Monday, January 5, 2009

at long last

I just dug up a French-language article about UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's inability to speak French-- something of a minor scandal among the French. My translation of the article appears below; the French original is here.

I remember seeing vague articles in the American press about Ban's little French problem, but I was sure that francophone sources would go into the problem more deeply. I don't know why, but tonight I suddenly became curious about this long-dead piece of news, and dug around for a few seconds before finding the Le Figaro article you see below. Enjoy. Now that time has passed, I wonder how Ban's French is doing.

HEADLINE: Ban Ki-moon doesn't speak French.

ARTICLE (December 14, 2006):

The South Korean Ban Ki-moon, who will succeed Kofi Annan in January, failed a test of his French when he proved unable to respond to a question about why French should be the second working language at the UN, after English.

At the press conference following Ban's swearing-in, a Canadian journalist asked him to explain in French why this language should be held above other languages that are more widely spoken in the world, such as Chinese or Arabic.

"I wasn't able to (understand)," the former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs timidly responded in French. "If you could speak lentement [slowly] en français," he entreated his interlocutor. This was done, but Ban was once again unable to catch the meaning of the question.

One of his collaborators then came to his aid by translating the question, and it was in English that Ban then responded that the decision to give French a prominent place had been made by the member states for "practical" reasons. "Each language has equal authenticity," he added.

Ban Ki-moon has been taking French courses for a year.

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. France, a permanent member with the right of veto on the Security Council, which selects the Secretary-General, makes sure that the candidates for this post are up to the task of "working in French." Ban's predecessors in this post (the Ghanaian Kofi Annan and the Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali) mastered, for their part, the language of Molière.

Ban Ki-moon has been taking French courses since launching his campaign to succeed Kofi Annan, and spoke a few paragraphs of his inaugural speech in this language. Jean-Marc de La Sablière, the French ambassador to the UN, affirms that the future Secretary-General is making efforts to bring his French up to the appropriate level.



Charles said...

Stupid question: why should French be given a more prominent place than Chinese or Arabic in the UN? I don't get it.

It has been long since French was one of the premiere (oops, French word) international languages, although in terms of international law and agreements I know it has held a special place. I was told that French was/is used for international agreements because of its specificity--it doesn't allow for as much ambiguity as other languages. While it is true that a language like Chinese (or Korean) can be famously ambiguous when it comes to certain things (like numbers, or singular/plural, or gender), I've always been suspicious of the claim that French is the "least ambiguous" language and thus best suited for international agreements. I have always suspected that the position of the French language was more due to the political influence of the nation of France than of any innate properties of the language itself.

So, since you are a skilled speaker of French, I would be really interested in hearing your opinion on this. I was actually hoping that you would offer some commentary on the article, but maybe that can be a separate post.

Kevin said...


You can be pretty precise in French, but to my mind, the precision is no greater than the precision achievable in English, whether we're talking about science or politics or art history or philosophy or air traffic control or cooking. (Then again, French terminology enjoys an almost godlike status in most Western cooking schools.)

So I'd agree that French's elevated position at the UN is more a function of history than a matter of the language's inherent expressive precision. A Korean friend once told me about English being considered (by many Koreans, I assume) more precise than Korean, especially when it comes to science, but other Koreans have noted that Korean is often more precise when it comes to expressing one's mental and emotional states.

French is also strong in the psychological arena, but not because of the number of vocabulary words available: it's largely thanks to the numerous idioms (almost all of which rely on basic French vocabulary) that have developed over the centuries. So the precision is there, but doesn't reside in the individual words.*

I should note, though, that however good French might be for mapping out the heart and the head, it nonetheless lacks equivalents to many of the mental/conscious states described in Hindu and Buddhist literature. I suppose this indicates how language can be the prisoner of culture and history: if a given people don't think about life in certain terms, then the corresponding terminology won't arise. We create labels based on how we see the world. This also explains why so many words and concepts are untranslatable from one language to another, and why it's often best simply to appropriate them from their original language.

Anyway, my general, nonscholarly impression is that French, when compared to English, has about the same level of precision as English.

[Aside: I always thought German was considered the most precise language, since it's associated with so much science, philosophy, and theology.]

What's your opinion of the relative precision of Korean when compared with English? Not being fluent in Korean, I have to rely on hearsay. My own superficial impression is that it's harder to deal with temporality and necessity in Korean because the language seems to have fewer tenses and moods than does English. But again, not having deeply studied the language, I might be very, very wrong.



*I'm beginning to wonder, as I write this reply, whether in the context of this discussion the word "precision" is a synonym of "subtlety." Subtlety of description seems little different from precision, at least when we're talking about emotional states.

Kevin said...

I think I failed to answer your normative question: why should French be given a more prominent place at the UN?

I think Ban's response, when he finally made it, was a deft bit of politics. He acknowledged that no one language was "superior" to any other, while at the same time noting that "practical" reasons determine which languages are musts at the UN. That answer works for me, despite its deliberate vagueness.

I do wonder, though, whether people being groomed to become Secretary-General are also trained in the remaining official languages of the UN-- Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. What's the point of grouping them all together as "the six official languages" if, in the end, the UN's leader is expected to speak only English and French?

By the way, I didn't like my translation of that phrase "une épreuve de français" as "a French test." I think I'm going to change that to "a test of his French," which seems closer to the original text's meaning and sounds a bit more natural in English.