Why an Oxford degree is not a complete waste of time

The whole point is to give the holder the urge to finish the job which the dons have barely started
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The Independent Culture
RECENTLY THEY have been serialising Alain-Fournier's classic French novel Le Grand Meaulnes on Radio 4. After what must have been a lengthy debate on how to translate the title of the novel into English, they have come to a big decision. They have decided to call it Le Grand Meaulnes. I approve of this.

I have come to believe over the years that nothing can ever be satisfactorily translated, and should always be left as is. Let me set out my qualifications for saying so first.

I spent three years at Oxford (the gap between school and real life) studying French and French literature. Looking back, I think I might have spent that time more profitably doing something else. In fact, now that I look back, I find that I did spend most of that time more profitably doing something else, namely scribbling humour for student magazines, learning to play the double bass and getting into the Oxford jazz scene...

But I don't entirely regret the French bit, even though Oxford University was very careful not to sully our minds with anything too relevant, so we never found ourselves speaking any French in the entire three years I was there (this is true) or studying any writer who was still alive or had died within living memory.

So when I left Oxford, you might suppose that I was fully armed with the weapons to tackle French culture, and so I was, except that I could speak medieval French better than modern, and had no idea what had happened to French literature in the 20th century. This certainly gave me an incentive to continue educating myself and it may well be that the whole point of an Oxford degree is to give the holder the urge to finish the job which the dons of Oxford have barely started.

But it had also given me a wonderful education in trivial background knowledge of the type that is considered vitally necessary to pass exams, and useless for anything else. I'll give you an example.

While studying French theatre history in the late 19th century, a period which is even more barren of talent than the same era in Britain, I came across a writer called Henri Becque who is no longer performed but was thought significant because he made several innovations in staging. So I read his plays. (What a diligent student I must have been.) And I remember one play of his called La Parisienne which did have one fine moment.

In the first scene, set in a Parisian home, the man is confronting the wife with a letter he has found.

"Someone is sending you love letters!" he cried. "You have been deceiving me! You have a secret lover!"

Just about to defend herself, she hears the noise of the front door opening downstairs, and puts her finger to her lips.

"Sssh!" she says. "Careful! It's my husband!"

Suddenly you realise that the man who is accusing the woman of infidelity is not the husband but the lover! Very clever. The rest of the play was quite good, too, and I even thought of trying to translate it once. But I never got beyond the title. How do you translate La Parisienne? As The Lady from Paris? The Parisian Lady? A Woman Of Paris? The Parisienne? Well, there's not much point in translating a play or a book if you can't get the title right.

The same is true of Ubu Roi, which is why nobody ever calls it King Ubu. The same is true of Madame Bovary, which is never retitled Mrs Bovary. Nobody would ever think of translating Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles as The Terrible Children.

I have even been having trouble translating something I found in my gum- boots the other day. These are a cheap (pounds 9.99) pair of boots, made in Italy, which I bought in an emergency and which are so unweatherproof that the makers have left a note inside saying, in their approximate English: "These boots should be worn in case of normal weather conditions - that is, against minimal hazards only." Not in mud or puddles, in other words.

But in the French version of the notes there is an instruction which recurs in none of the other languages"

"Instructions d'entretien: pas d'entretien particulier." I think that is very funny. Roughly, it means: "Instructions for care. No particular care needed."

I only wish I could translate it better. But I think it's like Le Grand Meaulnes and Ubu Roi. It's better in the original.