Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reasons to Know French

I don't know if I'll ever use French in my career, but I have no regrets about majoring in it at college. Oddly enough, one of the greatest benefits of knowing French is that it has made me more able to appreciate the literature of other countries. Many classic authors wrote at a time when it was assumed that all "cultured" people would know some French, and they insert French passages into their novels sans traduction (see what I did there?). Here are some books I have read that make me say "Boy! I'm glad I know French!"
  • Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen--This is the book that prompted this post, as I'm reading it right now. Written in 1934, and mostly taking place among European aristocrats of the 1800s, the elegant, dense prose has French aperçus sprinkled throughout. The story "The Deluge at Norderney" ends with a sentence in French that requires you to know what the passé simple of the verb se taire is--in other words, this is not French 101 stuff.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov--Humbert Humbert tells us he was born in Paris, and he fancies himself a cultured European aesthete, so he throws around French phrases and French dialogue whenever he can. And of course, because it's Nabokov, there must be a punning or a hidden meaning behind all these uses of French.
  • The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy--Not as "deep," perhaps, as the other books on this list, but as it's the tale of an American girl in Paris, and was written in the 1950s when "cultured" people knew French, Dundy doesn't bother to translate some of the dialogue. However, it's mostly on a French 101 level.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy--I actually read this book before I had studied much French, but I remember that Tolstoy's aristocratic characters frequently switch between speaking Russian and French. My copy (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation) translated the French in footnotes, whereas other editions translate it in the body of the text, contrary to Tolstoy's intentions. I hear that War and Peace has even more French-language passages in it than Anna Karenina does.
Photo by claudecf on flickr: it's a bas-relief above a door in Paris.

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