alea iacta esto

But I Read No French

Corneille. Who is he? Sartre, in his auto-bio Words, mentions Corneille a few times too many. Today, a sunny spring Sunday afternoon, while bookshop browsing I came across the French Lit section. This is new, I thought. Or had I been blind to this section since I couldn’t and still can’t speak or read French? I mean, I know my Oui and Non, Merci, Monsieur, Ah, Bonjour Madame and Comme ci, comme ça, Oui Oui c’est la vie! But that’s about it. My eyes are scanning the books I’m never going to read. Then I spot him. Corneille. There on the top shelf, his book covers fronting insolent poses, “Haven’t you read us?” Tut tut. No, because you see, I read no French.

It’s at times like those I become envious of people, like my Spanish friend Javier, who can speak and read in four languages. I grew up in Lagos, the tempestuous onetime capital of Nigeria, a country bordered on all four sides by French speaking countries and where French is as foreign a tongue as an extinct local dialect. When I was eleven, I picked up two years of French studies that were as useless today as learning how to use log tables and as painful as a fumbled injection. So when I see names like Corneille on bookshelves I wave them away wistfully and console myself that they probably aren’t worth reading anyway and that my bedroom floor is already covered with unread English translations.

“That’s a really interesting author, can I get it for you, Sir?” To which I reply: “Non, Mademoiselle, je vous remercie, mais je ne peux pas lire le français” and hope my googled translation is correct. The thought has since occurred to me, what if an e-book reader could translate? Fuck, I might have to get one. But would the translation be any good?

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5 responses

  1. tenshinoshin

    I haven’t heard of Corneille before, but it might be possible to find a translation of one of his books, or have a book store order it for you. If not, there might be a free, albeit amateur translation online somewhere.

    I’m always kind of intimidated when my friends who are hardcore readers talk about French lit. I’ve never really been interested in it, but it sort of seems like they feel if you haven’t read your share of it, particularly Proust, then you don’t really read. Your post has inspired me to take a look around the French Lit section as well. Maybe it won’t be so bad.

    March 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    • d3mola

      I know what you mean about intimidation. Same thing when people start talking German philosophy bandying about names like Hegel or Kant and words like dialectic. It usually isn’t “so bad” once one starts reading although some works are just so mystifying: “Thus Spake Zarathustra” comes to mind.

      Anyway, on Proust I have only tackled the first of his six-volume masterpiece Remembrance Of Things Past and I can say it is very good and very readable. The writing shimmers but it’s quite taxing to read with its incredibly long sentences. The translation I read was by Lydia Davis.

      Good luck with the French Lit. Don’t let the reviewer below put you off. He’s probably French 🙂

      March 25, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      • tenshinoshin

        That was my thought too, actually =) Thanks for the encouragement, I guess I’ll have to check Proust out after all.

        March 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm

  2. Why would it be bad, you ignorants ? France has been THE litterature country, from Middle Age to the last 60s . Of course, as in Anglophone countries people don’t know anything from the rest of the world, you never heard of it . But it’s not a proof of anything, except of Anglophones’ ignorance .

    March 25, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    • tenshinoshin

      Goodness. Your rudeness isn’t much of an encouragement.

      March 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm

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