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Baudelaire to Potter, What to Read When Learning a Language

Updated: Mar 24

Ah books. We all know how important they are and yet too often dismiss them as too complicated to be enjoyable. I'm going to share a mix of french literature along with why and how to read it (plus an occasional extract or doodle) to make sure some truly brilliant and relevant French material doesn’t end up being deemed once again as “not for you”.

All Photos, Props and Illustrations are by Sophiya Sian ThinkInfin

Baudelaire & Poetry

I might as well go straight in with one of the “heaviest” writers that raises the occasional eyebrow when mentioned - Monsieur Charles Baudelaire. Having chosen the poet for a literature analysis in college, I had to learn a lot about Baudelaire and his other poems first, and the truth is you don’t have to like him or all of his work to find something you value. We often have a godly or pretentious view of the literary greats and their works that prevents us from truly reading them. Forget who’s writing what and just read.

French poets tackle that universal, existential pit in the stomach of “what is all this for?” brilliantly. A look at two of Baudelaire’s short minor poems prove that there is a lot more to French poetry than the stereotypically superfluous romance.

Anywhere Out of This World

This bleak but playful poem follows the conversation between a man and his agitated soul - I've had a go at illustrating this in the thumbnail. The human frustration of searching for a place to be content is ultimately concluded with the soul shouting that it would be happy ‘anywhere so long as it’s out of this world!’. A lot of Baudelaire’s poems share and tackle the existential crisis in subtle and unapologetically miserable ways, which I find makes them a lot more relevant to the struggles of today than you might first think.

"Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit."
"This life is a hostpital, in which all the patients are obsessed with a desire to change beds."

The Dog and the Perfume Bottle

Definitely one for the Marxists, this poem condemns the ignorance of ‘the public’ by comparing them to a dog unable to appreciate expensive perfume and instead prefer to sniff ‘a packet of turds’ - not the most flattering of reflections, but he has a point! You can take many messages from this short prose, I reckon the speaker believes that society has been taught to thrive on rubbish making the individual numb to anything of value.

Illustration based on Baudelaire's 'The Dog and The Perfume Bottle'

The public, to whom one should never offer delicate perfumes, which only madden them, but only carefully selected filth”

Flicking through french poetry (especially short pocket books like the Everyman’s Library “French poetry” book below) is a great way of getting a quick taste of classic and contemporary french literature without committing too much time or energy. Plus there are endless amounts of genre compilations from sleep to dogs, there will be something for you.

Although we think of novels more often than poetry when learning a new language and in general can be just as if not more rewarding.

Harry Potter & Translations

Translations of a well known and well loved text are a great way to ease into reading the language in book form before branching out to originally French texts. With books like the Harry Potter series, half the work is done for you as you only already know the story and so picking up the gist of the language and what’s actually happening should keep you on track.

You'll already have an understanding for the nuances and idiomatic meanings in your own language, and so seeing them translated into another language will force you to learn the natural phrases of the target language - and of course you’ll discover very important translated terms like ‘Poudlard’ for Hogwarts or ‘baguette’ for wand.

Albert Camus & Parallel short stories

Parallel short stories give you many of the advantages of reading a translated familiar text without you having to know what the story is beforehand - and saves you from the inevitable urge to translate every new word.

Illustration based on l'Étranger by Albert Camus

It can be hard to understand an author's true meaning in your own native language, let alone a foreign language with its own expressions. A parallel text gives you an instant and accurate understanding of the meaning of whole sentences which can often get lost in direct translation. Compilations of short stories introduce you to a range of genres and authors (often less known) which is great when you aren’t sure where to start.

Making your own parallel text combo could be a good idea especially when starting out. I went straight into the French version of Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ just after completing GCSE French, and I'd like to say I knew exactly what was going on - but I didn't. Having a reference copy in your own language will make sure that doesn’t happen, whilst still ensuring that great feeling when you return to the book years later and don't need to translate every other word. L’Étranger is filled with classic Camus absurdity and is actually written in simple sentences, which make it all the more unsettling - take the opening sentence...

"Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas."
"My Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know."

'Real' Vocabulary Books

Textbook vocabulary can sometimes feel like a lucky dip of useful terms and random words you are never going to use let alone hear very often. To bridge that gap and bring a bit of fun and humour back into language learning when motivation’s at a low, flick through a book like “the Complete Merde!” which offers a brilliant and entertaining variety of authentic idioms and colloquial phrases for topics that teachers would dare not to mention. You won't need all of these either but its a fun way of expanding your knowledge in a very different direction.

La Fin.

Alors. There's a round up of a few examples of the different kinds of books that could fit the reading-shaped hole of any language learner. Stay tuned for recommendations for films, Youtube, Radio and more - until then à bientôt.

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