian and Spanish. I spent over four years in those countries. The languages fascinated me but so too did new skills I could use in the service of our nation. Under the patronage of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, I became a gentleman usher to the Queen and a member of parliament – though the latter was, sad to say, the least well executed of my duties. From 1585 until 1598, when I threw in the towel, my life was devoted to diplomacy and discrete negotiation—

Frank: Spying?

Sir Thomas: We never thought of it in those terms. Not like your James Bond—

Frank: James Bond?

Sir Thomas: I told you I like to keep up with things – though there are so many..

Frank: So not quite James Bond.

Sir Thomas: Though I did have an impact on world events, I like to think, at least to begin with. When I was sent, alone, with letters from the Queen to Henry III of France after he had been forced to flee Paris, I was charged with “extraordinary secrecy”. Though I say it myself – and I did say it in my autobiography – the outcome benefitted not only Henry but “all the Protestants in France”. If only things had continued that way. There was meeting Ann, of course, and getting married, which were the greatest events of that period but then for nine years I lived in the Hague, not always with Ann beside me, endlessly trying to persuade the United Provinces first to support the Queen’s war with Spain and secondly to pay her vast sums of money for the privilege. Neither side would give way. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Talk about the woes of being a middle manager!

Frank: I know just what you mean!

Sir Thomas: Listen to this – one of the Queen’s secretaries writing in 1594: “…her majesty hath had just cause these many years to have expected a grateful offer from the States of some yearly portion of the great sums by her majesty expended…” She wanted a return on her investment, and they claimed they thought she’d simply been doing them a good turn. It was impossible. And then there was the intrigue at court. I couldn’t abide it any longer.

Frank: In your own words, “I concluded…to set up my staff at the Library door in Oxford; being thoroughly persuaded that…I could not busy myself to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students.”

King Edward VI, after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, c. 1542 , National Portrait Gallery

Sir Thomas: I’d been lucky to escape with my head! And so I turned to a project that I’d had in mind for some years. When I was at Oxford as a student and young academic, there was no university library – the manuscripts that Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, had donated had all been snatched under a law passed by King Edward VI and scattered to the four winds. Imagine that. Many were said to have been reused by bookbinders to cover less “superstitious” publications. They were priceless classical texts. Because I’d been most fortunate in my marriage – Ann was a widow, whose first husband made millions at today’s prices out of buying and selling pilchards—

Frank: Pilchards?

Sir Thomas: Like sardines, only tastier. We didn’t have children, so it seemed only right that the money should be used for the good of future generations of students. With invaluable advice from Sir Henry, I arranged for the old building to be refurbished and persuaded my acquaintances to donate books and bought others through booksellers who travelled to Paris and Frankfurt – and even to Italy – to find them. As Sir Francis Bacon said of the library, it was an  “Ark to save learning from deluge”. We collected European texts mainly but also books in Arabic and Persian – one two in Chinese, though no one could read them then.

Frank: People considered Chinese books to be curiosities, didn’t they, and of no real value?

Sir Thomas: I didn’t – someone had taken all that trouble to write those characters, and someone else had paid them to do so. Who could know what wisdom the books contained? But I did know that one day a scholar would come to Oxford who would unlock their secrets. Soon we had scholars visiting from beyond our shores – twenty-two in the first two years. In 1610 I made an agreement with the Stationers Company, whereby they would give the library a free copy of every book they registered.

Frank: Which is still in place today – though many of the copies are now given as ebooks.

Sir Thomas: Ebooks again! Well, like every library, we were soon running out of space, so I had to pay for an extension. A proud moment in the library was when King James visited – I’d been knighted for my services the year before. But towards the end of the project and before the next, much bigger extension could be built, I knew that my time was near and I passed over on 29th January 1613. And here I am.

Frank: And here you are indeed. And very much still here in Oxford is your library for which the whole world thanks you. Sir Thomas Bodley – library legend!

Sir Thomas: Thank you for inviting me! It’s been a pleasure. Now, when we get to the green room you must tell me about these ebooks…

Author Bio:
Francis (Frank) Egerton is an author and a librarian and manager for the Bodleian libraries (Oxford). He also teaches and tutors on a number of University of Oxford creative writing programmes. He has a BA (Hons) Oxon and MA Oxon (English Literature and Language). His original qualification was as an Associate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but he abandoned his job as a land agent to read English at Oxford. He reviewed fiction and non-fiction for newspapers including The Times and the Financial Times from 1995–2008. His first novel, The Lock, was published in paperback in 2003 and his second, Invisible, in 2010. The ebook version of The Lock reached the finals of the Independent eBook Awards in Santa Barbara in 2002. In The Times [of London] review of Invisible, Kate Saunders commented on “the author’s lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape.”

Bibliography: 

An Introduction to the Taylor Institution Library

Today’s post was written by Frank Egerton, who is a writer and the Operations Manager of the Reader Services Team at the Taylor Institution Library. The Taylor Institution (affectionately known as ‘The Taylorian’ by our students and staff) is the University’s centre for the study of Modern European languages and literatures, other than English. As well as its West and East European collections, the library houses collections for Linguistics, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies. Here, Frank tells us more about this incredible resource.

I started work at the Taylor Institution Library on 5th January 2009. As I approach the building ten years later and look up at its classical columns, its statuary and its almost unimaginably massive windows, I continue to think (how could I not?), How lucky I am to work here.

Yet I’m also aware that all that architecture might seem unreal – think Downton Abbey or National Trust – and at worst, forbidding.

It is my job and that of my Reader Services team to make the experience of the building and its amazing collections welcoming, friendly and fulfilling.

More on the present later, but first, history.

It’s a common misconception that the Taylor Institution is part of the Ashmolean Museum. Well it is, on the outside, but inside, the library is totally separate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the University had two bequests, one for an art gallery, the other for a centre dedicated to the study of modern European languages. The solution was to run an architectural competition for the best design of a single building that accommodated both spaces. This was won by CR Cockerell and his building was completed in 1844.

The Taylor Institution Library

The money for the institution and its library had come from another architect, Sir Robert Taylor, who had travelled in Europe and who had amassed a magnificent collection of architectural books written in Italian, French and English, which the library now holds.

Not that getting the money was easy. Taylor died in 1788, having stipulated that the University would only receive his bequest if his son, resplendently named Michael Angelo Taylor, died without a male heir. While this did eventually happen, Michael Angelo also tried to overturn his father’s will – despite being one of the richest men in London.

That the money came to the University and the Taylor Institution was built has benefitted generations of scholars for over 170 years.

In the 1930s an extension – which is now our Teaching Collection – was built in the Art Deco style. It was formally opened by the Prince of Wales – who went on to become King Edward VIII, before abdicating. You can see photographs of the future king and all the senior academics of the day outside our lecture hall.

The original collection of books was partly created by donations, just as the original Bodleian Library had been at the end of the sixteenth century. Last year I was thrilled to come across a book that my great-great-great grandfather had given in 1849.

Since then, our collections have grown enormously – in fact, they have outgrown our building! In total, we have some 750,000 items (books, journals, a rapidly growing collection of DVDs, and… a lock of Goethe’s hair). But only half of these are kept in the building. The rest being at the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility, some 40 miles from Oxford. (The Taylorian is one of the Bodleian Libraries.) Nevertheless, these books aren’t mothballed but can be ordered using the University’s online catalogue, SOLO (feel free to explore it). If the order is placed before 10.30 am on a weekday, it will arrive at around 2 pm that afternoon and most of our offsite books can be borrowed just as if they had been collected from our bookshelves.

Our bookshelves… As you can imagine, there are quite a lot of those. Sometimes I look along just a bay of them and I am overwhelmed by how many books there are. All that knowledge, all those ideas, all those opportunities for learning… In stacks and rooms reached by stairs that remind you of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

Which is where the librarians come in. The Subject and Reader Services teams work together to make sense of the collections for our readers and to help them find what they need for their studies or research. The Taylor has a deserved reputation for the friendliness of its staff, their knowledge and their willingness to go the extra mile. One of the most important messages we aim to get across at inductions is that library staff are always there to help.

The Library in the Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford

Our subject librarians also curate and expand our outstanding collections, buying new books, of course, but also ebooks and ejournals, and electronic resources. Not to mention putting together exhibitions of works from our special collections, arranging talks and teaching courses on how to access information and digital scholarship.

I’ve mentioned that you can get an impression of the richness of our collections by browsing the University library catalogue, SOLO, but for a deeper understanding of what they contain you can check out our website and, above all, the tremendous online guides that our subject consultants have created for their particular language. Here you will find not just information about what is available in Oxford but open (freely available) resources and websites.

Yet for all the convenience of the digital age, the Taylor Institution Library remains the human heart of Modern Languages research, teaching and learning. It contains quiet spaces, lecture rooms, a common room and corridors which are alive with discussion. Its staff are there to welcome, to help and to unlock the possibilities of its world-class collections.

Further info

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Frank Egerton

If there are any teachers reading the blog, you may also be interested in our  ‘Sir Robert Taylor Society Conference’ – an annual conference for MFL teachers held each September in Oxford, and named after the founder of the library. More information is available here.

A year abroad in Jordan

One of the joint degrees we offer at Oxford is in European and Middle Eastern Languages (EMEL). Unlike most of our students, who take their year abroad in the third year of their course, EMEL students go abroad in the second year (the same is true of those studying Russian from scratch). In today’s post Sarah, who studies Spanish and Arabic, tells us about the Arabic part of her year abroad in Jordan.

Only a few months ago, my friends and I went out for our very last meal together in Jordan. We had been there for around nine months, give or take a few weeks, and I think we were all genuinely upset and a little bit tearful to be leaving. It was sad to go, but it also felt a bit strange, given how much time we had spent there, and the many wonderful experiences we had had together in that beautiful country.

Our year in Jordan began in early September, when the weather was still warm and our Arabic still a little bit flimsy. We still spoke to the taxi drivers in formal, fuṣḥā Arabic, the kind of Arabic you hear in news broadcasts and official speeches, but not in the street. But as the heat ebbed away, and the weather turned so cold we started wearing blankets and coats even indoors, we learnt more dialect – both in classes, and through going out in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

At the suggestion of our teachers, we tried mansaf, Jordan’s national lamb and yoghurt dish, at traditional restaurants. We often ate baklava, and the cheesy dessert kanafeh, as a treat on Thursdays (the last day of the working week in Jordan, as it begins again on Sunday). We visited the towering malls of al-Abdali, haggled in the downtown markets and souqs of Wasit al-Balad, felt sophisticated eating cake in classy Jabal al-Weibdeh.

We travelled further afield, to the cities of Irbid and Madaba, to the Red Sea city of Aqaba, to the Roman ruins of Jerash, and of course to Petra and the Wadi Rum. Some of us had the opportunity to visit other parts of the region, and saw the wonders of Lebanon, Egypt and Oman. We met so many kind people, of whom perhaps the kindest were our teachers. They were so generous and shared so much of their lives and culture with us, and we are so grateful. We had so much fun.

I think we also grew more confident, as we were forced to leave the bubble of Oxford. We were living in a different country, with a different culture and a different language that we were trying our best to learn, and it could get hard at times. We had to rely more on each other, and I was so fortunate to share a flat for almost a year with three amazing women, each unique, but all so intelligent and kind. Being abroad built stronger friendships between us. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, but I think we could all enjoy the year so much because we had each other. Soppy, I know, but true.

It was for all those reasons that we felt so sad to leave at the very beginning of June. I was, and continue to be, so grateful for the opportunity we had to live in Jordan for nine months. It is why I am so jealous of the students going abroad this year. I wish you all luck; a little part of me wishes, too, that I was going with you.

The Lidl Prizes: picking up German from scratch

A few weeks ago we published a blog post written by one of the winners of the Lidl prizes for German, Cecilia. Today’s post was written by another winner: Anna won the Lidl prize for the best performance in the examination after the first year of all students studying German from scratch. Here she tells us what it’s like to study German as a beginners’ language at Oxford, and how she sued her prize money to further her study of German.

By the end of year 12 I knew that I wanted to study French at university, but felt an additional beginners’ language would be quite exciting and a bit of a change from what I was used to. I considered Russian or Italian for a while but ultimately settled on German; it seemed to complement French well while still being a new challenge (the Cyrillic alphabet seemed just a little too scary) and I liked the idea of the complicated yet logical grammar system.

My first year studying German has been such a great experience; I arrived knowing only a few basic words and now feel I have a very strong foundation in German grammar to take into my second year. The course is fast-paced yet comprehensive, with a lot of contact hours and long (but manageable) lists of vocabulary to learn, but it was all absolutely worth it; it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in a relatively short space of time. Additionally, the teaching style at Oxford means that you spend a lot of time with your coursemates, which is especially true for beginners’ German (and indeed any other beginners’ language); there were seven of us on the course and we would see each other for class every day, so we all ended up really close which was a lovely support system during exams or if we had a particularly difficult translation task.

I came to Oxford from a very average state school; the feeling of ‘impostor syndrome’ was very real before I arrived and I was worried I’d be miles behind everyone else. However, I’ve really enjoyed being pushed academically and crucially have never felt that my educational background has hindered me in any way. Winning the Lidl prize for best performance in beginners’ German was quite a surprise but I’m so grateful for it and overall feel that I’ve done myself proud.

The prize money has helped to fund my summer travels – I went to Heidelberg for two weeks with one of my classmates to do a language course. It was really beneficial to have a familiar face in class and someone at the same level to speak German with; we even went out for cocktails one night and didn’t speak a word of English! There were also plenty of opportunities to practise our German with others – we met lots of fellow students from all over the world, and Germans are generally quite accepting of learners and let you muddle through (and then correct your mistakes, which is a bit embarrassing but very helpful).

I couldn’t recommend studying German at university more to anyone who enjoys modern languages, whether it’s following an A-Level qualification or starting from scratch. For those considering the latter, don’t be put off by the daunting prospect of reaching A-Level standard within a year – it’s definitely achievable and more rewarding than you could ever imagine.

Snapshots of graduate destinations in Russian – back for more

Two weeks ago, we posted some snapshots of career destinations from alumni who have studied Russian. From journalism to business, from marketing to translating, it’s fascinating to see where our graduates end up. This week, we’ve included a few more snapshots to give you an insight into the vast range of career options open to linguists. These were originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog.

  • “I became a journalist when I left Oxford – and intended to go back to Moscow to become a reporter. However, I ended up in New York instead and took a different path, which led to a career as an author. I have now written 8 books and am about to embark on a 9th. I was awarded an honorary D.Sc. last summer, which is perhaps unusual for an arts graduate and a Russianist. I have done a huge amount of work in making science accessible and entertaining to primary school children, hence the award.”
  • “After graduation I spent 3 and a half years in Moscow. I worked for a French sports retail company called Decathlon. I spent that time speaking virtually no English. It meant that I am now very fluent in both French and Russian (plus I know how to say every type of sports equipment under the sun in both languages). After Decathlon, I decided that I wanted to pursue a more academic career (law) and I went to work for an English law firm in Moscow as a paralegal for the remainder of my time in Russia. I came back to the UK, did my law qualification and, before starting work in London, I decided I wanted one last adventure. I went to China for a year and taught myself Mandarin. I’ve been working in London since 2011 in an international law firm and have also spent spells working in China. I specialise in EU and competition law.”
  • “I joined a classical music publisher on leaving Oxford, at first as an intern and then as a permanent member of staff. I have also worked in the Publications team at the National Portrait Gallery.”
  • “I produce TV commercials.”
  • “I have been working as an editor for an educational publishing company since graduating from Oxford. Presently, my husband and I are setting up a beer brewery.”
  • “I went back to Moscow after graduating and tried out various jobs such as English teaching, working as trilingual PA in a Russian bank, a journalist, translator, copy-editor; then I worked for 3 years at an artist management company in London (working with many Russian artists), then for a year at a marketing company with a Russian client base. I’m now back at university doing an M.Sc. in Speech and Language therapy (which involves linguistics and phonetics).”
  • “I completed a Master’s in Russian and East European Studies at Harvard. I’m now a corporate lawyer by day (and most of the night) where I work heavily with Russian and Eastern European clients (I have used Russian, Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian – picked up at Harvard – at work). For the remainder of the night I am a struggling writer (on things Russian).”
  • “I continued my study of languages, first Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies as part of a Master’s, for which my major was Law in the Middle East and North Africa, then Chinese at BPP University as part of a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), all funded by the law firm I work for in London as a trainee solicitor. I’m also a freelance producer of short films, comedy and theatre.”

2020 German Olympiad: NATUR UND TECHNIK

The Oxford German Olympiad 2020 launched on 26 September 2019, the European Day of Languages! The topic is NATUR UND TECHNIK (Nature and Technology). There are tasks for learners of German in Year 5 to Year 13, tasks for group entries, and even some tasks for complete beginners.  The deadline for entries is noon on Friday 13 March 2020. You can find the full competition and submission guidelines here. Read on to see an outline of this year’s tasks…

Years 5 and 6 (age 9-11):

  • Design a robot and label its parts, and write what it can do.
  • Draw a picture of your home city, town or village from a Vogelperspektive – bird’s eye view. Label the things the bird is most interested in.
  • You’re going to set up a community on Mars – draw your spaceship and the fifteen most important things to take, and label them.

Years 7 to 9 (age 11-14):

  • Create a poster explaining Klimawandel.
  • Find out about Ötzi, the Tyrolean Iceman. What technical invention would he choose to take back to his community if he could time-travel? Draw Ötzi with a speech bubble explaining his choice, and illustrate and describe the invention.
  • Create a blogpost on a topic of your choice, with 3-5 photos taken by yourself, for a German-language online conservation magazine.

Years 10 and 11 (age 14-16):

  • “Ein Tag ohne Technik” – Write a story or create a video or website on this theme.
  • Paint or draw a landscape in the style of Caspar David Friedrich and write about the work of art that inspired it.
  • “Machen wir unsere Erde unbewohnbar?” Write a dialogue between two people who disagree about the answer.

Years 12 and 13 (age 16-18):

  • “Klimawandel – was können Jugendliche tun?” Plan a conference for 16-18 year olds including the advertisement and programme with keynote lectures and topics for roundtable discussion.
  • “Vorsprung durch Technik – Rückschritt für die Natur?” Write a blogpost or create a video with this title.
  • Record yourself giving a presentation on “Fahrerloser Verkehr – Utopie oder künftige Wirklichkeit?” or “Techno-Pop – Typisch deutsch?” .

Open Competition for Groups or Classes (4+ participants)

  • Create a film or PowerPoint presentation with the title “Amazonas in Gefahr”.
  • Write and illustrate a short book for children about a migrating bird.
  • “Ein Roboter in der Schule!” – Create a video or song about a robot designed for helping with practical tasks in your school.

Discover German – Taster Competition (1-3 participants with no prior experience of studying German)

  • Years 7 to 9: Find 10 inventions from German-speaking countries and the German word for each invention. Film yourself saying the German and the English word for each of your 10 examples.
  • Years 10 and 11: Rewrite (in English) the Grimm Brothers’ story of “The Frog Prince” (Der Froschkönig) with the title “The Robot Prince”, setting it in a real modern German-speaking city and including 15 German compound nouns (like Frosch+König).
  • Years 12 and 13: Write a blogpost on the topic “Will machine translation make human translators obsolete?” and support your argument with examples from German.