Briton takes Academy seat

Sir Michael Edwards becomes the first Briton to sit in the Académie Française today

21 May 2014

PROFESSOR Sir Michael Edwards – who was knighted in the New Year’s Honours for services to French-British relations – officially takes up his Académie Française seat today.

The first Briton to become one of the so-called “Immortals”, he will be invested with pomp and ceremony in a green suit and sword and will deliver a speech in praise of French writer, the late Jean Dutourd, whose vacant seat he takes up.

Connexion interviewed him for April's edition last year, after his appointment was announced.

The best of all possible words

Poet and professor Michael Edwards is the first Briton to be elected to the Académie Française, charged with defending the French language. OLIVER ROWLAND spoke to him about the legacy of Voltaire and Hugo

THE ACADÉMIE was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to defend the French language and ­compile a dictionary – the ninth edition is underway, of which the latest instalment (De Maquereau à Quotité) came out in 2011.

It is often associated with opposing anglicisms and consists of 40 ­distinguished people, who elect new members – one per ‘seat’ – for life.

Their nickname, ‘the immortals’, comes from ‘to immortality’ on a seal presented by Richelieu, which referred to the French ­language. Regular tasks include approving new recommended words, such as mot-dièse instead of ‘hashtag’, which official bodies, in particular, aim to use (they are published in Le Journal Officiel and at www.franceterme.culture.fr).

They also award cultural prizes, including a Grand Prix de la Francophonie for an ­outstanding contribution towards encouraging the development of the French language.

The official dress is l’habit vert, adopted at the time of Napoleon’s reorganisation of the Institut de France, the umbrella body which includes the Académie Française and several other ­academies.

It includes a long coat and bicorn hat embroidered with gold and green motifs, and members receive an engraved sword. It meets in a domed building called Le Palais de l’Institut.

Prof Michael Edwards is a poet, translator and academic specialising in French and English ­literature, formerly in England and, latterly, at the Collège de France, Paris. He has joint ­British-French nationality, is married to a Frenchwoman and was born in Barnes, south-west London. He takes over seat 31, formerly occupied by novelist Jean Dutourd.

Members past and present of the Académie are a roll call of the great and good, including the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo or, today, Simone Veil, Max Gallo and former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

“It’s a bit daunting,” Prof Edwards said. “My seat was occupied by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Edmond Rostand [author of Cyrano de Bergerac], but it feels okay.”

Most Académie members are writers, he said, though not all, and he feels a connection with his predecessor because “he has a great fund of ­comedy and there’s British humour in what I write”.

He does not find the title immortal “meaningful”, nor the concept of a writer being immortal through their work, because they are not here to enjoy it, Prof Edwards said.

His election “shows confidence”. “The French are rightly worried about the invasion of English and its contamination of French and I’m worried with them, often more so. Yet they are happy to have me there, ­representing a ­different, British view of things as a speaker of ‘the world language’ who has chosen to write in French.”

The Académie is not “obsessed” with combating anglicisms – it is above that – but it is an important part of what it does. “We have to protect French from unwarranted invasion of English words that are not needed because French already has a word for whatever it is.”

However, at the same time, languages cannot stand still, he said, and the English language is an example of how a language can borrow usefully and develop.

“In the Elizabethan period, which we recognise as the great one now, we borrowed from 50 languages. I think there are all sorts of things in English which would be useful to French and not at all harmful.”

We should also remember that “half of English vocabulary is French”, much of it so old we no longer see it as such. There are also certain areas, such as ballet, with many recognisable French borrowings – and the French like the fact that their language, when exported, is often linked to culture. Borrowings from English, on the other hand, are often associated with “instant communication” and abbreviations.

However, Prof Edwards said he approves of finding suitable French terms to replace some English ones, such as courriel instead of email. “It’s perfectly eloquent – courrier électronique – and emerges naturally from the language. It’s attractive and very French.”

Prof Edwards said French is “in ­crisis” because thinkers such as scientists and philosophers feel under pressure to write in English to be read internationally. This is unfortunate because writing in French allows for a different, complementary way of looking at the world.

“It would be disastrous if French philosophy and sociology became less French,” he said.

He also finds television adverts are too full of English.

Prof Edwards heard about his ­election in a phone call saying, “you’re elected”. “I knew it could happen, but it felt rapturous.”

His investiture is likely to be towards the end of the year and will include him making a speech in praise of his predecessor, which will follow the presentation of his sword.

He will wear the “full regalia”, which is for a few occasions a year, such as the official ­rentrée in September, but not for the regular Thursday ­meetings.

He has yet to attend any, as one needs to be a member. “But, naturally, I’ve met lots of ­members because you have to make yourself available for interviews, and every time I’ve thought how pleasant it would be to know that person better. I’m looking forward very much to seeing them every week. I gather that, from time to time, the meetings become debates about the state of the world and, given the level, I imagine they’re extremely interesting.”

The Académie takes its central mission of compiling the dictionary very seriously and the main criterion for inclusion is that a word should have been used “for a very long time” to ensure it is not a passing fad. Giving the “best definition discoverable” is also vital, he said.

His election feels like proof he has been accepted as French, which he has done by “showing goodwill” by writing about French authors and in French. Writing in the language about authors such as playwright Racine came ­naturally, but it was more “fraught” when he came to try to write his own ­poetry in French, he said.

“Everyone says you can only write poetry in a ­language you’ve ­babbled as a child; that’s so familiar it’s in your veins.”

But he came to realise he was writing “proper French poetry, but which also had ­something of the English temperament”. This is part of a trend of foreign-born writers who have been using French, bringing the resources of their backgrounds, which can be “highly positive”.

“It has to be properly French, but there are certain things, like the heterogeneity of an English poem – that one can move from the trivial to the transcendent – that can be imported.”

His other passion, translating, brings its own challenges. For example, translating Shakespeare (he has been working on Twelfth Night) is daunting because “you must not just produce interesting franglais; it must be French while conveying the flavour of the original, which is very different from most French theatre”.

He looks for inspiration to 16th-century writer Rabelais who had an “even larger vocabulary than Shakespeare and is incredibly inventive, in the way that Shakespeare was, for example, treating extremely serious things comically”.

As for one kind of French that expats ­encounter more regularly – that of official letters and forms – he doubts there will ever be a “Plain French Campaign”. This is because the French are very attached to the elegant sound of their language. It means that, to English-speakers, the French may sometimes seem to express themselves in a roundabout way, “but I rather like it,” he said. “It’s part of what makes French different and interesting.”

Asked if he had any advice for Britons in France, he said to “find out as much as possible about the French experience”, because “a lot of English people in France don’t really take the French seriously”.
People should “make the leap into the way the French see the world and the way they feel” – for example, by reading ­literature or attending the free lectures at the Collège de France.

Photo: Patrick Imbert/ Collège de France

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