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?