I found myself asking this question this weekend, as I was ploughing through a piece of Master’s coursework. The piece we had been given to translate and produce a commentary on was this: ‘Impossible Absence‘ from Hors Champ.org. It is a piece of politicial rhetoric, a call to arms or ‘appel’ as it is commonly known in France.
Now, I did my background research and I understood the text. But then, in translating it to English I just couldn’t find the happy medium. No matter which way I cut it, I couldn’t get it to sound ‘right’ in English. Of course, it’s grammatically and linguistically sound – but the simple truth is that we just don’t write rhetoric like this in English any more, and so the philosophical and political statements about art and culture just end up seeming overdone and pompous in English, when they are perfectly eloquent in French.
It reminded me of my year abroad at UPJV in Amiens; this was in 2009, when France experienced a major spate of strikes, primarily among the higher education sector. In order to get my head round what was going on, I used to go to the weekly Assemblées and listen to the committee and student debates before they passed the vote on that week’s actions. There was one particularly memorable occasion when a student (I’m sure he must have been a philosophy student) took the floor – declined the mike because he was loud enough already – and began to brandish a large piece of masonry at the auditorium. I forget what he actually said, apart from the gist being that we needed to fight in order to protect our future, the foundations of which (cue brandishing of masonry) were the education system – and concluded his speech by dropping the masonry and standing on it to proclaim his parting shot (to rapturous applause).
Why don’t we get this passionate about our society and our culture in England? We do a lot of moaning about changes in government policies, but even the term ‘getting on one’s soapbox’ is passing out of common usage. The student demonstrations of 2010 were widely covered by the press – but the things which stood out were the violent elements, not the eloquent rhetoric that some may have produced. Have we forgotten the skills of debate and rhetoric?