Some reflected glory from Les Blogs

V.F. en cours de rédaction.

  • 2005-12-05
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I spent a very pleasant day yesterday having lunch with Suw Charman (in whose IRC channel#[1] I like to hang out), Kevin Anderson of BBC World Have Your Say and Matt Mullenweg (the WordPress lead developer). They are in Paris for the Les Blogs 2 conference. The local welcome committee included Michel Valdrighi (who took some great pictures) and Mark Cabiling. Frédéric de Villamil joined us later, after we’d taken a stroll showing off Paris to our visitors and arrived at the Lizard Lounge bar for pre-conference drinks and socialising.

Even though I’m not at Les Blogs, the meeting was rather stimulating. Kevin proceeded to interview Fred and me about the French blogs’ reaction to the recent unrest in the French peri-urban housing estates#[2], in the context of the traditional media. Even though I’ve only been interviewed a handful of times in my life, I could tell that Kevin is an excellent interviewer. We had an interesting discussion about political blogging: how, via the tools that are now available to any interested citizen, a political debate that is deadlocked between the oft-repeated stances of whatever the dominating political actors are in a given country, can be shaken up and revitalised. This includes places where blogging is subjected to massive censorship (China, for example), but also the old Western democracies that are typically suffering from stagnation of the political life and ossification of the structures. How exactly this (often still very modest) injection of new democratic lifeblood happens varies a lot between countries, localities or other units that are covered by a common political process.

Another topic that came up with various conference-goers was that of multilingualism in the blogging world. Multilingual blogging tools — multilingual anything, really — feature prominently in that, but also the problem of vehicular languages, at the moment English most of the time. There is a fine balance between the nefarious effects of the domination of one language in international communication, on the one hand, and the effective silencing even the most brilliant ideas undergo if they are not reflected in the common discourse, on the other. This is a question I’ll have to come back to in another post.

[1]: #suwcharman on — it’s rather like a 19th century salon, 21st century version. [2]: It is time, maybe, to admit that I decided some months ago to reorganise my online activities. I have, in effect, split my web presence, focussing this blog on matters of language, my forays into linguistics, reading, uses of the new electronic tools and occasionally meta-blogging posts like this one. The more personal stuff, topics related to local blogquaintances, snarky remarks and polemicising has been shifted to a different place, which is not publicised under my real identity. I don’t have any doubt that a competent searcher will be able to find the rest of my writing — I’ve been active on the internet for over ten years after all, and it has left traces with my name attached to them. Yet I’m trying to prevent my more experimental and controversial material to show up on top of any Google search for my name. Another, more important, reason for the split was that I had started blogging without any consideration for a potential readership. Those local or regional bloggers I’ve made friends with, sometimes via the blogging platforms we use, sometimes around a pint of Guinness, aren’t necessarily interested in this blog. And those readers who are, could care less#[3] about what’s shaking the locals, or the weather in Paris. So, yes, I have indeed written about the French riots. In English even. Just not here.

The French noun rencontre signifies a chance meeting, an intersection of one’s path with that of someone else. Sometimes, the paths run in parallel for a while, often they diverge again quickly. The English quasi-equivalent is “encounter”, but as always, the connotations are just a little different.

This post is about three such encounters. All of them took place in the underground halls of Métro Line 14 in Paris. The first two last Thursday, after seeing off Steph at Gare de Lyon. The other one on Monday. I live near one of the end points of Line 14.#[1] It’s my home line.

  • Hostility. I don’t have too many qualms about letting ticketless fellow human beings slip through the automatic ticket barriers with me. It’s the local custom. This case was slightly different, though: I was exhausted and jittery, and only saw the woman on the other side of the barriers when she covered, with her hand, the infra-red light that keeps them open while you pass through. I hadn’t really noticed the second woman.

    The goal of the manoeuver was to keep the barrier open so that the second woman could go through after me, but I hadn’t realized that either. Problem: woman number one was too quick, so the barrier didn’t even open for me. I grumbled at her.

    Once inside the station (with woman number two coming after me, which was when I understood what was going on), I got yelled at. What would it cost me to let some through? Connasse! I shrugged and said a bit pointedly that I didn’t care. Reaction, aggressively (for a moment I wondered if she’d hit me): “[If] you don’t break my balls, I won’t break your balls.” (”Tu me casses pas les couilles, je te casse pas les couilles.”) This converstaion taking place between two women was just so bizarre that I relaxed. I went my way and they went theirs. No balls were broken.

  • The sticky cook. I had hardly recovered from the first encounter, descended to the platform and sat down, when a second one was coming my way. A man in a classy suit, tie and cloak, with a briefcase and a huge illustrated cookbook. I was scruffy, sweaty, clad in a pair of old jeans and even more jittery than before.

    I didn’t want to make conversation. He did. Greeted me. When a stranger greets me on the street, I nearly panic because, well, it might not be a stranger at all. Plus, the default metro behaviour of staring everywhere except into another traveller’s face is sort of silly, too, isn’t it? My error was the subject of my small talk. “Ah, is this a cookbook?” Not the most original of conversational turns; worse, it turned out that he was a cook by profession. Member of the National Cuisine Academy or some such. Living right next door to me.

    During the 5min metro ride, an interrogation ensued. I didn’t want to talk about myself, nor about what I do, so I talked about the internet and blogs (which is something I do do, though, but had the advantage that he didn’t know anything about it.) Emerging from “our” station, I barely managed to get away without kissing him goodbye.#[2] Disconcerting.

  • The two idiots. Idiot comes from a Greek word meaning private person: someone who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.

    Example. I’m on the escalator down to the platform at my end of Line 14. A metro train is waiting, doors open, ready to depart. Trains leave every two minutes. So, okay, it’s not strictly necessary to catch this particular train. But I want to. In front of me there are two men, my age or a bit younger. They are comparing their iPods, PDAs, smartphones, whatever. And are proceeding leisurely from the escalator towards the train doors, blocking my path. The bell announces the imminent closing of the doors. They fine-tune their speed so that they will just manage to get in, but whoever is behind them won’t.

    Well, I did, but with a bruise on my arm. Line 14 has modern doors that can’t easily be held open. Oh, the surprised innocence on their faces when I glared daggers at them.

[1]: “Terminus. Tous les voyageurs sont invités à déscendre. Last stop. Would all passengers kindly leave the train. Terminal. Invida a todos los pasajeros a bajar.” [2]: This would be the customary parting ritual between friends who are not both male (or who are really very close, whatever their respecive sex).

More reading

Fred Vargas, Pars vite et reviens tard. À lire.

Now for some reading material that’s more commonly considered escapist: mystery novels.

First I have to make a shameful admission: I knew that Fred Vargas is a woman, but didn’t pick up on the fact that she is French. English first name + Spanish last name = American, in my heuristics. I therefore put off looking at her books until my next foray into one of the better English-language book stores.

I corrected my error, and have just finished reading Pars vite et reviens tard. An excellent book, much closer to Frances Fyfield in the use of metaphor, recurrent phrases and psychology (but with more straightforward plotting) than the Léo Mallets and Daniel Pennacs the foreign reviewers compare her to.#[1]

There is a mediocre review in the Guardian (the reviewer likes the book, but I’m not sure he or she has read it very thoroughly), another one at Tangled Web, and one that tells too much of the story and misspells the name of one of the main characters.

The English title, Have Mercy on Us All, sounds slightly strange to me. I’ll return to this later since this means uncovering a bit of the story. If you want to discover the book for yourselves, you can stop reading in time.

The book offers other translation matters that piqued my interest. One is about how to describe a symbol that is central to the story and depicted on the book cover here (image file).

The first passage describing the mark (twice) goes as follows:

Maryse [a witness] s’appliqua à représenter un grand quatre fermé, en typographie d’imprimerie, au trait plein, à la base pattée comme une croix de Malte, et portant deux barres sur son retour.

– Voilà, dit Maryse.

– Vous l’avez fait à l’envers, dit doucement Adamsberg [the detective]en reprenant son calepin.

– C’est parce qu’il est à l’envers. Il est à l’envers, large au pied, avec ces deux petites barres au bout.

So the mark looks like a number 4, but an uncommon one. À l’envers clearly means flipped left to right here. Otherwise, it could mean upside-down (as the Guardian reviewer wrongly writes). For “the world is turned upside-down”, eg, French uses “le monde [est] à l’envers“. But in the case of an upside-down symbol, I think (but am not quite sure), that French would prefer renversé.

The other reviews employ “backwards looking figure ‘4s’” and “reversed 4s”. In any case, the book cover is helpful (the French like the English version).

We also find the delightful use of an eggcorn to link and characterise the two central protagonists#[2]. The eggcorn’s “original” is a bit of French legalese, a noun (post-)modifier, y afférant. The English translation of this is thereto relating, like in The Inquiry Committee shall receive a copy of the grievance form together with all documentation thereto relating taken from here.

One of the protagonists, the police commissaire#[3] Adamsberg, has just transferred to a homicide unit. He reflects on what lies behind him: dealing with housebreaking, theft, etc. and the inevitable paperwork, “les kilos de papiers y afférants”.

Earlier in the novel, we meet Joss Le Guern, a former sailor who has reinvented himself as a town crier. He uses a home-made letterbox to collect the messages he reads out three times a day on a public square. On this letterbox, he has painted a list of “prices and other conditions” y affairantes. The bit of legal language has stuck with him from a brush with the law that has turned his life upside-down (or flipped it left to right). Having heard it a lot of times during his trial, he obviously believes it to derive from affaire, meaning “business”, or “matter” in general#[4], like the affaire that brought him before a court.

Last, there is the matter of the title I mentioned above. Its literal translation is “Leave swiftly and come back late”. As the plot unfolds, we learn [and this is why I left some spoiler space] that the letters CLT that are left, signature-like, next to the number-four shaped graffiti, come from the Latin phrase Cito, longe, tarde (”fast, far, late”), the long version of which is Cito, longe fugeas, et tarde redeas, ie “Flee fast and far away, and come back late”. This, in turn, is a traditional piece of advice given when the plague threatened.#[5] And yes, the plague is very significant. Why was a suitable translation not good enough for the book title? The German version managed, with “Fliehe weit und schnell”.

[1]: Do reviewers always have to go on about “the atmosphere of Paris”, or of “the 14th arrondissement of Paris”? What hidden nostalgia lies behind this tendency? Vargas isn’t particularly concerned with local colour. Sure, the novel is set in Paris, recognisably so. Sure, a particular neighbourhood the history of which holds some degree of significance, and which happens to be located at the north-western edge of the 14th arrondissement, is the scene of much of the action. But its characterisation, brilliant as it is, draws more on the grotesque than on what the real Paris is like.

[2]: Note to self: I really need to start writing about French eggcorns in French.

[3]: Yet another translation problem. If I understand British police ranks correctly, a Commissioner would be a bit above a French commissaire. The equivalent might be a Detective (Chief) Inspector. As for corresponding US ranks, this translation would take too much liberty with the particular setting of the novel. Using one of these terms would clash as much as when French translations use ANPE for another country’s unemployment office. Which, unfortunately, sometimes happens.

[4]: But not “love affair”, which is liaison or aventure.

[5]: I couldn’t find out since when exactly (there was one attribution to Hippocrates, but I’m far from sure), but at least since Latin was commonly used for treatises about the plague.