Bringing France to Australian students

Dr Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan is revealing the impact that translators have on a text while also teaching students to think laterally through the challenge of learning French.

Image of Marie Laure

When a text is translated into another language, what influence does the translator have on the final product? That is one of the questions that Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan investigates in her research, which covers literary analysis of French texts, translation theory, digital humanities and techniques for teaching French to people from different backgrounds.

Her PhD focused on the translation into French of the Australian novel Southern Steel, by Dymphna Cusack, set in Newcastle in 1942.

“I chose this novel because it’s deliberately full of Australian-isms and references to the Australian culture,” Marie-Laure said. “I wanted to explore how I could translate references that are typically Australian, like ‘tall poppy syndrome’ or ‘game like Ned Kelly’ into French.”

This led to the publication of a theoretical analysis of the translation challenges in 2012. The novel as translated by Marie-Laure was published in French in 2015.

Marie-Laure says she is not only interested in the translation of cultural allusions but also the impact the translator’s own style has on the original text, and its influence on the translation process.

“The translator is supposed to be invisible. Sometimes you can see some traces of the translator’s intervention, and it can change or even transform the text. However readers are not aware of that unless they can compare with the original text. Or there can be a team of translators working on a collection of books and they apply homogenising techniques across the material, without respecting the authors’ different styles. Or the same book can be translated in very different ways by successive translators. Or it can be the case of pseudo translations when the translator is in fact the author, like the famous French writer Boris Vian”, she said.

Marie-Laure has participated in several co authored and edited books, with a focus on crime fiction translated into French. She co-wrote a book about a team of translators and the founder of the prestigious French collection Serie Noire. She recently translated Chappy, a novel by New Zealander author Patricia Grace, with a colleague who knows the Maori language and culture well.  In future, she would like to translate novels written by Australian Indigenous authors.

Analysing the #metoo movement

More recently Marie-Laure is exploring the power of computational analysis (Stylometry) to identify the stylistic fingerprint and the voice of the translator. She is also using these techniques in a cross disciplinary project with colleagues in media studies and English to study how newspapers have been covering the #metoo movement in France and Australia and what cultural differences can be revealed in the process.

“Alongside #metoo there is a specific French hashtag named #balancetonporc which translates literally to ‘snitch out your pig’”, she said. “It is a much more aggressive  expression compare to the #metoo movement and based on denunciation, whereas in the Anglo Saxon countries it was more about the solidarity between women.”

Marie-Laure has found that in France a lot of newspaper articles started with #balancetonporc but then switched to #metoo as criticism of the denunciation movement started to occur and the French hashtag fell out of favour.

“We are testing the frequency of words in the newspaper articles and trying to see what the focus is in the French newspapers compared to Australian ones. Why in France was there a specific hashtag, and one so aggressive? It probably says a lot about the patriarchal system in France and reveals cultural differences.”

Teaching students to think laterally

One of Marie-Laure’s goals is to show how important it is to be confronted with texts from other languages. She believes learning another language is a crucial experience because it opens your horizons and makes you think about your own language in challenging ways.

“You don't realise before you study another language how much bias there is in your own language and the way you think. Studying another language and culture takes you out of your comfort zone and for the better.”

Marie-Laure is the president of Alliance fran├žaise de Newcastle which is a not-for-profit organisation promoting French language and culture. The organisation offers the community and UoN French language students the opportunity to speak French with native speakers, experience French cooking and see French films, giving a well rounded education in French language and culture. But Marie-Laure says that learning French is so much more than language acquisition.

“I try to teach people to think laterally and not to judge a book by its cover, to question our own ways of thinking and practicing. It’s very easy to do that while teaching French, because it’s at the core of foreign language acquisition,” she said. “

An example of this is the concept of ‘false friends’, which are words that appear the same in different languages but have different meanings.

For instance, “Demande in French means to ask, but you might think it means to demand. Attendre in French means to wait, but you might think it means to attend. I also ask my students what do some words or idiomatic expressions and their meanings show about the culture of a place.”.

“To think laterally and question what you are reading, or to compare a translation to the original text and find anomalies in the translation, all those are essential skills in our current society. Being able to question what is in front of us in today’s world where we are confronted with constantly changing technologies and fake news is a very important skill and one that can be taught by learning French or another language.”

“I don't want to feel prisoner of one language or one way of thinking, I want to embrace and celebrate diversity; that’s what motivates me in my work and why I am an advocate for foreign language learning.”

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