Thursday, February 18, 2010

Europhrenia - French is just too provincial

My latest blog at presseurop
One of the most consistently informative and entertaining blogs about the European Union has to be Jean Quatremer’s Coulisses de Bruxelles. However, a recent post (for relevant English extracts click here) has caused some Czech, German and indeed Irish ed hackles to rise. Monsieur Quatremer was griping about the predominance of native English speakers working as spokespersons at the European Commission. Maybe he has a point that the perifidious English have chalked up another victory, and they’re not in the euro etc etc, but the following sentence really clinches it for this blogger here. “While most of them speak French perfectly, some of them mangle the pronunciation – even though French is, after English, the second language in the press room.”
“Mangle” is the key word here. In a city like London, for instance, you’re likely to hear “hoyse”, “hoose”, “aahs”, “aousse” to denote the building which you live in. This is not called mangling pronunciation. This is called having an Ulster, a Canadian, a London, or God forbid, a French accent. The French, however, still bewilderingly cling to the belief that in a polyglot world there is such thing as an “accentless”, universal French, failure to attain to which leaves you in a kind of social limbo, intelligent but somehow pitiable like a sort of performing monkey. This is not a law only applicable to non-French, and God knows, I’ve been hearing the patronising “vous avez un petit accent” for what feels like six hundred years. Even if from Lille, Marseilles, or Rennes, you’re expected at some point in life, though as yet no initiation rite like a circumcision ceremony exists, to begin speaking “without an accent”. This idea is so deeply rooted that when you make the obvious point that there is no such thing as a language without an accent you see eyes glassing over with incomprehension.
To understand this is crucial to understanding the French outlook on the world, but also the decline of French language and culture globally. Paradoxically, the obsession with a pure universal French that doesn’t mangle pronunciation is just another sign of pure French provincialism, like its ridiculous debate on national identity. The genius of English is that there are a hundred ways to call a house a hyse, and no-one really cares. French might still be the second language at the Commission, but given the prissiness of some French ears, it would be less stressful for all concerned if it were Spanish, Italian, or for that matter, Greek, whose peoples are more than delighted when you drag their subjunctives and articles and conjugations backwards through a bush.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Losing Angela in translation

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When was launched in May last year, one of its guiding mottos was Umberto Eco’s “The future of Europe is translation.” But quite frequently I’m inclined to think that sometimes the future of Europe is lost in translation. I recently checked a statement by Angela Merkel concerning the CD-rom nabbed by HSBC supergrass Falciani containing data on Germans who have siphoned off their money to Switzerland in order to avoid taxes back home. This has created a hole in the German treasury of some €200million, but in order to get the data, the German governement has to cough up €2.5million. While some wring their hands as whether it’s right to chase up tax evaders by paying a thief, the French language press widely relayed Merkel’s statement on the matter as “Il faut tout entreprendre pour obtenir ces données" i.e. Everything must be done to obtain this data.
However, if you look at the original German statement, "Vom Ziel her sollten wir, wenn diese Daten relevant sind, auch in den Besitz dieser Daten kommen", you realise she didn’t quite say that. In transliterated English this goes – “An objective should be aimed at, if this data is relevant, then we should take property of the data”. Ok, German syntax is complex, but nevertheless this is a typically Merkelian clunker, grey as dishwater, dry as dust, that plods around the subject until it sort of dies of boredom. Now contrast this with the zippy French rendering of the statement and actually it seems as if it got an edit from the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, who says “must” every time he opens his mouth.

But what’s good translation? On the literary front, having recently dipped into the new Penguin version of the Arabian nights, I’m more and more frustrated by this very contemporary quest for ultimate precision. The editors are keen to bury the definitive Burton translation, full as they say of “mistakes” and “archaisms”, but so far I’ve been less than thrilled to come across words like “managers” and “skills” and even the adolescent “kind of”. They sound much more like 21st century Angela Merkel than 12th century Bagdad. Which gets me thinking, to twist Nietzsche to some foul ends, that it might be better if accuracy perish rather than life. When Merkel is translated with a bit of fantasy, we listen up. We only need now enliven the Union entire by translating Van Rompuy, Barroso et al as if they all weren’t trying to make us fall asleep.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The World Last Week


Last week, I was on the France 24 World This Week debate with John Vinocur from the IHT, Judah Grunstein of World Politics Review, who wrote this blog on the discussion, and Pierre Rousselin from Le Figaro. For Part One, click here… and for Part Two, here… We discussed Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot inquiry on Iraq in which I made the point that Iraq was always a war looking for a cause, and so there’s absolutely no point, (indeed, it’s somewhat surreal) to seek to nail him on whether he really believed that WMDs, that only the most naive believed existed, existed or not. In the appalling light of the number of civilian casualties in Iraq since 2003, it also strikes me in passing that the whole thrust of the Chilcot inquiry, to determine whether the Iraq war was “illegal”, is somewhat obscene. It suggests that had the war been “legal” – with French involvement, a nod from the UN? – that mass murder could have gone by a different name. Such staggering logic like the above is not beyond George Monbiot, though, if his crusade to have Blair arrested, and who knows, thrown into the Tower of London, is anything to go by.
We also talked about the burqa in France, but you can read my thoughts on that here, and finally about Afghanistan. Like Iraq, I argued that there was never any clear reason for going into Afghanistan either. And for this reason permanent mission drift is completely inevitable. Worse, none of the so-called mission objectives have been achieved. The war started as a response to 9/11 (i.e. attacks mainly carried out by Saudis and Egyptians) then the flushing out Al-Qaeda, the Taliban with the emancipation of women bunged in for Western punlic consumption. Then it was the elimination of the drugs trade, and now there’s talk of creating democratic institutions, which in reality means the propping up of the hopelessly corrupt Karzai government that admits that it needs foreign troops on its soil at least fifteen more years. Fifteen years is the same as admitting the Afghan state will never be able to stand on its own legs, ever. As to arguments that Afghanistan would descend into civil war if Nato left, the answer is simple. Afghanistan is already in the throes a civil war, as continued Taliban attacks on Kabul make obvious. Judah Grunstein made the valid point that the Taliban don’t have much of a mission either, and that they’re hardly winning hearts and minds. This is true, but in cases of a long war of attrition like, the old maxim “better the devil you know” usually sees the day. In the end, countries just don’t like being occupied, no matter how benevolent the intentions of the occupier might be…

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Burqa barbarous, but a ban is wrong

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Le Figaro reports today that Immigration Minister Eric Besson has refused citizenship to a Moroccan man on the grounds that in his application he stated he would never allow his wife to leave the home without a burqa. Prime Minister Fillon has weighed in declaring he will sign said decree, with Deutsche Welle adding that the man also stated that woman is “an inferior being”. Mr Fillon declares that citizenship can be refused “to anyone who does not respect the values of the Republic” and that clearly the applicant did not respect French values of secularism and equality of the sexes. “Clearly” clinches it here. Read full article in

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is this the end of the IPCC?

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Yet more embarrassing revelations about the scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit who brought us Climategate. The Guardian leads today with news that Phil Jones, at the centre of last year’s leaked emails affair, is once again facing fresh claims that he “hid problems in key temperature data on which some of his work was based.” Emails and documents from the University’s climatic research unit show that measurements used from Chinese weather stations were “seriously flawed” and that related documents “could not be produced.” These measurements were cited in a 1990 report on the effect of cities on global warming, to be then taken up by the IPCC in its 2007 report on climate. The 1990 paper concluded that rising temperatures recorded in China were the result of global climate changes rather than the warming effects of expanded cities. However, when challenged a total of 105 times under the Freedom of Information Act to reveal the location of the Chinese weather stations, the UEA refused 95 of such requests. You don’t have to be a climate-change sceptic, or even the UK’s deputy information commissioner who has drawn attention to the case, to sense that flawed or not, withholding crucial data is fishy behaviour. Read on at