I Passed the French Language Exam at KSU and So Can You

On Wednesday, April 14, I spent four hours translating Lydie Moudileno’s “Pas de romance sand finance: la construction du couple moderne dans les romans sentimentaux de l’Afrique de l’Ouest” from Sites 6:1 (2002). I have included my experience with the exam and preparation tips for others who will have to take their language exam at Kent State.

Professor Maryann De Julio selected the Moudileno article for me to read prior to our conversation about it, which constitutes the exam itself. I couldn’t have asked for a better essay, because it was very much connected with some of the other things that I am thinking about in my PhD exam studies, namely the influence of capital on the cultural construction of identity. In this case, Moudileno argues in the case of francophone romance novels in the 80s and 90s written and published in French-speaking African countries present a non-African ideal of Westernized romantic love embedded in circuits of capital and brand recognition. Following a structuralist analysis of a particular collection of these kinds of Westernized love stories in Adora, Moudileno demonstrates how these stories and romance novel book covers exist in opposition with the realities of patriarchy in much of Africa. However, she does end by considering the possibility of how a universalized idea of love presented in these novels, which apparently sell very well in many African capital cities and bookstores, do offer a form of resistance to male dominant societies despite their heteronormative message.

The exam itself went very well. Professor De Julio, Professor Mack Hassler, and I had a wonderful conversation that began with the article but traversed into French film history and the science fictions of Phillip K. Dick.

The four hours of translation on the other hand was nerve-racking. I translated the whole document verbatim just under the 4 hours, and I made a one sentence summary of each paragraph in the margins. I reviewed this before coming out of the room to let Professor De Julio and Mack know that I was ready for the exam. Having already translated the entire document, the spot translations that Professor Dejulio asked me to do went very well. There were some things that I didn’t translate accurately, because the literal translation did not match the idiomatic meaning of certain phrases. The nice thing about the exam is that it isn’t just about translating, it is about having a conversation and engaging the ideas in the article being translated. Professor Dejulio picked an excellent article that I was able to sink my analytical teeth into, which made the exam, past the translation, an enjoyable experience. However, I should say that it was a draining experience, which two twenty minute afternoon naps did not cure. I did feel more like myself the following day when Yufang and I went to Cleveland for groceries at Cleveland Asian Market and for free flash drives at Microcenter (4GB flash drives no less!).

For those folks who, like me, are not superstars in their second language for the exam, I can offer you these study tips that I used to prepare for the exam:

  • Begin your studies well in advance with an online newspaper in your second language, and print out articles (or in my case, movie reviews) double spaced so that you can write out your translation between the lines. Use online verb conjugators and Bablefish to check your translations, and make notes of idioms and phrases that recur repeatedly.
  • Move on to scholarly articles and translate those. You will notice a difference in the writing.
  • Throughout, practice conjugations, keywords, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions. I would write these 5-10 times each along with the English translation to make sure that I could remember them.
  • A few days before your exam, lock yourself in a room for four hours with a scholarly article and translate it as you would on the day of the exam. It was from this experience I got a sense for how quickly the time passed and I developed a better strategy of divide and conquer–I translated the first paragraphs, the last two paragraphs, and then the beginning sentence of each paragraph before filling in the rest. If you can read the language, which is the ultimate goal of having proficiency in another language, you do not need to do this. Just read the essay and make notes. I had to think hard and rely on my dictionary extensively for understanding what was being said, so that is why I took this strategic translating strategy.
  • Prepare your dictionary for your test day. I made notations throughout the dictionary as I was doing my preparatory work, and I put lettered tabs at the beginning of each section of the dictionary for quick page turning and reference. In the back section with irregular verb conjugations, I made a note of the definition so that I could save time from flipping back and forth on words that I wasn’t immediately familiar with. I used Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary, which I found to be rather good with only a few idioms missing from the translation that I worked on.
  • Bring snacks like nuts for energy and water to drink. If you’re lucky like me, your wife will bring you a slice of lemon cake and a triple shot soy latte halfway through the exam!

Despite passing my exam, I am still critical of the foreign language requirement as it now stands at Kent State University. I believe that it should be something integrated into the curriculum in some way more than the exam. I know of some folks who were told to remove foreign sources from their dissertations, which seems counter productive to being scholars who attempt to engage a wide array of worldly discussions connected to your object of study. Based on my practice for the exam, I did find some Philip K. Dick articles that I will probably include in my dissertation. I can warn my future dissertation committee that they will be damned if they think I won’t include some French in my dissertation after spending part of this past year and a year and a half at Georgia Tech preparing for that one exam that allows me to move forward with my PhD exams. Also, I think it would be useful if there were a source requirement for the dissertation, or taking part in a foreign language seminar might meet this kind of requirement. The foreign language requirement should be something promoted more when you are beginning a program of study; students should go ahead and meet with the examiner in their secondary language right away even if the test will be put off until later. These are only some ideas, but the foreign language aspect of the Literature PhD at Kent State needs to be improved (along with the degree’s requirements and supporting coursework in general, but that’s another issue). As graduate students, we are part of that conversation to improve things, so we need to assert ourselves and make sure that our voices are heard. Otherwise, it will be left up to others to decide for us and those that follow us at Kent State.

Vive la langue françaises!

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Pedagogy, Personal
3 comments on “I Passed the French Language Exam at KSU and So Can You
  1. Masood Raja says:

    Congratulations Jason!! I agree with your concluding remarks. The students should get involved with their secondary language immediately when they enter the program and the department should encourage such experience toward their growth as scholars.

  2. Chris Garrett says:

    Thank you. I found this article very helpful as I am considering returning to study the french language. I the past I did find the study difficult at times, mainly due to subject matter that I found dated, and to which I found hard to relate. I have often asked myself what can I do to ensure that french maintains its relevancy for me as I labor through the standard curriculum of 16th and 17th century literature. Perhaps, I will come to a conclusion in the near future.

  3. Jason Ellis says:

    Hey Chris,

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad that I could help. Find a French news outlet or blog that you would be interested in, and read it everyday–even if it’s just a little. Something that I didn’t do but I think would be extremely useful would be to start your own French language blog. Writing a paragraph of French everyday on something that you care about would increase your proficiency very quickly. Good luck!

    Jason

Comments are closed.

Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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