jeudi 30 mai 2013

Better Baccalauréats Through Pharmaceuticals

  You can tell we are approaching the Baccalaureat, or "bac" examination period because the pharmacy windows are displaying all their "memory-enhancing" homeopathic granules, sublingual pills, topical salves and herbal tinctures.  The French baccalauréat exam, which is actually a series of exams taken during the last two years of high school, dates back to the 13th century.  At that time, four areas of expertise were evaluated:  theology, law, medicine and the arts.  Today's examiners will pose their questions to the entire nation of high school students in the areas of French language, philosophy, history, geography, mathematics, natural sciences, physical education, and two foreign languages.  And that's just the base; depending on which bac the student chooses (literature, economics and social sciences, or science), other subject area exams are added to the mix.

No wonder there is a brisk business in folklore remedies.  "A couple of glasses of champagne each week" is my favorite one; something in the bubbles encourages retention in certain areas of the brain.  This tip is most likely popularized by Veuve Cliquot.

You'd think that France would have built up a huge ancillary industry around the Bac.   I've watched what has happened to college admissions in the U.S.A. over the years and am astounded at the enormous amount of service providers ready to take your money, having replaced (more likely supplanted) college guidance counselors and good, old parental support.  From "Educational Consultants" to "Application Coaches", these "experts" recognize a market that can be easily convinced to outsource what was, in my day, work traditionally undertaken by all college-bound high school students.  Sure, it was tough to sort out where you wanted to spend your next four years, but reading over the (hard copy!) catalogues and typing up your personal statements contributed to the natural excitement inherent in playing a part in your own destiny.  How sad for the family that thinks their child is not capable of doing this himself.

No, France has not yet caught on to this opportunity to separate French parents from their euros by convincing them that the schools aren't doing their jobs and Academics R Us can provide Bac Preparation for a fee.  That said, there are a few shady entrepreneurs out there who have offered special intensive review sessions for these important exams.   One of them, Acadomia, was sued in 2010, not only for hiring a non-diploma-holding staff of "Educators," but for keeping internal memos on their clients with irrelevant notations such as "father in prison,"  "mother of student stinks," or "adopted child."   I don't think they are still in business.

So for now, French parents continue to rely on the "sweat of your brow" approach to test preparation, with just a little help from Arctic Root and Gingko Biloba.  As the parent of a child heading into her Baccalauréat exams next month, you can be sure I'm stocking up.

lundi 27 mai 2013

More on language

I watched « The Interpreter » last night. A good, sophisticated story and I was impressed that the crew was able to film in the real United Nations. What really spoke to me in the movie was how the Nicole Kidman character, who plays a UN translator, viewed the sanctity and power of the languages she worked in. There were some quotable lines which, sadly, I did not note down quickly enough to remember.

I work primarily in one language—English—during my day job. But I have a second job as a freelance translator where my brain toggles between French and English (I translate both towards and away from the target language) continually as I work. I translate in two specialty areas: the pharmaceutical industry and technical manuals for software (which is the height of irony, considering what a non-geek I am). Both areas demand critical accuracy (if I were to mistake “voie rectale” for “voie orale”, the patient would be in big trouble) although I would opine that translating technical prose is a little less demanding, due to the amount of repetition these manuals consist of.

The real challenge and satisfaction for any interpreter or translator is when we are able to perform the language shift, in the Jakobson sense, of manipulating not only the words (the signifiers) but (and more importantly) the intent (the signified) that exists beneath, behind and inside the logical and grammatical structures of the source language. This is much more complex than it seems to the layperson, for it demands a thorough knowledge of both the source and target culture’s history, politics, and gender dynamics, to name only three domains any good translator has to be able to reference.

Take the example of a simple French word, gare. Translated into English as “train station” what do those two words signify? If you are an average American, “train station” will evoke architecture of another century, of an earlier America. You might even include, in your mental image, a station master checking a pocket watch and shouting “all aboard!” If you are young, you may have never boarded a train in your life, and therefore would have an even more-removed and antiquated simulacrum of what a train station is, fed by media and Harry Potter films.

But for the French, whose country’s arteries are made of steel, the word gare connotes nothing but another of their daily objects. Its appearance in a text is not remarkable and does not send the reader into a wistful daydream of a bygone era. (Let me specify here that I am talking about veritable train stations, and not subway or commuter train stations.) The meaning of that simple word is something completely different when considered within the cultural context.

I don’t think sanctity of language is limited to the fields of interpretation and translation. I know that even working in the monolingual sphere, I often have difficulty making what I want to say become what my listener hears. So when you are reading my blog and thinking “what in the world could she possibly mean by that?” just chalk it up to a grand misalignment of symbols, signs and referents. In pop culture terms, I’m Venus and you might be Mars.

dimanche 12 mai 2013

Coffee Break

 I'm not sure why it is but I don't spend nearly enough time in any of Paris' 7,000 cafés.  I'd venture to guess this is a result of my daily life, which, like that of most of my friends, is meted out to the beat of métro-boulot-dodo (subway-work-sleep) and doesn't allow me to include much sitting-around-in-a-café in the mix.  Sadly, because these moments are really essential to feeling Parisian.

So last week, when I found myself having to visit the café near my work several times a day (our water has been turned off which meant the WC was out of service), I got to use this as an excuse to catch up on some café time.

Cafés have a three-tier system of pricing.   Ordering at the bar, or "le zinc" is the cheapest way to eat or drink; sitting down inside the place is a little more expensive, and you'll pay the premium price if you eat or drink at a sidewalk table.  So to reduce the expense of my toilet trips, I took my coffee at the bar. One euro was the price to pay but it was better than trying to sneak down the steps to the basement toilettes and risk being yelled at by the owner.  In France, you have to order something in order to use the facilities in a café.

The great thing about drinking standing up is that you can watch and listen to the personnel as they multi-task.  There is an entire symphony of café music:  the combination of pulling the coffees, setting the saucers and small cups on the zinc, sliding the sugar cubes and spoon into place...all this is background to the friendly barking of orders: un croissant pour le douze!!! un déca pour le sept!!! I was lucky enough to be standing there as the proprietor phoned in his meat order for the day.  Yummmm veal stew.

I spent a lot of my students days here in cafés.  People were allowed to smoke back then, a "right" that did not get outlawed until January 2007.  That perfume of tobacco and coffee was My Smell of Paris; something that, should I have caught a whiff of that elsewhere, always brought me back to the City of Light.  Thankfully, cafés are now smokefree but the lovely scent of coffee and whatever the cook is preparing as the plat du jour still prevails and reminds me that I do really need to spend more time in these places, relaxing, people watching, and being part of this iconic Parisian institution.

dimanche 5 mai 2013

Deconstructing the Oasis ad

There's an ad campaign currently gracing the métro platforms that I just love.  Not because of the product it's shilling (Oasis, a kind of Hawaiian Punch sugary "fruit" drink), but because it has a billion neat language layers to it.  There's tons going on underneath the rather immature graphics but you have to be a local to get it.  That's not really a good strategy for any ad campaign that's seen by loads of tourists, but I guess the Artistic Director didn't think beyond the native population during the strategy meetings.

Here's the ad:

"Paris, Ville Métropicale", or "Paris, A metrotropical city."...because Oasis is Tropical!  And you have what I assume is a mango with a backpack and sleeproll waiting on a métro platform while the train is entering (or maybe exiting) the station.
I always like métro ads that feature people (or fruits, in this case) that are IN THE METRO.  It gives the ad a sense of mise-en-abyme, or a fractal dimension that makes me think I'm in a Borges story.  It's so exciting to ponder this while I wait for the number eight to come along.

 Now this is really funny if you know your métro stations. "Cocomartin" is a play on words for the "Caumartin" station (actually Havre-Caumartin; you can just see a trace of the "re" in the ad).  Because, well, you know Oasis is TROPICAL! and so are coconuts.

This is the crown jewel of the ad's jokes.  Mr. Mango is holding a sign indicating that he wants to go to "Pere La Fraise"  A "fraise" is a strawberry, which is a TROPICAL fruit!  The Oasis people are, of course, refering to the famous Parisian cemetary Pere Lachaise.  Although I'm mystified as to why this guy would be hitchhiking when he is in a métro station.  Just take the train, Mr. Mango!

Lastly, Mr. Orange is sitting in front of a métro poster which displays a tenuous grasp of the English language.  "What Fruit You Expect" is mocking a real ad for Schweppes in which Uma Thurman lounges around in a chiffon gown and says "What do you expect?" when her interviewer asks her something about what beverage she is drinking.  (That Schweppes ad is actually terrible, come to think of it.)  I guess the Oasis people thought "fruit" sounded like "do", and, perhaps if the speaker is French, they aren't wrong.