For several years now, the public higher education system in France has been undergoing piecemeal reform. Politicians have sought to boost the competitivity of French institutions on the international stage, and in the Shanghai Rankings, by merging traditonally small, domaine-specific universities and colleges into larger institutions. They have also made efforts to give more financial and administrative independence to universities, weakening the influence of democratic academic bodies that have administered recruitment, teaching and research in France since the end of World War II. This increasingly commercialised model of higher education is linked to a conscious shift towards vocational education.
However, there are two areas in which the students and staff of French national higher education have been putting up stiff resistance: student selection and tuition fees. The absence of these two things in the French system has been seen, especially on the left, as a core principle of universal access to higher education since 1968.
The existing system of selection for higher education may seem confusing to non-French people. There is traditionally a two-tier system. The grandes écoles, the elite higher education institutions – such as the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Normale Supérieure – have as stringent a selection process as any universities anywhere in the world. Students who wish to apply do not actually go to university in the first instance, but remain at the lycée (high school) for another two years to receive intensive training. The percentage of these that actually make it into one of the elite institutions is very small. On the other hand, the major universities (which are much bigger and are usually named after the city in which they are located), have traditionally accepted any applicants to enter the first year of studies, as long as they have a baccalaureat (i.e. they graduated from high school). This means that in very popular courses, such as Medicine and Psychology (but also English) the failure rate in the first year is very high. The French government has made a tentative step towards genuine pre-selection at university, with the introduction of the application platform Parcoursup in 2018. Despite being much less selective than the systems in most countries, and infinitely less selective than the grandes écoles, the platform has been seen by many as the thin end of the wedge.
As for tuition fees, there is a small charge paid by students for national higher education in France. However, this is conceived purely as an administrative charge – covering, amongst other things, social security contributions – and it is a great deal cheaper than the fees paid for tuition in other countries. For the moment, every time a government has floated the idea of charging genuine tuition fees, the suggestion has been met with virulent opposition from the majority of academics and students, who see it as a red line in a broader resistance to the marketisation of higher education.
These are important points of debate in the lead up to the French presidential election in April. Incumbent president, Emmanual Macron, has once again been making the case for pushing on with reforms, and in particular for introducing tuition fees. This comes at a time when the morale of students and staff at universities is at a very low ebb. This is particularly true of students. The waves of reform have coincided with the waves of a pandemic (with its severe social restrictions) which has had a debilitating effect, not only on the ability to study, but also on the living conditions and mental health of many students. Candidates on the left have therefore tended to focus on student welfare as a campaign topic. Whereas, on the right, there have been repeated attacks on universities as breeding grounds of “wok(e)isme” and “islamo-gauchisme”, which are often used to stoke the fires of market-oriented reform.
This blog, the tenth journalism translation project by students of the MéLexTra JET master’s degree in English-French translation at the University of Lille, is aimed at readers of Mediapart English who wish to learn a little more about French media coverage of these issues. It seeks to tease out some of the cultural tensions and accommodations between conflicting concepts in the French media’s reporting of issues relating to student welfare, educational reform and university life, both locally and internationally.
Who are we?
Eight students completing their second year ‘JET’ master’s degrees (Traduction Juridique et Technique) specialising in legal and technical translation between French and English. This project is part of a module (Traduction journalistique) in which French journalism is translated into English. It is overseen and edited by the module’s teacher, applying a collaborative student-centred learning approach in the ‘newsroom class’.
What sorts of articles are translated?
The project has two main goals. The first is to allow non-French readers to delve a little deeper into debates surrounding student life and the higher education system in France. The second is to provide readers with an idea of how local and global issues related to the broader topic are reported and discussed in the French press, and what this might reveal about the country’s news media.
Articles are taken from a wide variety of local, national and international French journalistic sources, appearing in print, broadcast and online. The project seeks, in part, to give non-French readers an insight into the various ideological leanings of the different sections of the French media and how these correlate (or not) with their positions regarding these issues. Articles will therefore be selected from sources with a broad spectrum of political leanings. An introductory ('standfirst') paragraph always provides some brief information on the source context.
Where can the original articles be found?
In every case, copyright and publishing details are provided in the translations: the original authors, photographers etc. are always indicated. Links are also provided to online versions of the original articles in their original publishing context, wherever possible.
What is our translation policy?
Translations are initially provided by pairs of students, one of which is the initial or lead translator. Following a 'strategic layering' approach, the other translator is responsible for sourcing and translating any quotations or other 'source level material' in the article, and the lead translator then adapts this material to his/her translation of the journalist's copy. These are sub-edited by the project editor, who also provides 'editorial level material' (like the headline, standfirst, notes etc.), and the article is then posted online. The article then potentially undergoes a final modification by the editors of Mediapart English before being moved to the club section of the paper’s front page. Stylistically, the translations are relatively close to the originals and there is a little less structural or syntactic reorganisation involved than would be the case in more general journalistic practice. Articles are not therefore modified to suit English journalistic ‘news style’, for example. One of the key goals of the project is to give non-French readers an idea of how the issues are presented in the French media. French journalistic style is therefore preserved in the translations. For a related reason, a number of terms are left in French, with links to a glossary article being preferred to explanatory translations. These include, for example, terms for local geographical areas, like département, and titles of political offices, such as député and préfet.
What kind of English is used in MéLexTra blogs?
Mediapart being a European publication, British English spellings are used throughout, as are predominantly British English grammar and vocabulary. However, the French constitution and political context being closer in some circumstances to the language culture of the United States than the United Kingdom, there are a handful of globally recognisable American English idioms that have naturally been incorporated in previous projects. Presidential candidates, for example, are said to be ‘running for office’ rather than ‘standing for election’. This contextual hybridisation of English varieties is likely to continue with all future projects.
House style meets the "Translation Bible"
The French term "Bible de traduction" is a concept borrowed from professional audiovisual translation practice, where the subtitlers or dubbing authors of a television series establish and share a set of fixed translation solutions and equivalences for recurring terms which, for reasons of continuity, all collaborators are asked to follow. One of the main features of this annual translation project is the continual expansion and renewal of what might be considered an expanded house 'style guide', specifically adapted to the translation of politically inflected French news journalism in English. In the 'editorial classroom', students not only pitch, discuss and choose between articles for translation, mirroring the activity of a traditional newsroom, but they also discuss specific translation choices and the possibility of adding a new, potentially recurring translation solution as a conventional equivalence in the project's style guide.