Interview with British linguist (and food, architecture and film critic) Jonathan Meades

Meades 1
The interviewee - Jonathan Meades The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg

Jonathan Meades
, a British intellectual, has established a solid reputation with  public both within Britain and beyond its borders, in particular in the fields of food, architecture, films (about 25 television documentaries) and writing. Amongst all his professional activities, he served as the culinary critic of
The Times of London for several years.





JG: A short list of the fields in which you have established a solid reputation in the public eye includes food, architecture, film documentaries (about 50 TV films) and writing. To begin our interview on the subject of food: as the restaurant critic of The Times for many years, what is your view of the recent case in France [Une blogueuse condamnée pour une critique de restaurant : une décision de faible portée - L'OBS] in which a court fined a blogger who wrote a critical review of a restaurant, after the owner complained that the review had adversely affected his reputation? You spend long periods in France. How would you deal with such constraints if you were a food critic in France?

  Meades 3  

JM: I stopped writing about food and restaurants and about the questions such writing might raise fifteen years ago. Having said which food blogs do appear to attract some spectacularly ignorant non-writers.

JG: Your research into unusual aspects of architecture is well known to the public through several series of TV programmes of which the first was Abroad in Britain, (available in DVD format). How would you explain the anomaly of that title to our French readers and why did you choose it?

JM: My British subjects have invariably been provincial. As someone who lived all his adult life in London till seven years ago the British provinces are foreign, they are abroad...

JG: In a two-part documentary, Magnetic North, you introduced the British public to the lesser-known aspects of Northern Europe. Considering that many Britons have travelled throughout Northern Europe, how did you go about researching material that would make the film an eye-opener for TV audiences.

Meades 4

JM: The very point was that most Britons are entirely ignorant of northern Europe. The British, when they travel in Europe, favour Spain, France and Italy. Virtually anything i chose to show in northern Europe would be unknown to them. The programmes were, by the way, not travelogues but, like most of my stuff, polemical essays.

Meades 5JG: In 2012 BBC4 screened Jonathan Meades on France, a series in which you visited your "second country". You seem to have adopted Benjamin Franklin's dictum: "Every man has two countries : his own and France." As someone who is very familiar with many European countries, what particular attraction does France hold for you?

JM: As I pointed out the 'dictum' is not Benjamin Franklin's. It comes from a play by Henri de Bornier - who was French. I admire French republicanism.

  Meades 6  

JG: You recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled "So frenchy, so touchy, about the English language.", in which you suggested that the French should drop their opposition to the influence of English. You wrote: "What is ... peculiar is the dogged Canutism of a certain stratum of French society that fails to acknowledge that languages are mongrel organisms, and that the idea of purity is as unachievable as it is undesirable." But don't you think that there comes a point in the slavish adoption of English where many Frenchmen can have a legitimate fear that their language and culture are under threat?

JM: The chances of the French 'slavishly adopting' anything that they don't want to adopt are nil.

Meades 7JG: Your dozen published books include "Filthy English", a collection of short stories and your first work of fiction. Stephen Fry said that no-one understands England better than Meades. One reader described the book as follows:".. A meal consisting of pan-fried foie gras with raspberry reduction, followed by confit of duck with cherry reduction, and a crepe Suzette to close. All delicious in their way but not in one evening." Can you relate to that opinion expressed  in culinary terms? Another reader wrote  that he had only understood every third word. Might your style be too high-falutin in today's dumbed-down society? Put otherwise, is this a book to be appreciated principally by the literatii? 

JM: I despise writers who take any notice of what their readers say, especially when they say it in so corny a way 

LMJ: What are you currently doing in France? When in France do you engage in the same activities as if you were at your desk in England? What are your plans for the future?

JM: I am writing a new book and planning a new tv show - two almost antithetical exercises.


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (author, translator and professor of translation studies) David Bellos


David Bellos  


Dr. David Bellos -
the interviewee 
  Dr. Geraldine Brodie -
the interviewer 
Princeton   University-college-london-ucl (1)
University of Princeton      University College London


David Bellos is the Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature  and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. He is the author of Romain Gary: A Tall Story (published by Vintage Digital, 2010), and Georges Perec: A Life in Words (published by David R. Godine, 1993) (Prix Goncourt for biography), amongst other books, and the translator of Chronicle in Stone: A Novel by Ismael Kadare (Arcade Publishing, 2011), amongst other translations.

Geraldine Brodie, our Linguist of the Month of August 2016 and since then a regular contributor to this blog is Senior Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation in the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry, where she convenes the MA in Translation Theory and Practice. *


GBYour career has progressed from obtaining an Oxford French degree to becoming Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. University, one of the leading universities in the USA.  How has your study of French literature and language informed your interest in translation?


David BellosIn my youth I was a scholar of nineteenth-century French literature, with a special interest in Balzac and in the book market of the Romantic era.  Obviously, as a university teacher of French, I taught translation every week, but I never thought of myself as being a translator—which is just as well, since I now realize how specific the discipline of pedagogic translation really is. But one day, a colleague put in my hand a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of Georges Perec’s La Vie : mode d’emploi, saying, he couldn’t finish this, but I would probably like it. And indeed I did! It was a revelation. It struck me as a novel that happened to have been written in French but could just as well have been in English, or any language. I wanted to share it. More than that: I wanted to write it! By a series of adventures and misadventures, I did eventually get the chance to do just that. It was a lucky turn of events. La Vie mode d’emploi is not quite as difficult as it looks (much of it echoes the English tradition of the comic novel), but it is a pretty tough assignment (and a very long one) all the same. I think I learned to translate by translating that work. I learned a huge amount about writing in English, and also about the nature of French. The two languages are very close and have long borrowed from each other, but the task of creating Life: A User’s Manual really showed me how different they are in structural terms. To move a work successfully from one to the other takes quite a bit of thought, and if the end product makes it look easy, that’s because the process was Perec Life A User's Manualvery hard. That’s how my so-called career as a translator began: serendipitously. And I do not really think of it as a career. I have always had a day-job. But because Life: A User’s Manual attracted considerable attention, I was asked to translate more Perec, and then all sorts of other things too. Which I did, and still do, but limiting myself to one book a year, since the job that pays the rent has to take priority, after all.

For each book, I do my best to conform to the current ideology of translation, which requires the translator to find an English “voice” for each foreign author and to submit his or her own writing to that imagined identity and style. In retrospect, however, I realise that I write the way I write and that irrespective of my effort to find the right tone for Simenon or Berr or Fournel or Kadare, there must be stylistic commonalities between all the books I have written under my own name and all those I have written as translations. Perhaps one day some assiduous analyst will be able to nail down what it is that makes a translation by me more like another translation by me than like a translation of the same author by another hand. I can’t see what those features are, because they are natural to me, but I strongly suspect they exist.

What I like about translating is that it gives me a chance to bring things that I like to an audience beyond the academy. Luck also plays a role—in the titles that are brought to my attention, and in the respectful relations I have with a number of publishers who understand my taste. Also, because I do have that day job, I only translate books I like, and I know that is a rare and in a sense quite outrageous privilege to have as a translator. But I also think that because translating demands scholarship, on the one hand, and creativity, on the other, it is one of the most rewarding things that a language specialist can do.

GBYour publications list is hugely varied, with a large number of translations to your name. How do you see the mix between academic literature, translations and more publications of more general interest among your work?



David BellosYou say my publications are varied, and I find that flattering, because I would like to believe that, like my hero Georges Perec, I never write the same book twice. Well, I would like to believe it, but it is not entirely true. Three of my books belong to the genre of biography (the lives of Perec, Tati, and Gary) calling on many of the same skills and methods, and they are located in the same cultural, geographic and chronological space—all my subjects are more or less un-French creators working in Paris between 1945 and 1982. 

  Perec Gary   Tati


Three of my other books are books about books (Cousine Bette, Père Goriot, and Les Misérables) and similarly exploit the same broad field of expertise and the same general methods of approach. The outlier is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? —but that’s about translation, something I’ve been doing for thirty years, and that I’ve been teaching for even longer than that. If I had the knowledge and the cheek, I’d like to be much more varied than that!

  A Fish in your Ear    Le poisson et le bananier
 Translation and the Meaning of Everything  

Une histoire fabuleuse de la traduction


GBIs That A Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was described by Susan Harris in The Quarterly Conversation (5 December 2011) as ‘that marvelous rarity, a book by a specialist that can be enjoyed by general readers’. What inspired you to write this book?


David BellosI never intended to write a book about translation. In 2007 I was asked to become the director of a new undergraduate program at Princeton that aimed to educate our students about the nature and stakes of translation (not to train translators—Princeton doesn’t do vocational training of any kind). So I devised a new course that introduced some of the philosophical, linguistic, historical and social issues related to the phenomenon of translation. It was a whole new education for me! In the course of devising and teaching the course I became increasingly irritated by the numerous inherited clichés that many others have railed against before me, and I began to write a few little squibs about the silly things people carry on saying (“translation is no substitute for the original”, les belles infidèles, traduttore traditore, and so on). My son, who is a much more celebrated writer than I am, took a look and told me to carry on. So I did. Especially because on the first day of a semester of study leave I slipped on a patch of ice and broke my ankle, so I had three months stuck indoors in a plaster cast. What else could I do but write a book? I had no idea who might publish such a set of essays, so I contacted a literary agent, and she too urged me to carry on and to turn it into a book, subject to various adjustments she thought necessary. In due course, she found a publisher for me, and my editor at Penguin (and then the American editor at FSG) made all kinds of smart suggestions for re-ordering the material and bringing the work to completion. So although the book is undoubtedly mine, it is also the product of my students, my agent and my brilliant editors. I really enjoyed the back and forth, and the discovery of what the book really had to say through argument and discussion. I know a lot of people grumble about publishers and agents and editors but I must say I have found wisdom and support in those quarters. They are not writers, but they do know what writing is.


GBAs a translation expert, what are your thoughts on the translations of Is That A Fish in Your Ear? into various languages. Were you involved in the translation process?


David BellosSince I argue very strongly that everything can be translated—I have an almost allergic reaction to people who declare things to be untranslatable, even when translating books absurdly entitled “Dictionary of Untranslatables”—I was overjoyed when foreign publishers bought the rights to Is That A Fish in Your Ear?  It’s a book that can only be proved right by its own translation! Flammarion put me in touch with Daniel Loayza, who turned out to be the most perfect French translator imaginable. He’s a learned classicist with long experience in translating for the theatre and a tremendous sense of fun. He translated, I commented, and together we found solutions to the thorniest problems I had created, in correspondence but also in brainstorming sessions in Paris and in Princeton. The title was altered to Le Poisson et le bananier , because the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which inspired the English title, (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?….) is not very well known in France. [1] (It is not a problem in German, since Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is well known there—in fact, the German title is a direct quotation.) So for France we replaced it with an internal reference to the first translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay, where the parable of the fig tree is transformed into a banana in what is perhaps the earliest example of cultural substitution as a translation technique. The word fish remains in Le Poisson et le bananier, but supported by two additional pages explaining the story of the Babel Fish, with a picture to show it too.  The French translation appeared just a few weeks after the English original, so it was available to the Spanish translator as a model of adaptation; he borrowed some of Daniel Loayza’s ideas but also added informational paragraphs about the specific history of Bible translation in Spain, which is different from the English story. The German translation changes, adds and subtracts very little, partly because German is (perhaps surprisingly) quite close to English in translation culture. As for the Asian translations, I’m afraid I don’t have the equipment to get involved. I just look at the Korean on my bookshelf and admire.

GBWhat is your next project going to be?




 David BellosMy next project? I’ll tell you when it’s done! This semester I am teaching a new course on the history and culture of copyright (COM 332, Who Owns This Sentence?), in partnership with an Intellectual Property lawyer. It’s a complicated subject, also fascinating and great fun—and also, I believe, quite fundamental to the world in which we now live. But I don’t yet know if it will grow into a book very soon, or at all. Am I not allowed to take a break?



 [1] The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the first of five books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comedy science fiction "trilogy" by Douglas Adams. The novel is an adaptation of the first four parts of Adams' radio series of the same name. The novel was first published in London on 12 October 1979.


* Geraldine devised and co-convened the Translation in History Lecture Series and the Theatre Translation Forum, and was a co-editor of the online journal New Voices in Translation Studies from 2012 to 2015.

Geraldine's research focuses on theatre translation practices in contemporary London, including the collaborative role of the translator in performance and the intermediality and interlinearity of surtitles.She is a frequent presenter on these topics, in the UK and internationally, and her work has been published in a variety of publications. Geraldine is a member of the Panel of Associates of ARTIS, a new research training initiative in the broad area of translation and interpreting studies.

Geraldine has an MA in Comparative Literature from University College London and read English as an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford where she specialised in Linguistics, Old and Middle English and Old French. She has a Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera from the Instituto Cervantes. Geraldine's research interests include the multiple voices of translation; direct, indirect and literal theatre translation; adaptation and version; the intermediality of surtitles; and ethics in translation. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Geraldine's first monograph, The Translator on Stage, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Additional reading:

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with British wordsmith (and professor of translator studies) Geraldine Brodie

E X C L U S I V E   I N T E R V I E W 


The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Cartagena, Spain. 


Geraldine Brodie
Geraldine Brodie - The interviewee               J. G. - The interviewer 


LMJ:  You are a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Did you study and practice Accounting before you came to the humanities? Did you abandon the former in favour of translation studies?

GB: In some ways I’ve had a circular career. I read English at Oxford, specialising in Old English and Old French language and literature. I’ve always had an interest in language, translation, interculturality and how they affect the way literature crosses borders.

KpmgAfter graduation, I trained as an accountant with the firm that is today KPMG. It wasn’t particularly unusual to do that with an English degree - accountants have to communicate well, and be systematic and enquiring. I was able to use my language skills there, running an audit in Paris. I stayed with the firm for 12 years, including two years in New York. While there, I took the opportunity to learn Spanish, at what is now the Instituto Cervantes.

That Spanish ultimately led me back to university. I signed up for a diploma in Spanish to improve my focus on learning, which remindedUCL me how much I enjoyed studying languages. I applied for a place on the Comparative Literature MA programme at University College London; I was intrigued by the Translation Studies element, which seemed to address the interlingual cultural issues that I had begun to explore at Oxford, and continued to interest me as I worked in different environments. From there, I didn’t look back. I went on to a Ph.D. in Translation Studies, and stayed on as a Teaching Fellow. I’m now a Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation. I did all this part-time, as I continued to work as an accountant, and I still have business interests.


LMJ: Your academic field presumably rests upon two pillars – theatre and translation. How did you develop an interest in each of those and how did you go about combining them?

GB: I inherited my interest in theatre from my mother. One of my childhood treats was to go with her to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and I joined their youth programme (then called Theatre 67) when I was a teenager. An early highlight was a visit from Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet. My mother and I still enjoy the theatre together – we go to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon when we get the chance.

An essay on tragedy for the Comparative Literature MA was the catalyst for me to combine theatre and translation. I decided to compare plays by Ibsen and Lorca, and when I realised how many, sometimes startlingly different, English translations were available, I wanted to investigate and understand the translation process.

Manuela PerteghellaOf course, I’m only describing my own journey - I’m by no means the first to notice this phenomenon. In fact, I learned a great deal from Manuela Perteghella on a short course she taught at London Metropolitan University, and she also introduced me to academic theatre translation research circles when I was beginning my Ph.D.

: Could you define your field of study and research for the 10 years you have been with UCL.

GB: I find theatre a particularly rewarding site to study translation, because, as I’ve mentioned, new translations tend to be commissioned alongside each new production, especially for classic plays. For example, one of the books I use in teaching my undergraduate module European Theatre in Translation is Romy Heylen’s “Translation, Poetics, and the Stage: Six French Hamlets”, Translation book cover in which the author discusses successive translations of Shakespeare’s play over two centuries. In the other direction, tickets are currently being sold in London for Molière’s “The Miser” in a new adaptation by Sean Foley and Phil Porter. “The Miser” has already been translated into English on many occasions, but for this new production starring Griff Rhys Jones there will also be a new text. What does this continual cycle of reinvention tell us about the nature of translation (and theatre)?

My research investigates this procedure: how these translations are commissioned; which plays and translators are selected; where translated productions are staged; who are the translators and other theatre practitioners collaborating in the process. I am particularly interested in the progression from the initial play in another language to the translated text that is performed, and the terminology that is applied to describe the process.

In London, translation into English for the theatre often takes place via a “literal translation”, prepared by an expert in the source language, which is then used by a writer to create a performance text. The result of this process is usually billed as a version or an adaptation rather than a translation - but not always; so it is difficult to work out how the production you are seeing has been translated. A current Florian-Zellerexample of this is the work of the young French playwright Florian Zeller: three of his plays have recently been performed in London, all translated by the writer and director Christopher Hampton, who translates from French and German. And yet the most recent of these plays, “The Truth”, is billed as an adaptation. Why? In trying to answer questions like this, I am hoping to make the intercultural movements in theatre and translation more apparent and highlight the expert and very creative work of all the participants involved. That should include the literal translators, who are not given enough credit for their contribution, in my opinion. My book, “The Translator on Stage”, which I am currently writing for Bloomsbury, delves into these details.

LMJ: Were you ever able to use techniques learnt in accounting for your research or writings in translation studies?

GB: I use my accountancy skills all the time as a lecturer and researcher in Translation Studies. It’s useful to have a background in planning, budgeting and project management when organising teaching programmes and funded research activities. However, I have also drawn on my experiences investigating and documenting systems, learned when I was auditing organisations of all sizes from sole traders to multinational corporations, to research the field of theatre translation. My aim is to establish and record procedure, and then see whether I can find patterns or trends of behaviour.

So I don’t restrict my research to a particular language, historical period or genre of writing – I look at what is actually taking place on stage. With its very active and in some ways diverse theatre scene, London is a fruitful research ground for theatre translation. I estimate that around 12% of productions are derived from another language. These range from the classical plays of antiquity, such as Sophocles and Euripides, through historically renowned playwrights - Racine, Schiller, for example – to the more recent canon: Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Lorca, Brecht are all regularly performed. But there are also instances of lesser-known or contemporary playwrights being given rare or first performances in the English language. Plays do tend to come from the same languages, though -French, German, ancient Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish. The Scandinavian languages are particularly well represented by number of productions. Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalised trends, and initiatives aiming to broaden the range.


LMJ: The book “Words, Images and Performances in Translation”, (to which you contributed a chapter, “Theatre Translation for Performance: Conflict of Interests, Conflict of Cultures”) demonstrates the ways in which words, images and performances are translated and reinterpreted in new socio-cultural contexts. Can you explain that concept?

GB: Anyone who has ever tried to translate knows that translation is far more than linguistic code-shifting. Replacing a word, phrase or sentence in one language with a similar unit in another is only the beginning of the communicative transfer. The book considered translation from a wider perspective, discussing how other media, such as artwork or advertising images, can be translated – and why the cultural implications of these activities are also relevant to what is traditionally thought of as translation.

My chapter on theatre translation discussed how a range of factors beyond code-shifting influenced the representation of translated theatre, which of course is a visual, aural and textual translation.

LMJ: You coedited a special issue of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance on "Martin Crimp – playwright, translator, translated", with Marie Nadia Karsky of Université Paris 8. Can you tell us about the symposium that took place on which that issue was based and on your collaboration with Marie Nadia Karsky?

GB: As so often happens in academia, this collaboration came about serendipitously.

Marie Nadia was a co-organiser of a symposium at Paris 8 where I had been invited to speak about theatre translation in London. Over a Misanthrope cup of coffee after the event, we discovered a shared interest in Martin Crimp’s translation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”, from our different language perspectives.

InstitutA year or so later, I was invited to apply for funding from the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni to run a series of workshops at UCL developing links with French academic organisations and exploring directions for research collaborations. I immediately thought of Marie Nadia and our shared interest, which both of us had been developing in the intervening period. Marie Nadia, together with colleagues from the French research group TRACT (Traduction et Communication Transculturelle Anglais-Français/Français-Anglais), had been working on a project with Masters students to translate Crimp’s version of “The Misanthrope” back into French. I had been investigating Crimp’s voice as a writer as it is revealed in his own plays, his translations from French and his versions from other languages where he has used a literal translation (these include German, ancient Greek and Russian).

Between us we put together a two-day workshop with presentations by academics from three French and three UK universities; a bilingual theatre workshop led by Anne Bérélowitch (director of the theatre company L’Instant Même) with French and English actors, exploring “The Misanthrope” in Molière’s original, Crimp’s translation, and the “back-translations” by the students; and finally a conversation about translation between the critic Aleks Sierz and Martin Crimp himself, to which the public was invited.

We had a very exciting two days, full of energy. Many of the students who had worked on the translations came over to London on Eurostar with the academic presenters and the French theatre practitioners. The Birmingham School of Acting provided student actors, and all mixed in with the UK academics and UCL staff and students. We drank a lot of coffee and ate substantial quantities of cheese, thoughtfully brought over by the French students.

The special issue of the journal publishes expanded versions of the academic presentations given during the symposium, and a transcript of Aleks Sierz’s interview with Martin Crimp. We hope it captures some of the energy and the range of conversations during the symposium. Marie Nadia and I very much enjoyed our collaboration, and are already discussing our next venture.

Martin Crimp
             Marie Nadia Karsky                          Martin Crimp

LMJ: Translation Studies are said to be expanding their boundaries. In what directions are they moving?

GB: Translation Studies has always been an interdisciplinary field. Just as translation itself adapts to fit the environments in which it takes place, the academic discipline is evolving to reflect new routes of enquiry. The fact that UCL now offers both MA and MSc programmes in Translation is evidence of the numerous opportunities for study and research.

In addition to the broadening of translation within the Arts and Humanities to include performance, artworks, images and other intercultural movement that I mentioned earlier, there is also an increasing awareness of the advances of technology in translation. This is significant for the use of digital tools for translation – how will Google Translate impact future translations and translators? Technological advances also present an opportunity to carry out new science-based methods of research. My UCL colleague Claire Shih, for example, sees translation as a cognitive human behaviour that can be investigated using digital research instruments, such as screen recording, key logging and eye tracking software.

These different areas also speak to each other: advanced digital tools can be used to translate theatre in the form of intermedial surtitles; computational software can be harnessed to investigate style in literary translation. It is this interdisciplinarity that I find exciting about Translation Studies as a discipline. Ultimately, though, it is the everyday presence of translation in our lives, mostly overlooked, that for me is endlessly captivating, and I’m pleased if I can pass on any of that fascination to my friends, family and, most of all, my students.

Blog footnote:

UCLUCL is  a public research university in London.  It makes the contested claims of being the third-oldest university in England, and the first to admit women. UCL has over 100 departments, institutes and research centres.  It has around 35,600 students and 12,000 staff. Its alumni include the  "Father of the Nation" of each of India, Kenya and Mauritius, the founders of Ghana, modern Japan and Nigeria, the inventor of the telephone, and one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, as well as at least 29 Nobel Prize winners.


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (and author) Julia Cresswell

JuliaThe following interview with Julia Cresswell was conducted by Julian Maddison. Julia and Julian – the interviewer and the interviewee – not only have similar first names, but have followed similar paths, both holding degrees from Oxford University and living in that world-famous city.

Julia Cresswell studied English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, taking the specialist course in Philology and Medieval Literature, before going on to study for an MA in Medieval Literature and a PhD (an edition of a late 15th-century English translation of a French prose romance), both at Reading University.  She financed her post-graduate research by university teaching and working as a researcher for OED, and has continued working in much the same way ever since.  As well as contributing as a lexicographer to numerous large reference works, she has some 2 0 book titles to her name, mainly in the field of the English language and mythology.  She has taught for Oxford University, Oxford Brookes, and numerous American study abroad college departments including Sarah Lawrence and Stanford.


Julia - book 1` Julia - book 2


Julia - JulianJulian  read French and Linguistics at St John’s College, Oxford

Professionally, Julian’s business interests take most of his time; he is the co-founder and co-director of a company which supplies the automotive industry. 

However, he continues to write articles covering two of his interests: car design and Goscinny.  His work has appeared in various publications in France and the UK and he has been consulted for a number of books and exhibitions related to Goscinny and/or Asterix.

Julian interviewed the late Anthea Bell, a world-famous translator of the French books of Asterix.


How do you set about tracing the etymology of a cliché?

For any etymology, the first stop is always the Oxford English Dictionary.  However, OED is not actually that good for collocations (words in groups), rather than individual words, although it is covering them more thoroughly in the new revisions.  This is not criticism, simply that OED was set up to trace individual words.  Even when it does deal with collocations, it often does not go into their origins.  On the other hand, there are lots of other books that will tell you the story behind expressions.  Unfortunately, these are often wildly imaginative folk-etymologies – Michael Quinion’s P.O.S.H. devotes a whole book to folk etymologies, many of which are widely believed. The title comes from the belief that the word ‘posh’ comes from the initials for ‘Port out, starboard home’ which was supposed to be on tickets allocating cooler cabins on P&O liners to and from India, although the shipping company has always denied that such tickets ever existed, and no evidence has been found to support the claim.  Quinion’s World Wide Words ( is a reliable source on information on both folk etys and true derivations, and on language in general.  Luckily, many clichés are pretty transparent – ‘a spanner in the works’, ‘grind to a halt’ are quite clearly about machines in their literal sense.  The task is then to find out how old they are, and when they come into general, metaphorical use.  Those that do not have an obvious origin are often hidden quotations.  I was very pleased with myself over my research on the term ‘crowning glory’ for female hair.  At the time OED’s first quote was very odd, as it was from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  This was quite obviously an unlikely source of a cliché, so I searched through newspaper archives, and sure enough found an advert run in The Times, and no doubt elsewhere, from 1919 for Rowland’s Macassar Oil, claiming it would make a woman’s crowning glory more glorious still.  I left it there, satisfied, as I knew from previous experience, working as a researcher for the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, that Joyce liked to incorporate adverts into his prose.  Checking up, I see that OED’s revised entry has a headline from an American newspaper of 1893 for this use, and has dropped the Joyce quotation – but I’d still bet there’s an advert somewhere behind it.  Sometimes, finding the origin is just a matter of luck.  I spent years tracking down ‘Live Fast, Die Young’.  At the time it was not in any dictionary of quotes or phrases that I could find and nor was its source then findable on-line.  In the end I took to raising the matter with anyone I thought might know, and sure enough, an elderly American friend said his evening class had just been studying the novel it came from!  Yet again, although I upped the OED at the time of writing, its vast resources have turned up an earlier example than the one I found, but they still miss the key quote that turned it into a cliché via the film of a novel, both called ‘Knock on Any Door’.

Would it be correct to say that there are in effect two etymologies to a cliché? There is the origin of the metaphor and then the start of its widespread use and possible shift from literal to ironic use.

 I would say this is a matter of tracing the history, rather than the etymology.  As I said above, the actual etymology is often quite obvious, but the transitions you describe less easy to follow, particularly as the different states co-exist, certainly in different people’s speech, often in one’s own, depending on context.


The Cat’s Pyjamas is dedicated to the “broadcasters, journalists and politicians who have made this book possible”. If they are mainly responsible for using clichés is it the case that clichés are more widespread in the modern world than ever before?

A difficult judgement to make, as so much of the evidence is lost, and what survives mostly unknown to me.  Given that most of what survives from the past, or at least most of what I am likely to have read, is literary, the language is likely to be more consciously artistic than everyday speech.  Certainly Shakespeare uses clichés, both for his ‘man in the street’ language and in his elevated characters (and Venus and Adonis is pretty-well solid cliché )  The same can be said for the medieval literature that has been my other area of study, although academics may prefer to call them tropes or topoi.  This is because clichés can be very efficient means of communication – I explain more about this in a piece I wrote for the British Journalism Review now on my website at .  So no, I would guess that clichés are not more widespread than ever before.


Your book gives examples of clichés according to discipline. Apart from sport and politics which areas of life are especially prone to cliché?

The military love clichés (again efficiency comes in here) and a lot of them derive from the world of work, although it can be difficult to differentiate between cliché and jargon.  So much depends on the context in which language is being used.  If you listen to your own exchanges, you will find that polite conversations with strangers are full of clichés (platitudes, you might prefer to call them) which you would never dream of using in a carefully considered piece of prose.


How do you define the difference between a cliché and a frequently used metaphor?

This is one of the most difficult questions to answer.  I spend much of the introduction to The Cat’s Pyjamas wrestling with it.  One way of looking at it is that clichés do your thinking for you.  I cite as an example a journalist who unthinkingly writes of ancient giant kangaroos that once ‘walked the earth’ when everyone knows kangaroos hop.  This is just bad writing, but the unthinking response becomes dangerous when it involves terms such as ‘hearth and home’, ‘this great nation of ours’ and all the other phrases loved by rabble-rousing politicians.  However, it has to be admitted that it all comes down to personal judgement.  Incidentally, I do not consider ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ to be a cliché, which makes the book’s title a source of some embarrassment.  A designer came up with a cover that the editor loved and insisted on using, and I then had to go back and add appropriate text to the book.  Not an unusual thing for a professional writer, in my experience.


You must monitor the potential for contemporary phrases to become clichés. Are there any examples that were widely used for a short time but fell out of use before they could become a cliché?

Yes.  I was very pleased with myself for spotting the start of ‘not fit for purpose’ (23 May, 2006, John Reid in the House of Commons).  The trouble is that such expressions tend to fall off my radar too (judge for yourself if that is a cliché).  One much in the papers in the last few days is ‘dog-whistle politics’.  This was new to me, but OED has it from 1995 and Wikipedia (which we all have to use sometimes) takes it back to 1988 in the language of opinion pollsters.  I suspect that it is quite well established in the idiolect of politicians and their cohorts, but it will be interesting to see if it now spreads to the general population.  At the moment I would guess not as its meaning is not terribly obvious , but we shall have to see if usage is reinforced by future events.

Are some languages or cultures more prone to clichés than others? How does the English language compare to other languages?

We have already seen, above, that there are certain cultures where clichés are common.  I’m not sure I am qualified to answer about other languages.  The only other language I know at all well is French, and being of a generation that was taught to read Racine but not how to order a beer, my colloquial French is not good.  Certainly, Medieval French, which I know best, is full of clichés; they are in classical Latin, and students I have taught who are fluent in other languages have no difficultly coming up with examples, so I would guess all languages find them useful.

What cliché do you use the most?

Hmm.  I don’t think I would use them if I was aware of it.  I just asked my husband, and he says he will listen and see!

Based on this answer and that you talked about “bad writing” earlier would I be right in thinking that you think clichés are always best avoided in speech and writing?

My usual stance is that cliché can be a useful and efficient means of communication.  For example the phrase “run for your life” used in a television drama is probably bad writing but it could be a very useful warning in a real life event such as a tsunami. Terry Pratchett wrote that “The reason clichés become clichés is they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication” and I would agree with thatClichés become dangerous when they are used to influence thinking and distract people from reality.

Are you working on any linguistic projects at the moment?

I’m pretty well retired now, so not working on any book at the moment.  The last two books I wrote came out in 2014.  One was mainly aimed at teenagers, on Charlemagne and his Paladins, dealing with the history, but mainly with the medieval legends.  The other was the Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, a pocket-sized reworking of my earlier Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins.  I’d be quite happy to do another language book if anyone wanted me to do one, but chasing after publishing contracts in this field has become a difficult task in a world where everything you need is available on-line (which I love), so I have decided not to chase.  I have always done a certain amount of university level teaching, particularly of the history of English and medieval literature, and a still do a little of that, including teaching a course on the history of English on an Oxford University Department of Continuing Education summer school called The Oxford Experience every year.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with wordsmith (and translator) Tina Kover

The Albertine Prize is awarded each year in New York for the best English-language translation of a work of fiction written in French. The winners of the Prize for 2019 are Negar Djavadi, the author of
ésorientale,  and the translator, Tina Kover.  Tina's translation, Disoriental,  was published by Europa Editions (May 1, 2018).

Négar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to a family of intellectuals opposed to the regimes of the Shah, then to that of Khomeini. She arrived in France at the age of eleven, having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. Djavadi is a screenwriter and lives in Paris.

Albertine Desorientale + Djavadi

The Prize was awarded on June 5, 2019, at a ceremony at the Albertine Bookstore, in the presence of the author and the translator, as well as Lydia Davis and the French TV presenter and literary critic, François Busnel.

Albertine 4 participants
Négar Djavadi et Tina Kover,
at center

To watch the discussion (1 hour 18 minutes) that followed the ceremony, see

The name of the Albertine Prize and of the bookstore of that name where it is awarded every year, is located on Fifth Avenue, New York, in a building belonging to the French Government in which the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France are housed. It is also the name of one of the characters in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), Albertine Simonet, the lover of the narrator Marcel. Albertine appears in several of the seven volumes of Proust’s work, such as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs), Sodom and Gomorrah (Sodome et Gomorrhe) and The Prisoner (La Prisonnière).

Tina Albertine Prize J.T.Mahany cropped
Tina Kover
The interviewee
  J.T. Mahany
The Interviewer

Tina Kover has been a literary translator for nearly twenty years, translating works of both classic and modern literature including Alexandre Dumas’s Georges, the Goncourt brothers’ Manette Salomon, and Anna Gavalda's Life, Only Better. She studied French at the University of Denver and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and later worked in Prague teaching English as a foreign language. She currently lives and works in the northeast of England. Her translation of Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018 and the PEN Translation Prize in 2019, before recently winning the Albertine Prize.

J.T. Mahanay is a translator of French literature. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arkansas in 2018. In 2015, he translated Antoine Volodine's Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. His translation of Bardo or not Bardo, also by Volodine, was awarded the debut Albertine Prize in 2017. 2020 will see the publication of his translation of Onze rêves de suie (Eleven Sooty Dreams) by Manuela Draeger. He is also an amateur teuthologist. 


E X C L U S I V E   I N T E R V I E W 

J. T. Mahany: The Albertine Prize is now the latest in a long parade of accolades that Disoriental has obtained. What is it about Djavadi's book you feel that has drawn so much acclaim (both in its original French and your translation)?

Tina Kover: I think there are several factors. Of course the writing itself is exquisite, and Négar Djavadi is a brilliant storyteller with a rare ability to make each reader feel as if she’s speaking directly to them. The book also touches on a number of issues that are of the utmost timeliness at the present moment: immigration (and refugee emigration), bigotry, sexual identity, acceptance. There is something in Disoriental for everyone; some intimate moment or observation that feels deeply personal no matter what you might be struggling with. This is a book that reaches across many lines and crosses multiple boundaries and I think that’s why people respond to it in any language.


J. T. Mahany: What was the process of translating the book like? Did you collaborate with Djavadi at all on the text? Did it differ much from the way you have translated the rest of your (rather prodigious, I may add) bibliography?

Tina Kover The process in itself was pretty much my standard one; I never read a book before I begin translating it and so I’m discovering the characters and the plot as both a reader and a translator, which, for me, at least, I think is key to retaining freshness and spontaneity in the finished work. Likewise, it’s not my general practice to communicate with authors during the translation process. They’ve created the original text in the solitude of their own minds and I prefer to do the same thing, though of course I welcome their input during the editing phase. I will say that from very early on I knew that Disoriental was something very special, the kind of novel that doesn’t come along very often, and I felt what I can only describe as a sort of reverence for its beauty as I got deeper into the story and realized what Négar was crafting and how ingeniously she was doing it.

  Albertine poster  
  “An extraordinary novel, both in incident and telling.”
Rivka Galchen

J. T. Mahany: A review of Disorientalin in The Thread compares Djavadi's work to that of Elena Ferrante. Do you agree with this comparison?

Tina Kover: I’m certainly no expert on Ferrante, but I can see why people might make that comparison. I think Danny Caine said it very well in the review you mentioned: both Négar and Elena Ferrante are incredibly adept at creating brave and fully-realized female characters, and both are able to draw intimate portraits set within a context of broader-ranging social and political climates. I think it says a great deal for the wisdom of the editors at Europa Editions, who published both authors, that they saw how important these books could be and how much people would take them to their hearts.


J. T. Mahany: Disoriental concerns itself with a narrator who feels as though she is caught between two worlds, a theme which has appeared in the works of a number of authors writing in French, such as Dany Laferrière and Akira Mizubayashi. What is it about this type of narrative that you believe is appealing to readers?

Tina Kover: Most of us, if not all, feel caught between two worlds at some point in our lives, whether physically, emotionally, or culturally. As an expatriate myself there is a great deal in Disoriental that struck a personal chord with me even though my own experience of leaving one country and settling in another was different in almost every particular. But people might also feel like they inhabit a different “world” because of sexuality or race or disability or any number of things. At bottom I think that “caught” feeling is about alienation, about feeling like one doesn’t belong, and that’s something we can all identify with.


J. T. Mahany: How did you first get into translation?

Tina Kover: I actually self-published my first translation, George Sand’s The Black City, which was then taken on by a wonderful literary agent, Sandra Choron, and subsequently purchased by the now-defunct Carroll & Graf. Things progressed from there. I’ve been very fortunate to come into contact with a lot of incredible people in the publishing world and to have had the opportunities I’ve had, and I feel especially privileged to be a translator right now, when literary translation is receiving so much interest and attention, and when it’s more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open between cultures, to promote intercultural exchange and understanding when so many seem bent on their destruction.


J. T. Mahany: Do you have any upcoming projects about which you'd like to speak?

Tina Kover: I’m extremely excited about the upcoming release of my translation of Mahir Guven’s Older Brother, which will be out from Europa Editions on October 8, 2019. The book won the Goncourt Prize for a debut novel in 2018 and it’s another timely and extremely powerful depiction of life on modern society’s fringes, another story we all need to hear right now.

Additional reading:

Author Negar Djavadi Awarded 2019 Albertine Award for Her Debut Novel "Disoriental"
L'Officiel, June 7, 2019

A Persian Turned Parisian Insists: I'm Not an Immigrant, I'm an Exile
The New York Times, January 8, 2019

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Tina Kover.

Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Frank Wynne

FrankWe are honored to have as our guest wordsmith Frank Wynne, prestigious literary translator (French>English, Spanish>English). Frank has won numerous prizes for his work. He received the IMPAC award in 2002, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005 (these two awards being shared with the authors whose works he translated) and the Scott Moncrief Prize in 2008. [1]
For his translations from Spanish he twice received the Premio Valls Inclán - in 2012 (for Kamchatka de Marcelo Figueras) and in 2014 (for La Hora Azul / The Blue Hour of Alonso Cueto) in 2016.
Wynne sansal-harragaMore recently his translation of Harraga , written by Boualem Sansal, was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for 2016. The juries who awarded these prizes were themselves literary translators. As Frank explained in our interview with him, seeing his talents recognized by his peers is all the more gratifying, because translation is a lonely trade.
While on a trip to Dublin, designated as UNESCO's City of Literature in 2010, Frank granted Jonathan Goldberg the interview that follows.
Ireland may take pride in having fathered four recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. As for Frank Wynne, he has put Ireland on the world map of literary translation.


JG : I understand that you have no French family background and that your academic training in French was confined to four years of high school, followed by a short period at Trinity College, Dublin. You have also told me that your school study of French included no verbal training and that your first opportunity to speak French came when you went to live in Paris, having never previously visited France. Yet you have reached the pinnacle of your profession as a literary translator and you also clearly have a mighty command of French literature. Given the limited number of years in which you formally studied French, and the rather unconventional Irish method of instruction, yours is a rare case of someone who, after a slow start,  made a massive leap to the front of the pack of well-known literary translators. To take Julian Barnes as an example of another Brit whose depth of knowledge of all things French is very striking, his affinity to France was established at a very young age and consistently nurtured, whereas you had no similarly extensive early immersion.


FWFrank Wynne :I was born and raised in Ireland in a family with no French connection whatever, and in a resolutely monoglot culture, but the Irish education system insisted that in addition to learning the Irish language (which to my shame I can barely speak now), high school students should also learn at least one other language. I studied both French and German. There was no oral component to study or examinations - aside from a little reading aloud, we spent most of our time learning verbs by rote, parsing sentences, identifying particles, discussing clauses. We never held conversations in French, and were not required to take oral examinations. This meant that when I moved to Paris on a whim in 1984, I arrived in a country I had never visited, with a 19th century understanding of the language: I spoke much the way that Maupassant writes 'quant à moi', 'je vous saurai gré de bien vouloir me passer le sel"… and for the first month I had almost no idea of what anyone was saying. Naively, I had assumed that learning to speak the language was a lexical problem: I merely needed the words to express the same thoughts I would have expressed in English. I was shocked and fascinated to discover how language shapes thought and speech, to realise that the underpinning of language - the ideas, cultural references and connotations -  are not transferrable or translatable. This was the beginning of my passion for languages: I began to read as widely as possible and to immerse myself in slang, verlan, accents, dialects, in a desperate attempt to understand Frenchness - its sounds and signifiers, its codified meanings, its hidden references. I became so obsessed with language that I undertook my first translation (something I did simply to be able to share it with English friends) of Romain Gary's La Vie devant soi - a book as much about voices and the liminal spaces in language as it is a heartbreaking story about Momo and Madame Rosa.


Continue reading "Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Frank Wynne" »

Imaginary interview with British wordsmith (philanthropist and librarian) Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613)


Of libraries and librarians -

two bibliophiles span six centuries in an imaginary interview in Oxford


Frank Egerton profile Thomas-bodley

Frank Egerton
{Photo Miriam Berkley)


Sir Thomas Bodley
(1545 – 1613)

“There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently
at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.”
Hilaire Belloc

Preface :

The Bodleian Library ("Bodley" or "the Bod") is the main research library of the University of Oxford and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It is second in size in the United Kingdom only to the British Library. It serves principally as a  reference library. Formally established in 1602, it bears the name of Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, one of the 38 colleges making up the University.


Oxford University


In 2000, a number of libraries within the University of Oxford were brought together for administrative purposes under the aegis of what was initially known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and since 2010 as the Bodleian Libraries, of which the Bodleian Library is the largest component.

Over its various sites the Bod keeps 12 million printed books and allows access to more than 80,000 electronic journal titles. It also keeps ancient documents, manuscripts, papyrus, cards and sketches. Many of the library's archives were digitized and put online for public access in 2015.


Bodleian_Library_entrance _Oxford

Frank Egerton profile

Francis (Frank) Egerton* is an author and a librarian and manager for the Bodleian libraries (Oxford). He also teaches and tutors on a number of University of Oxford creative writing programmes. He has a BA (Hons) Oxon and MA Oxon (English Literature and Language). His original qualification was as an Associate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but he abandoned his job as a land agent to read English at Oxford. *([email protected].)

He reviewed fiction and non-fiction for newspapers including The Times and the Financial Times from 1995–2008. His first novel, The Lock, was published in paperback in 2003 and his second, Invisible, in 2010. The ebook version of The Lock reached the finals of the Independent eBook Awards in Santa Barbara in 2002. In The Times [of London] review of Invisible, Kate Saunders commented on "the author’s lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape."


Frank Egerton profileDon’t ask me how this works but it does. Hello, Sir Thomas.

Thomas-bodleyHello, Frank. It is an honour to meet you.



Frank Egerton profileThe honour’s all mine Sir Thomas. So, for the benefit of our audience, it’s with great pleasure that I’m here to interview Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom the world-famous Bodleian Library was named. Sir Thomas personally paid for and masterminded the library’s refurbishment, the original building having been abandoned and its book collection destroyed during the English Reformation. An outstanding achievement, Sir Thomas, for which the world will always be grateful.

Bodley (small)It’s kind of you to say so.



The Bodleian Library's Radcliffe Camera
Bod History Faculty


Frank Egerton profile

I should mention that earlier I took Sir Thomas on a tour of the library as it is now. First impressions, Sir Thomas?

Bodley (small)Still recognisable – and I’m always pleased to see the extension at the western end. That happened after my death. It balances the building and provides lots of additional space. I’m intrigued by the glowing glass windows that readers look into on the desks. I’d like to find out more about those and these ebooks you mentioned. No swords, of course.

Frank Egerton profileNo, I think they were banned quite some time ago. No coffee in this part of the building either. And definitely no smoking anywhere. But perhaps—

Bodley (small)I like to keep abreast of new things. I may not have caught up with ebooks but coffee – well that only came in fifty years after my time. And smoking – I remember Sir Walter persuading Her Royal Highness to try some. Clouds of smoke and everyone coughing. I think she saw the funny side in the end.

Bod sir-walter-raleigh
Bod Queen-Elizabeth-I
Sir Walter Raleigh Queen Elizabeth I

Frank Egerton profileNow, Sir Thomas, as you know, we’re particularly interested in languages and European culture here – as well as books and libraries—

Thomas-bodleyAll interconnected.


Frank Egerton profileQuite! Your experience of Europe came at an early age, Sir Thomas, didn’t it?

Bodley (small)Yes. I was born on 2nd March 1545 and my first journey to Europe was undertaken in 1555. Dad was a merchant in Exeter who had strong Protestant faith and who’d helped pay for the suppression of a Catholic rebellion in the west country. When Queen Mary came to the throne, our family fled, initially to Frankfurt and from thence to Geneva, where Dad set up a printing business – that must have had some influence on my love of the printed word! Europe seemed then to be the heart of Protestantism – at least where we were. We were with John Knox in Frankfurt and at Geneva I studied Divinity at the feet of Calvin himself – a tireless worker and an inspiration to us all. I also studied Hebrew and Greek. And of course, we were surrounded by people speaking different languages. After Mary died we returned but by then my west country childhood was but a distant memory.

Bod Mary Tudor Bof John Knox
Mary Tudor          John Knox

Frank Egerton profileWhat memories of Europe you must have had, though.

Bodley (small)True, but there was something frustrating about being so close to European culture and yet cut off from it by the discipline of the school room. I vowed to go back.

Frank Egerton profileBut first to Oxford, the city that became synonymous with the name of Sir Thomas Bodley.

Bodley (small)No sooner did we return than I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College. Back on English soil in September 1559 and a matriculated student before the year was out. My studies at the Geneva Academy stood me in good stead. I did well and in 1564 I became a fellow of Merton College. I was its first lecturer in Greek a year later. For a time I thought my career would begin and end in Oxford. But, there’s this restlessness in me – perhaps it was being uprooted at a tender age then glimpsing how huge the world is. Questing, questing – I always wanted more. I tried many different things. Languages were at the heart of things – don’t get me wrong – Greek and in particular Hebrew, the study of which I and another fellow promoted energetically, opening up the knowledge contained in texts written in that language. But then there was a string of other posts alongside my academic life – college bursar, garden master, deputy public orator. What opportunities there were!

Frank Egerton profile
And friendships.

Bodley (small)Certainly – one especially. At Oxford I got to know Sir Henry Savile – a cultured and steadfast man who would teach me so much when I started the library project at the end of the century.

Frank Egerton profileBut before that, travel and diplomacy.

Bodley (small)Travel, yes. I’d never forgotten the vow I made when I returned in 1559. Here’s what I wrote in my autobiography: “I waxed desirous to travel beyond the seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some special modern tongues, and for the increase of my experience in the managing of affairs...” I journeyed to France then to Germany and Italy, learning French, Italian and Spanish. I spent over four years in those countries. The languages fascinated me but so too did new skills I could use in the service of our nation. Under the patronage of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, I became a gentleman usher to the Queen and a member of parliament – though the latter was, sad to say, the least well executed of my duties. From 1585 until 1598, when I threw in the towel, my life was devoted to diplomacy and discrete negotiation—

Bod Dudley 1 a Bod Washingham 1
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester Sir Francis Walsingham

Frank Egerton profileSpying?

Bodley (small)We never thought of it in those terms. Not like your James Bond—


Frank Egerton profileJames Bond?

Bodley (small)I told you I like to keep up with things – though there are so many..

Frank Egerton profileSo not quite James Bond.

Bodley (small)Though I did have an impact on world events, I like to think, at least to begin with. When I was sent, alone, with letters from the Queen to Henry III of France after he had been forced to flee Paris, I was charged with “extraordinary secrecy”. Though I say it myself – and I did say it in my autobiography – the outcome benefitted not only Henry but “all the Protestants in France”. If only things had continued that way. There was meeting Ann, of course, and getting married, which were the greatest events of that period but then for nine years I lived in the Hague, not always with Ann beside me, endlessly trying to persuade the United Provinces first to support the Queen’s war with Spain and secondly to pay her vast sums of money for the privilege. Neither side would give way. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Talk about the woes of being a middle manager!

Frank Egerton profileI know just what you mean!

Bodley (small)Listen to this – one of the Queen’s secretaries writing in 1594: “...her majesty hath had just cause these many years to have expected a grateful offer from the States of some yearly portion of the great sums by her majesty expended...” She wanted a return on her investment, and they claimed they thought she’d simply been doing them a good turn. It was impossible. And then there was the intrigue at court. I couldn’t abide it any longer.

Taylor Institution Library Oxford Bod Old Schools Quadrangle Library
Taylor Institution Library (Bodleian)
Photo Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Main Bodleian Library 


Frank Egerton profileIn your own words, “I set up my staff at the Library door in Oxford; being thoroughly persuaded that...I could not busy myself to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students.”

Bodley (small)I’d been lucky to escape with my head! And so I turned to a project that I’d had in mind for some years. When I was at Oxford as a student and young academic, there was no university library – the manuscripts that Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, had donated had all been snatched under a law passed by King Edward VI and scattered to the four winds. Imagine that. Many were said to have been reused by bookbinders to cover less “superstitious” publications. They were priceless classical texts. Because I’d been most fortunate in my marriage – Ann was a widow, whose first husband made millions at today’s prices out of buying and selling pilchards—

Bod humphrey- Bod Edouard
Humfrey,  Duke of Gloucester  King Edward VI

Frank Egerton profilePilchards?

Bodley (small)Like sardines, only tastier. We didn’t have children, so it seemed only right that the money should be used for the good of future generations of students. With invaluable advice from Sir Henry, I arranged for the old building to be refurbished and persuaded my acquaintances to donate books and bought others through booksellers who travelled to Paris and Frankfurt – and even to Italy – to find them. As Sir Francis Bacon said of the library, it was an  “Ark to save learning from deluge”. We collected European texts mainly but also books in Arabic and Persian – one two in Chinese, though no one could read them then.

Bod latin sign


Bof Divinity School interior

Entrance to the Bodleian Library                                                                                 Divinity School 

Frank Egerton profilePeople considered Chinese books to be curiosities, didn’t they, and of no real value?

Bodley (small)I didn’t – someone had taken all that trouble to write those characters, and someone else had paid them to do so. Who could know what wisdom the books contained? But I did know that one day a scholar would come to Oxford who would unlock their secrets. Soon we had scholars visiting from beyond our shores – twenty-two in the first two years. In 1610 I made an agreement with the Stationers Company, whereby they would give the library a free copy of every book they registered.

Frank Egerton profile.Which is still in place today – though many of the copies are now given as ebooks.

Bodley (small)Ebooks again! Well, like every library, we were soon running out of space, so I had to pay for an extension. A proud moment in the library was when King James visited – I’d been knighted for my services the year before. But towards the end of the project and before the next, much bigger extension could be built, I knew that my time was near and I passed over on 29th January 1613. And here I am.

Frank Egerton profileAnd here you are indeed. And very much still here in Oxford is your library for which the whole world thanks you. Sir Thomas Bodley – library legend!

Bodley (small)Thank you for inviting me! It's been a pleasure. Now, when we get to the green room you must tell me about these ebooks...


Bodleian 14 Bodleian 16
 Codrington Library, All Souls College  St Edmund Hall Library 

The libraries shown above are not those of the Bodleian unless so indicated.


Bodley, T., & Lane, J. (1894). The life of Sir Thomas Bodley, written by himself. [La Vie de Sir Thomas Bodley, écrite par lui-même] Retrieved from

Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, in partnership with the Bodleian Library. (n.d.). The diplomatic correspondence of Thomas Bodley, 1585-1597 [La correspondence diplomatique de Thomas Bodley, 1585-1597]: DCB/001/HTML/0462/008. Retrieved from

Bodleian Libraries. (2015). Marks of Genius: Novum organum (new instrument) [Signes de génies: nouvel instrument]. Retrieved from

Clennell, W. (2013, May 30). Bodley, Sir Thomas (1545–1613), scholar, diplomat, and founder of the Bodleian Library, [Bodley, Sir Thomas (1545-1613), érudit, diplomate, et fondateur de la bibliothèque bodléienne] Oxford. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved from

Wright, S. (2008, January 03). Bodley, Laurence (1547/8–1615), Church of England clergyman [Bodley, Laurence (1547/8 – 1615), ecclésiastique de l’Église anglicane]. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved from

Tyack, Geoffrey. Bodleian Library : Souvenir Guide [La bibliothèque bodléienne: visite guidée]. Revised ed. Oxford, 2014. Print.


Additional Reading:

A History of the Bodleian Libraries

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with British wordsmith (and educator) Wendy Ayres-Bennett

E X C L U S I V E    I N T E R V I E W

  Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Multilgualism Cambridge

Jonathan Goldberg interviewed Professor Ayres-Bennett by Skype from Los Angeles 



     Echo Park, Los Angeles


The Cam River, Cambridge

Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, [1] works on the history of the French language and the history of linguistic thought, particularly in seventeenth-century France. Her major research interests include questions of standardisation and codification, linguistic ideology and policy, variation and change, from the sixteenth century to the present day. A bibliography of the selected works of Professor Ayres-Bennett, appears after this interview.


Jonathan Goldberg: For how many years did you learn French at school and at what point did your interest in French become so rooted that you realized it would become the cornerstone of your career?

W A-B : As was typical for my generation in the UK, I began studying French at the age of 11. I continued studying it at school for 7 years, and completed high school with Latin as my second language, and German as my third. My parents and sister were keen mathematicians, but I was drawn to languages, thanks to an early fascination with words, crossword puzzles, dictionaries, etc. I did my undergraduate degree in French and German at Cambridge and then went on to do postgraduate studies leading to a DPhil. at Oxford. I am currently a Professorial Fellow of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.


JG : What was the subject of your doctorate?

Claude Favre de VauglasW A-B : As an undergraduate I loved the history of linguistics, the history of the French language and seventeenth-century French literature. As a result I became fascinated with the mid-17th century linguist, Claude Favre de VAUGELAS. He established a reputation as an influential commentator on the French language but the specific contents of his work, Remarques sur la langue françoise utiles à ceux qui veulent bien parler et bien escrire, Paris, 1647, were less known. They intrigued me and I wanted to study them in detail.


JG : You were the lead researcher on a project on the genre of observations on the French language. The Corpus des remarques sur la langue française (XVIIe siècle) was published by Classiques Garnier Numérique in 2011 and constitutes an important part of the Grand Corpus des grammaires françaises, des remarques et des traités sur la langue (XIVe-XVIIe siècles).

What were the stepping stones that led you to that particular field of research?

W A-B : Vaugelas's observations generated a whole series of other works of a similar kind. These volumes of observations are typically French, and complement dictionaries, grammar books and more formal teaching manuals. For those who are familiar with the contemporary French linguist, Bernard Cerquiglini, his book "Merci Professeur," and his popular video segments under that title make him a modern-day equivalent of the 17th-century writers of observations.

Merci professeur

In 1635 when the French Academy was founded, the Academicians promised to publish a dictionary, a grammar, a work on poetics and a work on rhetoric. The first edition of the dictionary did not appear until 1694, and the Academy was slow to make progress on the other works. Instead, Vaugelas's observations took the place of the grammar, a series of observations on good French usage or, le bon usage, the title adopted by Maurice Grevisse for his famous grammar in the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine the influence that Vaugelas's remarks had in his day. For instance, the playwright, Pierre Corneille revised his plays in the edition of 1660 to bring the use of French more in line with Vaugelas's grammatical pronouncements. And Racine was supposed to have taken his copy to Uzès in the south of France to prevent his good French usage from being corrupted!


JG: Does anything exist within the French Academy or independently of it that may be regarded as the 20th century version of those observations?

W A-B: Yes, the French Academy's website now has a column called, "Dire, ne pas dire" which contains such linguistic "dos and don'ts". French national and regional newspapers with language columns or chroniques de langage are another source of guidance on matters of the French language. As mentioned, linguists like Cerquiglini are also in some ways successors to Vaugelas and what we call the French remarqueurs.


LMJ: One of your fields of study has been diachrony. Can you explain that field to our readers and how etymology relates to it.

W A-B: This is basically a simple concept: diachrony considers how and why language changes over the course of time. Etymology deals essentially with the origin of particular words or the historical development of their form and meaning. My own interest is principally in the history of particular French constructions, e.g. the history of French word order or of negative constructions.

Traditionally the history of French relied on looking at literary texts, but I have tried to trace changes in more common usage or the vernacular by looking at other types of texts. It is not really until the 20th century that we get recordings of speech, so we have to be ingenious as historians of a language to try and find sources that best reflect more informal and spoken styles.


JG: From Cambridge, the centre of your work since 1983, the influence of your research has gained recognition in France and beyond. Can you mention some of the awards and prizes you have received?

W A-B: I was fortunate to be awarded the Prix d'Académie by the French Academy in 1997 and then again the Prix Georges Dumézil in 2013 for my work on Vaugelas and the French remarqueurs. In 2004 I became an Officier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques for my services to French education and culture.


JG: One of the two most recent works that you edited was Bon Usage et variation sociolinguistique: Perspectives diachroniques et traditions nationales (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2013). Which sociolinguistic aspects do you think are of the greatest interest to the layman.

Bon usage

W A-B : Sociolinguistic variation looks at how language changes according to the sex, age, education or socio-economic status of the speaker. I have looked at this type of variation historically for French and have been interested, for instance, in exploring how men and women's language differed in the past or whether we can see the direction of future change in the speech of young people.

In seventeenth-century France there was a movement against grammar being too formal or pedantic and that is why the volumes of observations did not follow the format of part of speech grammars but were intended to deal with points of doubtful usage in a pleasing way (just as Cerquiglini does today). At this time, women came to be seen as the arbiters of good usage, because their view of "good" French was not "contaminated" by any knowledge of Greek or Latin grammar.


JG : Your latest project is the MEITS research project, of which you are the Principal Investigator, leading teams from four prominent British universities and comprising about 35 researchers. Can you describe it in a nutshell?

W A-B :
MULTILIGUALISM: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies, launched last year on the European Day of Languages,
is a Multilingualism 1 major interdisciplinary research project funded under the Open World Research Initiative of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The Universities of Cambridge, Queen's (Belfast), Edinburgh and Nottingham are the partners conducting it. We are also working with a whole range of non-academic partners, ranging from small grassroot bodies such as the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum to major bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce or Age UK. Linguistic competence in more than one language – being multilingual – sits at the heart of the study of modern languages and literatures, distinguishing it from cognate disciplines. Through six interlocking research strands we investigate how the insights gained from stepping outside a single language, culture and mode of thought are vital to individuals and societies.


JG: The MEITS research proposal appears to be very ambitious in its vision, its goals and the different aspects of multilingualism set down. We cannot cover all these aspects within this interview but we will encourage our readers to access the material available digitally. 

Some of those goals are at a macro level, e.g. "To create a cultural shift in the conception and practice of language learning." At the micro level one of your aims is "to have a transformative effect on language learning at the level of the individual."  How will all the conclusions and fruits of your research filter down to the prospective multilingual student or practitioner?


W A-B: MEITS seeks to show how languages are important to key issues of our time, such as social cohesion, conflict resolution and national security. Instrumental arguments in favour of learning a language have tended not to succeed because English speakers know that they can 'get by' in many places in the world without knowing the local language. So we are looking for other reasons to encourage language learning. For example, we are beginning to discover that learning other languages offers enormous cognitive benefits. Research is showing that the study of languages by people in their 60s or older can improve their attention span or indeed help slow down the onset of dementia, and such findings will be important for an aging society. We plan exciting new research conducted through a holistic prism. We hope that people will come to realise the beneficial and intrinsic value of learning languages. The scale and scope of MEITS will hopefully make it transformative, and we are going to work with schools and other bodies to ensure our results are widely disseminated.


JG : Which other bodies will be brought in?

W A-B: We plan to have an outreach programme that will involve schools, policymakers, charitable bodies, and other non-academic partners, who will all disseminate the results, and help elevate the status of language learning in the public perception. To give you an LEGaSIexample, my team will be working in Northern Ireland with Co-Operation Ireland (an all-island peace-building charity) and particularly its LEGaSI project which seeks to develop leadership skills and confidence in disenfranchised loyalist communities. The alienation felt by this community towards Irish language and culture is being tackled in two ways. First, through the study of place names. In showing that Irish is part of the shared 'linguistic landscape' of Northern Ireland, greater awareness of the rootedness of the linguistic traditions is promoted across the whole community. Empowerment of loyalist communities, including former paramilitaries, is also being facilitated through language training in Irish. This allows them to feels some ownership of the language as well as developing the soft diplomatic skills which will help them to negotiate respectfully across the community divide. This then is a good example of how learning languages can help build bridges.


JG: You mentioned that you discovered museums in Britain for things as uncommon as lawnmowers, but none for languages. Please elaborate.

W A-B: As a further step in bringing the benefits of MEITS to the wider public, we are going to set up pop-up museums in various high-street shops across the UK which will have fun and interactive displays and activities explaining our results to the general public. When I started putting the project together, I was astonished to find that the UK has a museum for dog collars and another for lawnmowers, but not for languages, despite their centrality to so much of human activity. We hope that these temporary exhibitions will in time lead to a permanent national museum.


JG: We have published two articles on this blog that take up issues raised by Professor Claude Hagège, an articulate "defender" of the French language, who has written books and articles and appeared on TV shows, expressing strong views opposing the domination of English. As my closing question for the benefit of those readers who may have followed this debate and who may have strong views on this subject, what is your view?

W A-B: At French and other Universities where I have been a guest speaker or visiting professor [2] I have found my French colleagues to be torn between the desire to protect their own language and the need to have their research published and read globally, which can be easier if they write in English. Across Europe there is a move to offer university courses in English to attract more international students, but this cannot be at the expense of French and other European languages. It is vital, in my view, that linguistic diversity is maintained and that we protect and promote all languages. This is why in my project we are also looking at 'minoritized' languages such as Irish or Welsh in the UK, Occitan in France or Catalan in Spain. Whilst it is undoubtedly valuable to speak English, this is not enough. That is why the promotion of multilingualism, both for the individual and for societies is crucial.



[1] the renowned British collegiate public research university, founded in 1209.

[2] Professor Ayres-Bennett was Pajus Distinguished Visiting Professor, at the University of California, Berkeley in 2012.




Ayres-Bennett, W. (1987)
Vaugelas and the Development of the French Language.  
London, MHRA

Ayres-Bennett, W. (1996)
A History of the French Language through Texts.
London, Routledge

Ayres-Bennett, W. (2004)
Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France.
Cambridge, CUP

Ayres-Bennett, W. and Seijido, M. (2011)
Remarques et observations sur la langue française: histoire et évolution d'un genre.
Paris, Classiques Garnier.

Ayres-Bennett, W. (2011)
Corpus des remarques sur la langue française (XVIIe siècle).
Paris, Classiques Garnier Numérique.


Additional reading:

Le bon usage: using French correctly


Introducing MEITS Part One
Introducing MEITS Part Two

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with wordsmith (and educator) Catriona Seth

                                                    EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Trudy   Catriona Seth
 The interviewer 
Trudy Obi


The interviewee   
Catriona Seth

Trudy Obi
holds a PhD in English literature from UC Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on conceptions of intellectual labor in early modern Europe. Her research interests include rhetoric and humanist pedagogy, French literature, and neo-Latin poetry. She has worked as an in-house French to English translator on an international public health project, drafting and translating communications between U.S. headquarters and field office staff in Haiti and Madagascar.  She currently works at a translation agency in Berkeley, California, as project manager, translator, and editor. She also serves as Publications Director of the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA).

Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the University of Oxford, works on recovering voices that have been traditionally excluded from the canon of eighteenth-century French literature. Her major research interests include the history of ideas, medical humanities, and autobiographical writing. In July 2017, she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. A bibliography of the selected works of Professor Seth appears after this interview.


T.O. When did you decide to pursue the academic study of French, and how did that come about? 

I started by studying law, which I found extraordinarily boring; I didn’t stick to it long enough for it to become exciting. I’d always enjoyed literature, so I switched to studying French and Spanish. I was given a scholarship to spend a year in any French-speaking country I wanted. I decided to go for a master’s degree at the Sorbonne. I had no intention of becoming an academic then, but a few years later—after being a translator-interpreter and a management consultant—I asked my supervisor, “to become an academic, what should I do?” Long story short, I finished my thesis and sat the agrégation, the competitive examination necessary in order to teach French in France. I taught secondary school in France for a few years and then held positions at universities in Rouen and Nancy. I moved to Oxford nearly three years ago.

T.O. How did you find the transition from teaching at French universities to teaching at Oxford? Are the university systems in England and France very different?

French universities work on a catchment area system: you enroll in the institution nearest to your family home. In the UK, most students go away to university. This means that during term British students are generally around all the time and there is a real campus life. This is much less true in France. UK universities are selective. In France, on the whole they are not. Most academics in France have been through identical paths of study, unlike what happens in the UK or the US. I think the variety of backgrounds in the British system is a huge plus—and it is fascinating to have colleagues with very diverse backgrounds and approaches. Oxford has a particular advantage over many other institutions since much of the undergraduate teaching is based on the tutorial system so students have one-to-one or one-to-two classes and can tailor their own program to a large degree. This means that they are getting a very good grounding but also beginning to learn about research methods.

T.O. Madame de StaëlYour most recent work has focused on Germaine de Staël, née Necker, an eighteenth-century Swiss woman of letters. How did you come to study her?

I’d always been interested in the period of French literature which goes from before to after the Revolution. It often gets left out of literary histories. French literary study is based on centuries, so anyone who’s between centuries, like Staël or Évariste Parny, the subject of my Ph.D. thesis, is a complicated case and often gets dropped off either end.

A couple of years after I sat the agrégation, de Staël's novel Corinne was set as a text for the nineteenth century. I read it, and it was a revelation. It is an exciting and challenging book, full of interesting ideas.

T.O. What do you think is most valuable about de Staël?

She’s very human; she was at once very strong and yet had weaknesses. And she shows that you can be very strong because you acknowledge your weaknesses, because you’re prepared to affront them. And in that respect, she’s very much a role model for lots of people.

She was despised by many contemporaries who thought it was indecent for her to write about politics, that her lifestyle was too free because she had lovers openly. But I think she is someone who is sincerely trying, in her own way, to make the world a better place—through her writing, thinking about what an ideal society would be. She thinks people should be free, but also that you have to accept the need to give up freedoms for the common good. So she’s living in this perpetual tension, and has an extraordinary way of working through this philosophical notion of freedom and what we can do, and pushing boundaries.

T.O. Could you talk about some of her political writing?

One of the texts I find fascinating is Réflexions sur le process de la Reine, reflections on the Queen’s trial, published in August 1793. Marie-Antoinette is in prison, her fate undecided. Staël is saying, “I don’t think we should put her on trial; let me tell you why.” It’s a short but powerful text which speaks to two audiences. To the revolutionaries, she’s saying: “If you condemn her to death, you’ll make her a martyr.” She’s also saying to women: “Marie-Antoinette is the wife of the King; she has no political power. She’s a wife and mother like you and me—a mother separated from her children, a wife whose husband has been taken away and guillotined. We should show her some compassion.”

And that’s something vital for her—she believes there’s a place for compassion, for generosity, for feelings. And this is at a time when people are trying to think through rational ways of approaching politics. Staël thinks reason is important above all, but it has to be a generous reason, a reason nurtured and supported by generous feelings.

T.O. You have written that for Staël, “le roman a un potentiel politique actif” [“the novel has active political potential”].[1] How do Staël’s own novels participate in the political realm?

Let’s take the example of Corinne, her second novel, on its face simply a story of doomed love. But Corinne is set in Italy, at the time a series of small states. Corinne the character shows that Italy has a common past based on its literature and history—Italy is not so much a set of fractured states as one common destiny. Corinne was read by the Italians of the generation who went on to theorize what became the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy.

Delphine, her first novel, is set during the French Revolution and takes on all sorts of questions, like the promulgation of laws allowing divorce. This political content is fairly indirect, because these are letters exchanged by private individuals who are not particularly talking about what’s going on in the National Assembly.

T.O. And she’s writing Delphine after she realizes that the Revolution is not going to be liberating for women after all.

Yes, and this goes back to her pamphlet about Marie-Antoinette. She’s warning women, “if Marie-Antoinette is put to death, then everything which women might represent in society is also being sidelined.” That’s exactly what happened. The Revolution comes up with this vision of a virile republic, which Napoleon is only too happy to continue: a society in which women are allowed to stay at home and have lots of children and that’s about it.

Staël is extremely disappointed by this outcome. Later she writes that the years around the beginning of the Revolution were the best time ever to be young. She was in the thick of things: her father was a minister under the ancien régime, and during the Revolution her lover, Narbonne, was briefly a minister. She took part in all the political discussions behind the scenes. These were heady times: it looks as though there are going to be extraordinary possibilities for reform; it looks as though there’s a brave new world out there, and Staël is one of the people who can see it being born.

T.O. She was disillusioned by the Revolution, but what did she think of Napoleon?

Like many in her generation, she initially thinks Bonaparte might offer a solution. But then she discovers that he stands for everything she can’t bear—he’s exactly the opposite of what she’d hoped for. He wants things to be normalized, he wants a one-size-fits-all Europe where everybody would have the same languages and currencies. Staël is passionately interested in difference, in diversity. For her, if you’re different, it means you’re going to teach her something; difference should be celebrated and encouraged. So the vision of someone like Napoleon is anathema to her.

Some of her contemporaries said they both set out to conquer Europe, but they did it differently: Napoleon with his sabre and troops, Staël with her ideas and books.

T.O. Her work De l’Allemagne [On Germany] seems to be aimed at countering Napoleon’s view of the way Europe should be.

I don’t think Staël set out to write a book that was anti-Napoleon. She sent it to the printer in 1810 and the head of the police had the proofs destroyed. His excuse was “Ce livre n’est pas français,” (This book is not French). But I don’t think Staël is setting out to be anti-French. She’s very pro-French, but she’s also very conscious of the fact that there are things happening in Germany—in philosophy and literature in particular—which are not happening in France. She thinks if France can welcome ideas from overseas, it will be all the richer for it.

And because Napoleon set her up as his enemy, I think she became a sort of magnet for his opponents, or those who wanted to think about different ways of running a country, or imagining what moral values to defend. And Napoleon really didn’t need to treat her this way because she had no power, no troops. But on the other hand, she had every possible power, of course, because no troop can stop ideas circulating.

T.O. You are currently Co-Investigator on a project entitled “Dreaming Romantic Europe,” which was awarded a network grant by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Could you talk a bit about your plans for this project?

I’m working with Nicola Watson from the Open University, trying to think about Romanticism as a European rather than a national phenomenon. We’re asking people to choose an object—in the widest possible sense of the term—that for them embodies European Romanticism, and placing these objects in a virtual museum online.[2] We are asking scholars from a diverse range of fields and countries, and hope to showcase the diversity of European Romanticism.

ChawtonWe organized a conference at Chawton House [3] to look at the legacies of Staël and Jane Austen, who died within three days of each other. We wanted to look at the way the canon shapes our view, considering the contrasting fates of the world-famous writer who has now dropped off the map and the very discreet woman who lived in the English provinces but has become a major figure in world literature.

T.O. Could you say more about these contrasting fates?

When Staël died on 14 July 1817, she was the most famous woman in Europe, widely read, both admired Stael Austen for her talents and spirit and reviled by some for what was perceived to be her improper behavior—including her outspokenness on matters political. Austen, who died four days later, was unknown to the wider world. Those of her novels which had been published were unsigned. She had lived a discreet life in the English countryside. The contrasting fortunes of both women is remarkable: Staël has suffered partly as a result of having been seen as undignified by the Victorian age. Austen, on the contrary, was marketed by her relatives as a model of female propriety and her works as harmless sentimental stories. She has also benefitted greatly in recent years from some excellent adaptations of her novels for the screen. But the way the canon has operated shows how difficult it is for women to be accepted as engaged intellectuals.


[1] M. de StaelCatriona Seth, introduction to Œuvres, by Germaine de Staël, ed. Catriona Seth (Paris: Gallimard, 2017), xxvii

[2] RÊVE: The Virtual Exhibition 

[3] Chawton House, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, is in the village of Chawton, near Winchester, in the County of Hampshire.



 Selected Bibliography


Staël, Œuvres (ed.), Paris, Gallimard, Pléiade, 2017.

Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël: a tale of two authors,” The Conversation, July 17, 2017, 

“Enlightenment women’s voices,” in A History of Modern French Literature, ed. C. Prendergast, Princeton, 2017, pp. 330–50.

Parny Evariste (C. Seth)Évariste Parny (1753-1814). Créole, révolutionnaire, académicien, Paris: Hermann, 2014.

La Fabrique de l’intime. Mémoires et journaux de femmes du XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Laffont, Bouquins, 2013.

Marie-Antoinette. Anthologie et dictionnaire, Paris: Laffont, Bouquins, 2006.


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with British wordsmith (author and educator) David Crystal


Grant Hamilton,  translator, author of Les trucs d'anglais qu'on a oublié de vous enseigner and regular collaborator with our (French) sister-blog, Le Mot juste en anglais, spoke with David Crystal, one of the world’s most eminent English-language linguists [*]. Below is a shortened transcript of their conversation.


David Crystal
The Interviewee

Grant Hamilton
The Interviewer


GrantAs the author, coauthor, or editor of over 120 books, could you tell us how you go about choosing your subjects? 

David CrystalThe vast majority come up in a conversation like this, actually. A publisher or someone at a conference will say, is there a book on such or such a topic? And you end up writing one. The big encyclopedias were written precisely because somebody said, have you come across a book in which language is presented with pictures? And once you start thinking about it, it’s a sexy idea, and that’s how the encyclopedia came about. The reason why they are so many things like this waiting to be written is because language is always changing. Whatever English and French were like yesterday, they are different today and they will be different tomorrow. There is always a demand to keep pace.

GrantVery daunting, though, to take a subject like English grammar, as you did in "Making Sense : The Glamorous Story of English Grammar", which I reviewed on this blog,  and write about it. You must be very focused, or very organized, or have a huge team of researchers helping you.


David CrystalOh no, I never use researchers or assistants. I’m not a good collaborator. I used to, years and years and years ago, but it proved increasingly difficult simply because people’s timetables don’t match easily. Sometimes it’s much quicker just to sit down and write rather than do it jointly.

Like many linguists, I collect things—a usage, a spelling, a punctuation, anything. You keep notes all the times. I always have a drawer full of stuff … Internet headlines, newspaper headlines, articles, blog posts… You try and write something that hasn’t been done before. In the grammar book case, as you noticed, the distinctiveness is bringing together the language acquisition dimension to grammar, as well the descriptive side (what is grammar like?) and the explanatory side (how did the study of grammar develop?). That was the concept: bring together those three domains, which are normally kept separate.

GrantAnd it made the book all the harder to write because you’re addressing several audiences, really.



David CrystalYes, and then it becomes an interesting literary exercise: how to present the material in such a way that you can keep these different interests separate and yet make the whole topic accessible. Every book, I think, has got to have a literary dimension to it. That’s the difference between being just a scholar and being a writer and a scholar.


 GrantWhat in your opinion is the border between acceptable use of language and unacceptable use of language?



David CrystalThat’s what linguistics is: it tries to define that borderline between acceptability and unacceptability.

There are cases where something is completely unacceptable. Nobody in the English-speaking world puts the definite article after the noun and says “cat the,” whereas in a language like Romanian that is perfectly acceptable. Then there are cases—never very many, only about two or three percent of usage—where you have a debate over whether something is acceptable. Linguists spend a fair amount of time presenting and discussing these fuzzy cases.

Where the prescriptivists [1] go horribly wrong is that they think the only issues worth talking about are these fuzzy issues. There are far more important issues in relation to grammar, or for that matter pronunciation.

GrantWhat would you say to a translator about controversial grammatical usage? Should somebody translating French into English use the singular “their” or “they”? Do they start using this at a different point from writers?

David CrystalThe reason why this is an issue is because usage has begun to change. It’s tricky to decide at which point that usage is not going to raise hackles anymore. When I’m writing scripts for the radio, for instance, I make sure not to put in anything that can raise the hackles of slightly older listeners. For instance, I avoid split infinitives. Not because I think they are wrong, but simply because I don’t want to get piles of letters from people saying, “Oh, you used a split infinitive!” and forgetting what I was talking about. The thing about “they” is that we’re in the middle of a process of acceptance, but only about thirty percent into it.

GrantI have said on Twitter that translators should be late adopters of grammatical change.



David CrystalThat’s very wise. One should be conservative in these matters. Those who are avant-garde will find you slightly old-fashioned, but they’re not going to complain, whereas older people may be upset. I think the point about “they” and “their” is that the same thing happened to English in the Middle Ages with the second person pronoun. Like French, where there was “tu” and “vous,” and “vous” was plural but gradually came to be used as a singular pronoun of respect, English had “thou” and “you,” and “you” began to be used for the singular. In Shakespeare for instance, whenever anybody switches from thou to you, it’s exactly the same as when somebody switches between vous and tu in French. At the time of the change, probably, people worried about it, but nobody would anymore. One day “they” for singular and “they” for plural will be just as normal as “you” for singular and “you” for plural.

GrantDo you have the impression that English is changing faster than before?



David CrystalSpeed of change is difficult to monitor because the records of the past are not as clear as they might be, and change doesn’t happen in a steady, continuous movement. It has peaks and troughs. But we are now beginning to get a handle on change thanks to the arrival of very big corpora of usage, some of which are now historical in origin. For certain types of grammatical constructions, there is a suggestion of a speeding-up. For example, the use of the present continuous, rather than the present simple, “I’m going” versus “I go.” These days you can say quite happily, “I’m having a meeting next week,” whereas thirty years ago it would have been “I have a meeting next week.” Of course the classic case is the McDonald’s slogan “I’m loving it,” which thirty years ago would have been “I love it.”

GrantAre you familiar with Quebec’s language laws?



David CrystalYes I am indeed.




GrantWhat do you think about trying to redress the power balance between two languages the way this law seeks to do?

David CrystalWe’re talking identity now, not intelligibility. When you go around the language world, you’ll find lots of parallel examples. There are two forces driving language: the need for intelligibility and the need for identity. And they can be in conflict. The more a country becomes culturally heterogeneous, the more the language and its dialects become absolutely center stage. It’s very naïve of a country not to grasp this nettle, recognize it, have a minister for languages, or something of that kind. We don’t have one in Britain, and the problems are becoming increasingly noticeable as we become more multicultural.

GrantSo language laws are not good or bad, they just exist?

David CrystalThat’s exactly right. It’s very difficult to extrapolate from one country to another, because situations are so different.



GrantI have noticed what seems to me an adolescent accent in Quebec French. Do you know of any such cases?



David CrystalAdolescent speech is a somewhat neglected area of language acquisition studies. Adolescence is an age when kids are struggling to establish their identity in relation to their peer group and where their accent is therefore going to modulate, quite noticeably and quite fast sometimes, in relation to what they perceive to be the norms of the peer group and what’s desirable and undesirable. This has been clearly noticed in East London, for instance, where adolescents are meeting up and mixing with large numbers of immigrants, and adopting the rhythm of their accents. And at an older level, it might die away a bit, but at adolescent age it’s there.

GrantI have heard you mention how English speakers tend to be monolingual, but that the default around the world is to be multilingual. Do you think this has impoverished the culture of English-speaking people?

David CrystalIn a way, although impoverishment is only relevant if lack of ability impinges on your well-being or quality of life. When English speakers travel, they don’t feel impoverished—everybody speaks English, don’t they? So why should they learn another language? And conversely, we don’t have many immigrants in Britain who haven’t learned English. So what’s the point?

But things are changing. The demand for foreign languages is increasing. And after Brexit, it’s probably going to be even greater. So increasingly I hear people saying things like, “I wish I knew more languages.”


GrantI was not thinking about material impoverishment, but more the failure to benefit from the cognitive aspects of speaking several languages.

David CrystalWhen people start saying they should learn a foreign language, they will be motivated initially about earning extra money or having a better quality of life. Eventually issues of identity will arise, and issues of cognitive growth will arise, but they tend to be later rather than earlier in my experience.

GrantWe’ve noticed in worldwide surveys with the arrival of Trump that that the reputation and aura of the United States have taken a hit. Do you think this could have an impact on the prestige of the English language?

David CrystalNot anymore. Once upon a time maybe, when the total number of speakers in the world was relatively low and the proportion in America was relatively high. But things have changed. There are now 2.3 billion speakers of English in the world, some 230 million of them in the United States. There are more in India, and will probably soon be more in China. Numbers count in the study of language. Yes, America may have lost some of its shine, but look what’s happening in other parts of the world.

The other point I would make here is that Trump, from a language point of view—nothing to do with politics—has been rather unfairly pilloried for the nature of his oratory. People compare him with Obama and others and say, Trump isn’t an orator. But Trump has a political speaking style that is closer to everyday conversation than any previous politician has ever dared to do. And the result has been to win him votes. So although America might lose out in terms of what he’s saying, I don’t think English is going to lose out in terms of the way he is saying it.

GrantDo you have an opinion about “Globish,” or simplified English for non-native speakers?



David CrystalThere have always been attempts to simplify English, and Globish is one. But simplification really has gone too far. Imagine a business meeting which tried to restrict itself to a Globish vocabulary. You wouldn’t get very far.


GrantEnglish speakers wouldn’t know which words to use and which words to avoid.



David CrystalThere is an interesting point here: people tend to underestimate the size of their vocabulary. Try having a French speaker who says he has a poor command of English go through a selection of pages from a dictionary and tick the words he knows, then add them up and multiply by the number of pages in the dictionary. You'll be amazed at the total. He could actually know 10,000 words. People know more English than they think.


GHI am interested to hear what you think is the future of Welsh.



CrystalWelsh is the success story of the twentieth century as far as minority and endangered languages are concerned. There was a hugely effective activist movement in the 1960s and 70s. It generated a Welsh television channel, and two Welsh language acts, which helped to protect the language and give it a public presence in a way that it didn’t have before. So there has been a steady increase in the knowledge and use of Welsh. Certainly around here where I live, sixty percent of the population can speak Welsh.


GHIs that success in your view?



CrystalYes, absolutely, compared with a few decades ago.



GHWhat is the role of Welsh in daily life? Is it the language that people speak at work?


CrystalIn some domains. You cannot get a job with the local government authority, for example, unless you either speak Welsh or are prepared to learn it. In private business, of course, it’s still optional. And so you will hear it quite routinely spoken, though not enough to satisfy the real keen supporters.


Do you have any advice for someone seeking to learn English?



David CrystalThe more one can encounter the language in its various forms—online, in mobile form, and so on—the better. The future of a language and the future of a society which finds that language important are in the hands of the younger generation. So I think the more one can use the Internet and all its facilities, the better really.



[*] Professor Crystal, in addition to being a prolific and prodigious author of books on the English language,  is also extremely active as a  lecturer and broadcaster. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Wales and pursued his academic studies in England. He joined academic life as a lecturer in linguistics, first at Bangor, Wales and then at Reading, England. He has become known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as intonation and stylistics, and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts, notably in the development of a range of linguistic profiling techniques for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Many of his books target a wider audience of lay people.Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor.

In addition to the books written in his own name,  he is well known for his two encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Recent books (in addition to Making Sense: the Glamorous Story of English Grammar (2017), reviewed here) include The Story of Be: a Verb's-eye View of the English Language (2017),  The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (2016), The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary (2015, with Ben Crystal), The Disappearing Dictionary: a treasury of lost English dialect words (2015), and Making a Point: the Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (2015).  Other co-authored books include Words on Words (2000, a dictionary of language quotations compiled with his wife and business-partner, Hilary), Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain (2013, with Hilary), and Shakespeare’s Words (2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005), the last two in collaboration with his son Ben. 


[1] Prescriptive - Oxford Dictionaries: "(Linguistics) Attempting to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language, e.g.‘a prescriptive grammar book’. Often contrasted with descriptive.



Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.