Friday, January 06, 2023

Concours blanc thème agrégation/ advanced translation mock exam

 Here is my suggested translation, with notes. The passage from the exam can be found at the end of the translation. This post will only stay on the blog for two weeks.

Mock exam December 2022[1]

I was born on the 28th of April 1882, in Tortisambert, a really pretty[2] little village in the Calvados region,[3] whose[4] church tower  can be seen[5] on the left as you leave Livarot heading for Troarn.

My parents ran[6] a grocer’s shop which  made them five thousand francs’ profit,[7] year in year out.[8]

I was part of a large family.[9] My mother had had[10] two children from a previous marriage. Then she had[11] a son and four daughters with my father. My father had his mother there,[12] and my mother had her father there - so they were even, if I dare say that- and otherwise there was also a deaf mute uncle who lived with us.


There were[13] twelve of us[14] around the table.[15]

Then, overnight, a plate[16] of mushrooms left me alone[17] in the world.

I was left alone.[18] Because I had stolen eightpence[19] from[20] the till to buy myself some marbles, and my father had cried out[21] in fury[22]:

“Since you’ve been stealing,[23] you are not having[24]  any mushrooms.”

It was the deaf mute who had picked[25] the deadly funghi[26] ; and that evening there were eleven corpses in the house.

Anyone who[27] has never seen eleven corpses at once cannot  visualize how many that is: they were everywhere.[28]

         Am I to speak[29] of my grief?

       Let us rather tell the truth. I was just twelve years old, and all will concur[30] that this was too much tragedy for my age. Indeed, I was completely overwhelmed by this catastrophe; not having enough experience to realize how horrific it was, I felt somehow[31] unworthy.

         One[32] can grieve[33] for one’s mother or one’s father or one’s brother - but how would one grieve for eleven people? You no longer know if you are coming or going with your tears. I dare not say I was spoilt for choice, yet that was a fair description of the situation.

Dr Lavignac who was called in in the afternoon, worked[34] continually for hours applying his sage treatments, which, alas, had no effect. My family faded away inexorably.

Our parish priest,[35] who was taking lunch that day with the Marquess de Beauvoir, cycled in around four. He had his work cut out for him!

        By[36] five in the evening, the entire village was at our house. Old Rousseau, who had been paralyzed for twenty years had had himself carried in[37], and the blind man of the village kept saying, while pushing others out of his way, “Let me see, let me see!”

         –Laissez-moi voir ! Laissez-moi voir !


Sacha Guitry, Mémoires d’un Tricheur, 1935.[38]



[1] Apologies for the slightly gruesome passage.

[2] Someone tried « quaint » but that is an unjustified overtranslation, suggesting « folklorique » or « typique ». « A quite beautiful little village » is fine, since in this case « quite » would have its meaning of « fully » or « completely » and not its other meaning of « fairly ». « Quite a beautiful little village » on the other hand, is a mistake.

[3] In Calvados is OK. « In the Calvados area «  sounds clumsy – I think an area is too small, whereas Calvados is 5 535 square kilometres, or 2 137 square miles. Calvados is of course a département rather than a région in French. « In the Calvados département » is fine.

[4] If you did not find «whose », highly urgent meeting with grammar book required. One or two students tried « from where » or « from which », but that would only make sense if there was only one church tower imaginable in this story. Far more likely is that each village has a clocktower, and the one belonging to Tortisambert can be seen when you leave Livarot. « The church tower of which » is a little clumsy, but okay.

[5] Somebody used a structure wih « make out », which was excellent.

[6] No need to emphasize that this period is over by using « used to ». Since we are not particularly interested in the process of their running the shop (nous ne regardons pas particulièrement cette action au cours de son  déroulement), a BE +ING is a mistake. This is a background action, and the preterite is best. « Run » is better than « had ».

[7] Not « benefit ». A benefit is either not money at all (one of the benefits of living in a large town is that medical services are close at hand), or it is money that you receive from the state for social reasons (sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, housing benefit, maternity benefit, supplementary benefit, child benefit, redundancy benefit, disability benefit, death benefit…)

[8] “More or less » is not bad. « Roughly » is too informal.

[9] « Our family was a big one » is good.

[10] You must translate exactly, so keep this pluperfect.

[11] Someone tried « gave birth to » but that is something a woman does alone, not « with » anyone.

[12] I have expanded to make it clear that the lady involved was not only alive, but was living with them. These sentences are meant to expland on the idea that the family living in the same place was large.

[13] I think it is better not to say « used to be ». « used to be » emphasizes the fact that it will all soon be over, and thus takes away from the surprise in the next sentence.

[14] Not « we were twelve ». « There were N of us » is the classic form for counting people. If you phone a restaurant to make a reservation they will ask you « How many of you are there ? » and the expression exists in all the different tenses. A : I remember my thirteenth pet dog ! B : How many of them have there been ?!

[15] I do not think this has any hidden or implicit meaning.  « There were twelve of us to feed » would suggest poverty, which we do not see mentioned. Note that the twelve are the narrator, his four sisters, his two step-siblings, his mother, his father, his paternal grandmother, his maternal grandfather and his deaf uncle. These facts led me to expand a little earlier sentences, to clarify that all these people were living in the same house.

[16] « Plate » is better than « dish » which would suggest it might be the recipe for a meal. « A mushroom dish » is not correct, because that would be a cooked meal including mushrooms and many more ingredients. « A plateful of mushrooms » is fine. A « mushroom plate » is not correct – this would be a plate made for mushrooms, whether or not it was empty of full of mushrooms.

[17] « All by myself » is somewhat less literary, and so not quite as good, but perfectly acceptable. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN9CjAfo5n0

[18] It is a good idea to add a verb. Note that one does not say « I became alone ».

[19] Eight sous is fine.

[20] Definitely not « in », despite what we say in French0

[21] « Yelled » is too informal.

[22] Or « my father, furious, had shouted at me …» or « my father, ourtaged »,  or « my father, in a fit of anger »

[23] I accepted « since you are a thief », though it focusses a little differently.  The aspect « have been doing » helps to focus on the consequences. « you have stolen eight pennies/ you have been stealing » . Since you have stolen » is clumsy and/or sounds extremely formal (« And the Lord God saw them and said ‘You have broken my commandment’ »)

[24] This is a modal use of the BE + Ing form, very common when forbidding things to children. « You are not eating chocolate just before your dinner ». « There will be no mushrooms for you »

[25] Not “picked up » which would tend to mean « fetched from the shop », whereas these are wild mushrooms.

[26] From a strict scientific point of view, mushrooms are neither vegetables  nor plants. However, in everyday English I think either approximation is acceptable.

[27] Using « Who » alone (*  « Who has never ») is a serious error. A structure with « if you have never » is considerably more informal than the original.

[28] I accepted « all over the place » though it is a little informal.

[29] This structure gives the required solemnity ; « Shall I speak of my grief » is good (in this context it would sound formal, not the simple ‘Shall I come tomorrow ? ‘ request for approval. Someone tried « *Shall I mention my grief ? » - this is not the appropriate verb. A questions beginning « will I » is a mistake here. It is either dialect (notably Irish) or asks a different question, not involving the will of the person. If you are asking about the role you will be playing in a theatre play you have not yet read, you might ask « will I fall in love at the end ? » - it is an objective question which does not involve your own decisionmaking. This is not appropriate here.

[30] Note the formal style. « Anyone will agree » is fine. It is a mistake to say « should », because this sentence merely explains what the situation is – the number of people who will agree (all people). The sentence does not suggest that there is a duty to agree, and it does not advise people to agree, it simply notes that agreement will be present.

[31] « So to say » is fine.

[32] The somewhat literary style means that « one » is the best option.

[33] « One can cry for the loss of one’s mother » is fine. I think it is best to be precise. « Cry for your mother » does not necessarily imply her demise. Strictly speaking it is posisbe to say « one can cry for the loss of his mother », but its sounds very old-fashioned.

[34] This action is presented as over and finished, and is in the preterite in French, so tere is really no reason to be tempted by the use of BE + ING. I recommend that at the end of your exam, you spend a little time just looking at the verbs, and asking yourself for each one why you chose that particular form. Incorrect verb forms lose a lot of marks.

[35] Or the village priest. The « our » is my attempt to translate the familiarity of « M le curé ». You can do nothing with « Mr. » here.

[36] Or « from ». « Dès » is not always easy to translate. « By » gives the idea that although many arrived earlier, the entire village was there when the clock struck five. It may also suggest that five o clock was an early hour to have everyone present, since they would no doubt have been working during the day.

[37] Note that « had been carried in » is an under-translation


[38] Moral of story : buy marbles, instead of eating wild mushrooms.

Here is the original passage

Je suis né le 28 avril 1882, à Tortisambert, petit village bien joli du Calvados, dont on aperçoit le clocher à main gauche quand on va vers Troarn en quittant Livarot.

Mes parents tenaient un commerce d’épicerie qui leur laissait, bon an, mal an, cinq mille francs de bénéfice.

Notre famille était nombreuse. D’un premier lit, ma mère avait eu deux enfants. Elle eut avec mon père, un fils et quatre filles. Mon père avait sa mère, ma mère avait son père —ils étaient quittes, si j’ose dire — et nous avions, en outre, un oncle sourd-muet.

Nous étions douze à table.

Du jour au lendemain, un plat de champignons me laissa seul au monde.

Seul, car j’avais volé huit sous dans le tiroir-caisse pour m’acheter des billes — et mon père en courroux s’était écrié :

– Puisque tu as volé, tu seras privé de champignons !

Ces végétaux mortels, c’était le sourd-muet qui les avait cueillis — et ce soir-là, il y avait onze cadavres à la maison.

Qui n’a pas vu onze cadavres à la fois ne peut se faire une idée du nombre que cela fait.

         Il y en avait partout.

         Parlerai-je de mon chagrin ?

         Disons plutôt la vérité. Je n’avais que douze ans, et l’on conviendra que c’était un malheur excessif pour mon âge. Oui, j’étais véritablement dépassé par cette catastrophe — et n’ayant pas assez d’expérience pour en apprécier l’horreur, je m’en sentais, pour ainsi dire, indigne.

         On peut pleurer sa mère ou son père, ou son frère — mais comment voulez-vous pleurer onze personnes ! On ne sait plus où donner de la peine. Je n’ose pas parler de l’embarras du choix — et c’est un peu pourtant cela qui se passait.

         Le docteur Lavignac, appelé dans le courant de l’après-midi, ne cessa de prodiguer, pendant des heures et des heures, ses soins éclairés, mais, hélas ! inutiles. Ma famille s’éteignait inexorablement.

         M. le curé, qui déjeunait ce jour-là chez le marquis de Beauvoir, est arrivé à bicyclette vers quatre heures. On allait avoir bien besoin de lui !

         Dès cinq heures du soir, tout le village était chez nous. Le père Rousseau, paralysé depuis vingt ans, s’était fait porter jusque-là — et l’aveugle répétait en poussant les autres :

Laissez-moi voir ! Laissez-moi voir !


Sacha Guitry, Mémoires d’un Tricheur, 1935.

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