A film entitled ‘La cour de Babel’ recently came out in France. The title is a play on words, a transposing of ‘la tour de Babel’, the ‘tower of Babel’ to mean instead the ‘playground of Babel’ (which has rather less of a ring to it in English). The title is apt, as the film focuses on a group of immigrant schoolchildren all speaking various different languages and all attempting to learn French in order to integrate into their adopted country and be able to follow lessons in their second language. The young protagonists of this documentary film have all joined what in French is called a ‘classe d’accueil’, or ‘welcome class’ in a school in Paris’ tenth arrondissement. The majority of them will remain in this ‘classe d’accueil’ for a full academic year, as they begin to learn, or consolidate their existing knowledge of, French as a foreign language. They are taught French in French, the lingua franca of the group, but the teacher ensures she speaks slowly, using easily-understandable vocabulary and grammatical structures to ensure her pupils do not feel overwhelmed by the formidable task of quickly acquiring a foreign language. The pupils remain in the ‘classe d’accueil’ before they are judged to have a grasp of French advanced enough to cope with mainstream schooling.
Tough Young Teachers, a recent BBC Three documentary, also briefly highlights the difficulties of adapting to schooling in a foreign language. In the first episode of the series, the novice teacher discovered a girl from Francophone Africa in his Year 7 class spoke no English; speaking no French himself (despite a Carthusian education), the teacher was forced to temporarily recruit an older pupil to use an online translator to communicate with the Year 7 pupil. There was no mention of the pupil being given extra English lessons, or being provided with a professional translator to work at her side as a learning support assistant would with pupils with learning difficulties.
While Britain is as multicultural as France, with some inner-city schools recording 90% of their pupils as having English as their second language, a system based on the French ‘classe d’accueil’ method would no doubt benefit many.
Of course, it could be argued that complete immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language; it would have been interesting for the documentary to have revisited the Francophone pupil at the end of the school year to note her doubtless greatly improved command of the English language. Yet the pupils in the classe d’accueil filmed in the French documentary are also all experiencing immersion, taught as they are in French. Recruiting a professional translator or interpreter to accompany every pupil without a sufficient grasp of their language of education would surely break the majority of school budgets.
The ‘classe d’accueil’ also has the advantage of easing the pupils into their new school environment. They have a chance to make friends with fellow foreigners (while, again, using French as the lingua franca), learn about the culture of their adoptive country and often gain a much-needed confidence boost that they are soon to be linguistically able to cope with the demands of the French education system. This method is surely preferable to that of leaving immigrant pupils feeling isolated and bewildered, surrounded by native speakers of the language who can follow what their peers are saying and what the teacher is talking about. The ‘classe d’accueil’ method also removes any unnecessary burdens on the teacher: it is tough enough to teach a class without having to worry about accommodating pupils who do not even understand the language of instruction.
In the third and final part of this blog about the various translations of Alice in Wonderland, I am going to consider the literary translation of Carrollian word games from English into French. Carroll’s two novels, very frequently referred to collectively as Alice in Wonderland, are filled with word games and word play. Throughout the work, Carroll plays with the English language. This linguistic virtuosity which makes Alice in Wonderland such a delight to read in English obviously poses obstacles for even the most able of translators, who is forced to chose whether to translate the word games literally, thus retaining the sense but losing the poetry or rhyme of the original, or whether to, for example, search for a homophony between two words in French which can replace the English pun or play on words and which aptly replaces the humour found in Carroll’s original. The translator therefore becomes an inventor, a creator; he is translating the work, but he is also at the same time re-writing it, putting his own stamp onto the novels through the creation of new puns, of inventive word play in French to replace, if not rival, those found in the original. A successful translation therefore depends upon the ingeniousness of the translation, and upon his ability to mould his own language.
To illustrate this point, let us take some examples from Carroll’s work. The following three examples represent just a fraction of the word play found in Alice in Wonderland. These three examples are typical: the first is a chain of interlinked word games which plays upon a misunderstanding between characters; the second is the parody of a English proverb, and the third is a pun. The first example is that of the Mouse’s tale, in which Alice assumes the Mouse is talking about his ‘tail’ rather than his ‘tale’, his life story. The poem also assumes the shape of a tail to add to this word play. A further interlinked word game plays on the homophony between ‘not’ and ‘knot’, when Alice assumes the Mouse means he has a knot in his tail. As in this case (as indeed is often the case with Carroll), the word games are interdependent and link to one another, and the translator’s task thus becomes all the more difficult. So how did the different translators studied translate the interlinked word game and the calligram which is the culmination of the two puns, the visual pun of the poem reflecting the verbal pun of the chapter’s title, ‘The Mouse’s Tale’. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the three translators studied was able to find an equivalent for the simply yet elegant and effective pun of Carroll’s, which emphasises the ambiguity of human discourse. There does not seem to be an equivalent homophony in the French language which would suitably render this pun while retaining all the virtuosity of the original. Papy translates ‘tail’ and ‘knot’ directly into French,
but does emphasise the misunderstanding between Alice and the Mouse, using a misunderstanding between the length of the Mouse’s tail and the length of his story. Thus, Papy retains the Carrollian interrogation of the ability of language as a communicative tool, but his translation suffers from a lack of elegant word play as found in the original. Bué, too, retains the implicit commentary on the ambiguity of language, as in his translation he mentions the ‘veracité’ of his story which Alice interprets as meaning ‘vers à citer’. Like Papy, he is unable to find a suitable equivalent for the Carrollian puns of not/knot and tale/tail, and in his translation the Mouse simply comments on the length of story, with Alice then remarking also on the similar length of his tale.
To take a further example of a pun, there is the word play on horse/hoarse in Through the Looking-Glass. In this case, the specific word which is used in the pun has no real bearing on the story: this time it is not interlinked with other word play or calligrams, and does not have any link with the title of a chapter or the attributes of a character, for example. Thus, translators can be a bit more free in their translation and replace the pun with an equivalent pun in French, rather than trying to stick doggedly to the actual meaning of the words as they are somewhat forced to do in the case of the Mouse’s tale. Thus, Papy retains the word ‘hoarse’ in French (‘rauque’) and couples it with ‘roc’, a word which means ‘rock’ rather than ‘horse’ but no matter: the pun is rendered aptly and no additional meaning is lost. In his translation of the pun, Parisot even adds something to the text: he replaces the pun on hoarse/horse with ‘chemin de faire/chemin de fer’, a quip about a railway and distance travelled. Not only does he create an equivalent pun but as, when the ‘hoarse/horse’ pun is mentioned in the original text, the characters are indeed in a train, Parisot succeeds in adding a further layer of meaning to his translation and linking his pun to the wider context of the story in a way Carroll himself did not, in this case, do.
Such examples therefore testify to the fact that translation is not an exact science: it is an art form, which requires creativity, originality and a love of language. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the translations of Alice in Wonderland.