During our Teachers’ Conference at the end of September, Professor Simon Kemp delivered a wonderful presentation about a common French A-level text, Joseph Joffo’s 1973 novel, Un sac de billes.
As well as looking at the symbolic imagery that the marbles provide in within the first few pages, and touching on themes of brotherly love and the cyclical nature of history, Simon highlighted a series of old blog posts about French A-level texts which we thought we would resurface and draw your attention to this week.
The series of articles all address a pertinent but perhaps unexpected question about common texts on the French A-level curricula.
If you have just started or are part way through your French A-level course, or if you just enjoy dabbling in French literature, then these articles will be perfect for you!
If you’re hoping to apply to study French at university, reading these kinds of articles is a perfect way to kick-start your super-curricular exploration of the French language and culture! Why not read more about the themes addressed in the blog posts, or dip into one of the other texts that sound intriguing to you…
The Oxford application process can look very complicated at first. Unlike other universities, we collect a lot of different information about applicants so that our admissions tutors can make informed decisions about who will be best suited to our courses. We recommend that prospective applicants familiarise themselves with the Oxford admissions timeline and what each step entails – the earlier the better!
As our degrees are so competitive, one of the things that we get asked most often is how can I stand out against other applicants? The simple and honest answer is that in your personal statement and during your interview, our modern languages admissions tutors are most interested in reading/hearing about:
why prospective students love the subject(s) for which they are applying;
what it is that they find particularly engaging and exciting about the subject(s); and,
how they have furthered these interests through super-curricular activities.
What does ‘super-curricular’ mean?
‘Super-curricular’ activities are educational activities which go above and beyond the school curriculum to expand your knowledge and understanding of the subjects you are studying. This can be anything from podcasts, documentaries, trips to a museum, books, magazines, online programmes and more.
If you’re not sure where to start, don’t panic! We recommend talking to your teachers or your school librarian about finding additional reading, but we’ve also included some resources below that might also be useful for furthering your interest in language and cultural studies.
Linguamania podcast Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more… So stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!
Les Liaisons dangereuses podcast Choderlos de Laclos’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, has been intriguing audiences since 1782, and has been adapted into different media many times. It is also one of the core texts studied by students of French in their first year of an Oxford degree. In this podcast series, Prof. Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at All Souls College, and Catriona Oliphant, founder of Chrome Radio, delve into the text, covering a variety of topics.
Oxford Spanish Literature Podcast Listen in on our conversations with Spanish tutors at Oxford to find out what’s so fascinating about the literature they teach, why they love teaching it, and why they think you might love it too.
In Our Time Radio 4’s flagship series, In Our Time, hosted since the beginning by author, TV presenter and critic Melvyn Bragg, has become the BBC’s most downloaded weekly podcast globally, as well as one of the most popular for people under the age of 35.
The winning formula is a recorded conversation, over 45 minutes, in which Bragg quizzes academic specialists about almost any subject of interest in human life, including history, science, philosophy, religion and the arts.
In terms of modern languages and cultures, here are some episodes (featuring our very own academics) that we would recommend (not that we’re biased!):
This episode on Olympe de Gouges, advocate for women’s rights during the French Revolution, featuring Professor Catriona Seth;
This episode on the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, featuring Professor Cláudia Pazos-Alonso;
This episode on eclectic German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, featuring Professor Carolin Duttlinger.
Each year, the Faculty runs a Literary Masterclass for local state sixth formers studying French, Spanish and German, designed to support them with reading and critically analysing literature in the target language. During the pandemic, this event was delivered online, and the pre-recorded videos are still available to view on our YouTube channel here.
The Oxford German Network runs an annual essay prize for sixth formers on a classic work of German literature. In the past, they have often created and collected a series of videos connected to the work in question. Click here for a playlist about Goethe’s Faust, here for a playlist about Schiller’s Maria Stuart, and here for a playlist about Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’.
We hope these resources are helpful and provide a good starting point for you to develop your academic interests – don’t forget the importance of super-curricular activities for your UCAS application!
Please note: If you’re in Year 13 or equivalent, there’s still time to apply for Oxford! You need to make sure you have registered for your admissions test by 29th September (this Friday!) and have submitted your UCAS application (which includes your personal statement) by 6pm on 16th October.
If you’re in Year 12 or equivalent, the resources above will hopefully complement and develop your A-level/IB/Advanced Highers MFL studies and provide some excellent for your future personal statement.
The Oxford German Network are delighted to announce the launch of the 2023 edition of ‘A German Classic’ – Oxford’s essay competition for sixth-form students. This year we invite you to read Franz Kafka’s DerHeizer (1912/13).
It is the first chapter of the unfinished novel Der Verschollene (‘The Man Who Disappeared’), narrating the beginning of the story about 17-year-old Karl Rossmann. The story addresses themes including family and friendship, migration, identity and encounters with the foreign, be it a person of a different nationality, social status or gender. It is a story about growing up, finding one’s way in a foreign land, and personal (in)stability. The experiences Kafka evokes for the reader with his narratives are so distinctive that they have given rise to the word ‘Kafkaesque’. Get a sense of what it means by studying Der Heizer in the original – one of the iconic works of world literature!
Entrants must fulfil the following requirements as of 8 September 2023:
be beginning their final year of full-time study at a secondary school in the UK (upper-sixth form, Year 13 or S6 in Scotland);
be between the ages of 16 and 18;
hold a GCSE, IGCSE or equivalent qualification in German offered in the UK, or have at least an equivalent knowledge of German, as confirmed by their teacher;
be resident in the United Kingdom.
Entrants are not expected to have prior experience of studying German literature.
Up to three prizes will be awarded: a first prize of £500, a second prize of £300, and a third prize of £100. Prizes will only be awarded if work is of sufficient merit. All entrants will receive a Prize Certificate or a Certificate of Participation. Results will be announced in early October 2023.
Sign up here by 5pm on Friday 30 June 2023 to receive free physical copies of the German original and an English translation of Kafka’s novel Der Verschollene, the first chapter of which is the set text of the competition. The website will also give you access to a set of free multimedia resources and essay writing guidelines created and curated by us especially for this competition. All physical study materials will be dispatched in early July.
For further information, please have a look on our website.
In this week’s blog post, our colleagues from The Queen’s College Translation Exchange share details of their next International Book Club meeting – a really wonderful opportunity for school students to engage with literature from around the world!
The International Book Club for Schools is a chance for pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13/S4-6 to explore foreign language books which have been translated into English with other like-minded, literature-loving students. We meet once a term over Zoom to discuss a foreign language book in English translation. No knowledge of the original language is required to take part and newcomers are always welcome!
For students thinking they may like to study languages at university, there will also be a chance to hear more about what this would entail and to ask current undergraduates and admissions staff your questions. These meetings are also a perfect opportunity to explore beyond the school syllabus and to engage with some exciting literature in translation.
Our next session will be held on Tuesday 28th March at 7pm, in partnership with specialists in translated Arabic-language fiction, ArabLit, and the Oxford Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. We will be reading Out of Time, by Palestinian writer Samira Azzam, translated from Arabic by Ranya Abdelrahman. These 31 short stories weave a rich and intricate tapestry of life in Palestine and Lebanon in the 1930s and 1940s, exploring how people from all walks of react to volatile circumstances and rapid historical change. Discussion in the session will focus on ‘Tears from a Glass Eye’, whilst also touching on ‘A Roc Flew Over Shahraban’ and ‘On the Road’. We also recommend that you read the introduction (along with as many of the other stories as you’d like to or have time for!).
To take part in the International Book Club, attendees will need to purchase and read a copy of the set book in advance of the session. Arablit have been kind enough to offer a discount for book club attendees: 20% off a paperback or an e-book for $1.79 (this is slightly under £1.50). The exclusive discount code will be shared with the students over email once they have registered for a place. If the financial situation of some students makes it impossible for them to purchase a copy of the book as discounted, please do drop us an email and we will do our best to work something out.
They may also like to make some notes as they go, although all discussion within the meeting will be informal. We will also share some materials in advance of the session, including some prompt questions to get them thinking and an interview with the book’s translator.
Students are able to register to attend our next book club meeting by completing this Google Form.
If you have any further questions about the Book Club, please let us know! You can drop us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or find us on Twitter (@TranslationExch).
Rather than racing to get their cards in the post in time for Christmas, the French more often send Cartes de vœux, literally ‘cards of wishes’. These can be written until January 31 and will typically express the writer’s hope that the recipient might enjoy health, prosperity and happiness in the year which has just started. This tradition goes back a long way as a note from tragic queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in 1793 in Paris at the age of 38, demonstrates.
The brief letter is held in the library at Bergamo (Biblioteca Angelo Mai) and addressed to Giovanni Andrea Archetti (1731-1805), an Italian priest who was made a cardinal in 1784. 
Here is a transcription of the letter. Despite the calligraphic flourishes, it is relatively legible as the close-up shows.
Mon Cousin. Je suis si persuadée de votre attachement à ma personne, que je ne doute pas de la sincerité des vœux que vous formés pour ma satisfaction au Commencement de cette Année, les expressions dont vous les accompagnés sont pour moi un motif de plus de vous rassurer de toute l’Estime que je fais de vous. Sur ce je prie Dieu qu’il vous ait mon cousin en sa S[ain]te et digne garde. écrit à Versailles. Le 31. Janvier 1787. Marie Antoinette
There are few differences with the way we would write things. An accent is missing on ‘sincérité’, there is a capital on the name of the month (which is now considered incorrect in French) and, more importantly, the polite ‘vous’ forms of first group verbs, ‘former’ and ‘accompagner’ are here spelled with an ‘-és’ ending rather than the ‘ez’ we would expect. You may also have noticed the full stop after ‘31’ which was a way of transforming the cardinal number into an ordinal number (the equivalent of 31st). Whilst the practice has disappeared from modern French usage, you will find it in German. The signature makes it look as though the final ‘e’ of ‘Antoinette’ has been swallowed into the ‘tt’.
If you compare the transcription with the photograph of the whole page, you will observe different things even before you look at the meaning of the message: it is written on a very large sheet of paper of which the text only occupies about one third; there are slits down the side of the sheet; a strange seal hangs off an appended strip of paper; you can spot the handwriting of three different people. What explains these surprising aspects?
Paper was a luxury commodity in 18th-century Europe and there was a lot of re-using of scraps. Here, the choice of a sheet much larger than would be necessary for the length of the text is a clear sign of wealth. Unlike most of the inhabitants of France, the queen did not have to worry about waste or expense. In addition, a large sheet rather than a smaller one honoured the recipient: it meant he was being treated with the respect owed to an eminent person. The strange folds and the slits down the side (by the blue-gloved fingers on the first picture and along the opposite edge), as well as the paper-encrusted seal, show that this missive would have been sent with a removable lock. The sealing wax pressed between two sides of paper to ensure it would not get broken is on the strip which served as a lock. This was part of a ceremonial practice again intended to make the document seem important but without including a proper seal. Because of the lack of confidential information on the one hand, but also the important diplomatic value of a letter from the queen of France, a particular closing process was adopted. It allowed for the missive to be opened without breaking the seal—rather like when we tuck the flap in to an envelope rather than sticking it down. The French refer to a seal which does not have to be broken for the letter to be opened as a ‘cachet volant’ or ‘flying seal’. You can discover how it would have been prepared in an excellent video about a similar letter from Marie Antoinette to a different cardinal:
As you will notice if you watch the video, once the single sheet had been folded and sealed, it would have looked a bit like a modern envelope with the addressee’s name on it. No street or town address was included because it would have been entrusted to a courier and delivered by hand.
The letter was written by a secretary, almost certainly a man, who had clear bold and ornate handwriting. You can see a change of ink when you get to the signature. Marie Antoinette is the French version of the names Maria Antonia which the future queen of France had been given at her christening in Vienna in 1755. The third person to have intervened also simply signed. This was Jacques Mathieu Augeard, the ‘secrétaire des commandements de la reine’ who was an important court official and would have ensured the letters were duly sent off to the right people. Clearly, this is not a personal letter addressed by Marie Antoinette to cardinal Archetti, but a formal stock message prepared in her name. She may well not even have read the text before it was signed.
What do the contents of the letter tell us? The first thing to note is that the queen calls the cardinal ‘Mon Cousin’. They were not related. This was a conventional courtesy used between people of a certain rank. The missive is clearly an answer to a letter received from Archetti who had sent his own best wishes—it refers to ‘la sincérité des vœux que vous formez’ and ‘les expressions dont vous les accompagnez’ (modernised spelling). It ends with a pious formula hoping that God will watch over the cardinal. The date of 31 January, the last one on which such wishes could be sent, was usual for the royal family. It bears witness to the eminence of the signatory who has not initiated the correspondence but is providing a response.
We are documenting Marie Antoinette’s letters as part of a project with the Château de Versailles’ CRCV research centre. Oxford student Tess Eastgate is one of the participants thanks to her AHRC-funded Oxford-Open-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess is working on weighty political exchanges from the revolutionary period which are quite unlike the message presented here.
To the casual reader, it might seem disappointing to come across a letter like the one to Archetti, with so little personal content, it is in fact very useful for us to have it. It documents the formal relations between the French monarchs and the Catholic hierarchy. It suggests that there may be other similar missives addressed to different dignitaries across the world (examples of ones to cardinals Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borgia have been located)  so, if you are anywhere near archive holdings, take a look at what they have. Who knows, you may even come across seasonal greetings to a cardinal from the Queen of France!
Written by Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature All Souls College, Oxford
 Library reference: Autografi MMB 938-945 Faldone A 2) REGINA MARIA ANTONIETTA DI FRANCIA Lettera con firma autografa da Versailles in data 31 gennaio 1787 portante il sigillo reale diretta al Cardinale Archetti (in francese). My thanks to Dottoressa Maria Elisabetta Manca and the staff at the Bibliotheca Angelo Mai.
2021 marked the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. To honour this occasion, colleagues in the Sub-Faculty of Italian set up the University of Oxford’s Dante700 Competition. In its aim to introduce Dante and his work to students of all ages in a fun and engaging way, the competition invited primary and secondary school pupils to submit a visual response, a poem, or prose piece to a given canto or to Dante’s Commedia as a whole.
Our judges were extremely impressed with the hard work and creativity that went into every entry. On behalf of the judging panel, Professor Simon Gilson commented the following about all of the submissions to the competition:
We had a wonderfully rich array of entries but were particularly impressed by the winning students’ engagement with Dante. It was really remarkable to see the variety and quality of the students’ own creative responses across a range of media, in prose, verse, and various art forms. I learned a great deal from how their responses reframed Dante. The competition truly helped us to see how perennially fascinating Dante’s works, ideas and images remain for students of all ages today.
We received over 50 submissions to the competition across the different themes and age categories, from which the following pupils were selected as winners, receiving certificates as well as exclusive prizes kindly supported by Moleskine:
Ulysses – KS2/3 (age 7-14): Matilda White, Year 6, Birch Church of England Primary School
Lucifer – KS3/4 (age 11-16): Jack Cotton, Year 9, Bexley Grammar School Gabriella Akanbi, Year 8, Bexley Grammar School Selasi Amenyo, Year 8, Bexley Grammar School Holly Filer, Year 8, Bexley Grammar School Tarin Houston, Year 9, Bexley Grammar School
Limbo – KS4/5 (age 15-18): Freddy Chelsom, Year 12, Abingdon School
Open response (all ages): Zara Jessa, Year 11, Nottingham High School Eden Murphy, Year 10, James Allen’s Girls’ School Cara Bossom, Year 12, Francis Holland School
To celebrate our competition winners, we were delighted to hold a small online prize giving ceremony on Tuesday 4October via Microsoft Teams. Led by Professor Gilson and joined by teachers and parents, the event provided a wonderful opportunity to showcase the diverse winning entries and talk to the students about what attracted them to the competition and to Dante’s writings more generally.
In addition to the online event, Dr Caroline Dormor has put together a fantastic virtual anthology of the winning submissions along with the judges’ comments which can be viewed here. Hopefully you will agree that the range of responses to and interpretations of Dante’s writings is truly remarkable!
Huge congratulations to all our winners!
Please note that all educational resources from the competition can still be accessed here.
In this week’s blog post, our colleagues from The Queen’s College Translation Exchange share details of their next International Book Club meeting – a really wonderful opportunity for school students to engage with literature from around the world!
The International Book Club for Schools is a chance for sixth-form students to explore foreign language books which have been translated into English with other like-minded, literature-loving peers. We meet once a term to discuss a foreign language book in English translation. No knowledge of the original language is required to take part. The meetings take place over Microsoft Teams, and places are open to school pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13/S4-6. Newcomers are always very welcome!
Our next session will be held on Wednesday 30th November at 7pm, and we will be reading Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. Set in the 1980s in Lagos de Moreno, Quesadillas offers a lively, cynical, and satirical take on Mexican politics and family life, in a world where the possible and the impossible seem to have switched places.
For anyone thinking of studying languages at university, there will also be a chance to hear more about what this would entail during a half-hour Q&A session with current Oxford University students, chaired by the Schools Liaison and Outreach Officer at the Queen’s College. These meetings are a perfect opportunity for students to explore books that aren’t on their school syllabus and to engage with some exciting literature in translation.
Students can sign up to attend the Book Club by completing this Google Form.
To take part in the International Book Club, students will need to purchase and read a copy of the set book in advance of the session. If a student’s financial situation makes it impossible to purchase a copy of the book, drop us an email (email@example.com) and we will do our best to work something out.
If you have any questions about the Book Club, please do also get in touch at the email address above!
The Oxford German Network (OGN) are delighted to make two exciting announcements: firstly, the 2022 German Classic Prize is now open for entries! Secondly, the OGN will also be running a new Classic Conference for Year 12 students this year – see below for further details!
‘A German Classic’ Prize 2022
1st Prize: £500 2nd Prize: £300 3rd Prize: £100
Deadline: Wednesday 14 September 2022, 12 noon
2022 marks the sixth round of ‘A German Classic’ – our essay competition for sixth-form students! This year we would like to invite you to read with us Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s captivating story Die Judenbuche published in 1842.
Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, often called Droste by friends and family, was one of the most influential German-speaking female authors of the 19th century. Her work Die Judenbuche is sometimes considered to be the first murder mystery, containing elements of a crime thriller and gothic novel. Filled with plot twists, Doppelgänger, grisly murders, and red herrings, Die Judenbuche explores how human nature is shaped and (de)formed, confronting us with existential questions of good and evil and all the greyscales in between.
Over the coming weeks, we will release further resources and provide insights into the text and its author on our webpage (where you can find more information and resources) and via Twitter. Together we will explore the text, discussing topics ranging from uncanny Doppelgängers, deadly curses, and 18th-century slavery, showing you the enduring relevance of this 19th-century text.
For all details about eligibility, study packs, essay questions, submission, judging criteria, and more, see here.
We encourage all students interested in entering the competition to email their UK correspondence address to the Prize Coordinator (Natascha Domeisen: firstname.lastname@example.org) by 12 noon on 25 June to receive a free study pack.
German Classic Conference 2022
Tuesday 21 June 2022 | Jesus College, Oxford, Ship Street Centre
We are delighted to announce the launch of the first German Classic Conference for Year 12 students on the topic of Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. This half-day conference will provide insights into the text, its key themes and translations in brief lectures and undergraduate-led discussions. There will also be a tour of Jesus College and the Fellows’ Library with the opportunity to enjoy some German treasures of the Jesus College collection. We are looking forward to exploring this German Classic with you!
Programme 11.45 – 12.25 Registration and Lunch 12.30 – 13.10 Introduction to Die Judenbuche (short lectures and Q&A) 13.15 – 14.00 Lost in Translation? Die Judenbuche in German and English 14.05 – 14.40 Tour of Jesus College and Fellows’ Library 14.45 – 15.15 Group Discussion of key themes with undergraduates 15.15 – 15.45 ‘More than a Whodunnit?’ Undergraduate Panel Discussion with Q&A 15.45 – 16.15 Tea and Departure
To download the programme as a PDF, please click here.
Please note: Attendance at the conference is not a condition of entering the German Classic Prize competition 2022. More details about the Conference (including specifics about entry requirements, travel costs and accommodation) can be found here.
Did you know that 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet, Dante Alighieri? In celebration of this anniversary, the University of Oxford is delighted to launch the Dante700 Competition for primary and secondary school pupils.
Who was Dante Alighieri?
Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence and died in 1321 in Ravenna. He is most famous for his poetry but he also wrote about the Italian language, politics, and philosophy.
The Commedia (Comedy) is Dante’s most famous poem. It is a long, epic poem in medieval Italian in which Dante describes his three-part journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise accompanied by three guides. The poem is made up of 100 canti (songs) in total across the three sections.
Dante’s poetry (especially the Commedia) was extremely influential for European literature and art. Many famous writers and poets were inspired by his writing, from medieval writers like Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, to modernist writers like T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.
Many students in the UK may never have heard of Dante or The Comedy. The aim of this competition is to introduce Dante and his work to students of all ages in a fun and engaging way.
To enter, students can submit a written piece or an artistic response to any of the categories included in the resource packs. They can also submit an ‘open response’, but this must be clearly linked to Dante’s work. Winning entries will be included in an online anthology and will win book tokens.
Students and parents can browse the resources for themselves, and teachers can use the lesson resources available to introduce the Italian poet to their classes.
The closing date for entries is 29th April 2022. Visit the competition website to access further information and resources. Entrants can submit their work here.
Something we get asked about a lot at open days is the amount of literature on the Oxford Modern Languages course. Prospective students usually want to know how far the course focuses on literature and what the benefits of literary study are. Literature is certainly an important part of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, and if you study with us you will do at least some literature as part of your course. But you’ll also have the chance to explore other areas, such as film, linguistics, theory, or translation, depending on the language you are studying.
Check out this video from Dr Alice Brooke, tutor in Spanish, for a deeper insight into the role of literature in an Oxford Modern Languages degree…
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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