Here is the latest offering from the Atelier. Mme Cornier had us all working on different projects but a couple of us tackled this bovine subject. I was given a piece of scrap zinc left over from when the studio roof was repaired and found it took the paint really well. The shape was partly the inspiration for this piece. Later in the term we are planning a visit to the farm of one of the students, so expect more cows in the future.
‘Vachement’ crops up fairly often in informal French. Literally ‘Cowly’, Vachement modifies the adjective, so Vachement difficile is really difficult, On s’est vachement trompé – we really screwed up!
Why ‘cowly’? Originally it seems the term vachement meant the opposite – equating to the English term ‘beastly’. Over time its meaning has changed, maybe ironically (think ‘wicked’). One early usage (1906): On n’est pas plus bête, plus criminellement, plus vachement bête, roughly translates as: ‘They are no more stupid, more criminal, more beastly.’ This usage is now rare and a modern translation of vachement bête would be ‘really stupid’.
It is evident that a number of words that have changed their meaning in English have retained the original sense in French. So sensible means ‘sensitive’, not ‘having common sense’ (think of ‘Sense and Sensibility’); améliorer means ‘to improve’ while in English it has grown to mean to ‘make more tolerable’ as in to ameliorate suffering or pain and travail means ‘work’ while in English it has taken to mean a task of a particularly laborious or distressing nature. So it is interesting to find a French word that has changed its meaning. I am sure there must be more.
The use of archaic language often sets authors of speculative fiction apart. Tolkien was a master at creating a sense of antiquity, using mirk for murk, windless for still and troubled for worried. Another great fantasy writer, Ursula le Guin displays a dazzling talent for creating an ‘otherness’ in her poetic writing: He came through the luminous air, the wind-bowed grasses, walking steadily, locked in his obstinate misery, hard as stone. (Two adjectives, one adverb, a metaphor and a simile all in one sentence! She knows when to break the rules.) KJ Parker, on the other hand is ruthlessly contemporary in his, or her, prose: Precepts of religion. Every victory is a defeat. Every cut made is a wound received. Every strength is a weakness. Every time you kill, you die.
It is very easy to get it wrong; too easy to become a parody of Tolkien. One of my favourite radio comedies, Elevenquest, uses this as the vehicle for its humour: For, as it is written in the Great Elven Book of Knowing, isn’t life just one bloody thing after another?
So, how to get it right? Follow the high fantasy path and risk being unintentionally funny or keep the language modern and simple and risk losing the atmosphere?