Talk to them
I have just returned from a conference in Paris and must say I am deeply impressed by the way the organisers and participants managed to cross linguistic boundaries. Virtually all of the French colleagues had very good English, while most of the foreign participants had only little or no French at all. Yet, we all managed to have some engaging and meaningful discussions, thanks to the many creative ways in which everyone tried to make it work.
Participants would, for instance, present their paper in English and have a Power Point presentation in French, so everyone could follow the talk without having to wait for someone to translate. Some speakers even had slides in both languages, and there was a lot of spontaneous interpreting backwards and forwards, be it to summarise what had just been said, or just to clarify individual terms. The conference was on ‘Profane Imprints on the Sacred: What Religion Owes to Politics’, so there were a lot of religious terms that needed clarifying. Thanks to a paper on the English Reformation we learnt that the English word ‘collect’ in the context corresponds to the French ‘oraison’, while the modern French ‘collecte’ is only used for specific prayers in the Catholic mass.
The session chairs also helpfully summarised each paper after the speaker had finished – sometimes in French, sometimes in English – and offered a helpful interpretive commentary on what had just been said. It was my first French conference, but I assume this is their usual way of doing things, and I found it very helpful, not least to get the discussion going. And there was a lot of it.
“You need the papers as an impulse, but it’s really the discussions that matter at those conferences,” said Nathalie Caron, one of the organisers at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. She is right. The participants were historians, theologians, literary scholars, sociologists, even lawyers, and the papers ranged from the Middle Ages to the present day. So we were not specialists in each other’s subjects. Yet, we could all reflect on the different ways in which politics intrudes on religion, and in which religion is exploited for political purposes.
Call it a national stereotype, but the French are good at the big ideas. The keynote speaker, Jean-Paul Willaime, took us from Durkheim via Weber to Ricoeur and back to explain the role of religion in the shaping of national, individual and narrative identities, and the debates that followed crossed not just linguistic but also subject and period boundaries.
And there we are in the UK, historians talking to our immediate colleagues in the field, working not just on the same period, but on either politics, religion or ideas in that little period, unable to engage even with a social or gender historian in a related field. This is not meant to be a rant about monolingualism or even about the fragmentation of academic history into ever shorter periods of time and ever more specialised fields of study, it is a call for more openness and experimentation. We need to talk more to our European neighbours.
‘Du profane dans le sacré: quand le religieux se politise,’ organised by Nathalie Caron and Guillaume Marche at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, 16th and 17th June 2011.