Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Times and France

Nick wrote:

On a related subject, could you post your thoughts on Elaine Sciolino's coverage of France in the Times? Ever since she's gotten the France beat something about her writing makes me grit my teeth, and at this point my dentist is concerned. Shallow sterotypes of French pompousness? Deliberately awkward translations to make the French seem silly? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

I had the privilege once of listening to a previous Times correspondent explain the difficulties he faced in trying to cover France for the paper. He presented a remarkable statistic, the percentage of column-inches devoted to all foreign countries and then to France: both were impossibly small (I can't remember the precise numbers). He detailed some of the battles he had fought to persuade his editors to cover matters he considered important, to establish some continuity of coverage so that news could be placed in a meaningful context, etc. All for naught. And he showed us drafts of some of the many articles he had written that had been spiked or trimmed back in New York.

There was considerable resistance to the idea of expanded foreign coverage, he said, and that was at a time when the newspaper had substantially more resources to put into play than it has today. The usual refrain was that readers weren't interested. And no doubt the editors who made this reply had some basis for their opinion.

So I wouldn't want to level a finger of accusation at Sciolino without knowing more about what she is up against. Like you, I have been dismayed repeatedly by the coverage of France, but I don't know whom to blame. As for the lame translations, yes, I agree that the renderings are often flat-footed, but I also know that editors sometimes insist on excessive literalism because they are afraid of "misrepresenting" what some important figure said. Literalism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It is a way of playing it safe, so that if haled into court and asked to swear on the Bible, the editor can always ask to swear on the dictionary instead. Perhaps you're right that the intention is to ridicule the French, but more likely it is to cover the ass of someone in the newsroom (pardon my French).

As for the use of cultural stereotypes, I think that newspaper correspondents are often posted to a country too briefly and with too little background to get beyond the stereotypes, but that judgment may in itself be a stereotype. I'd rather limit my criticisms to specific articles and instances, as I did in this post, than go too far with generalizations. The Times has done some good reporting on the Société Générale affair, for example. (Is that perhaps because reporters on the financial beat acquire expertise in the subject matter, whereas political reporters all too often rely on cultivating contacts with privileged sources, a method that surely works less well for foreign correspondents, who don't have the same usefulness to politicians as domestic reporters do?)

We could also discuss the coverage of the United States by the French media, but I think I'll reserve that for another occasion. Thanks for your question.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent response, and I look forward to seeing a future post on coverage of the U.S. in the French press. In the meantime I will send you what I consider egregious examples of Sciolinism (a tendency to reduce France to caricature) from the Times in coming months.

MYOS said...

A mistranslation that can't be a 'refuge' can be found in the article regarding Simone Veil's statement:
"Little ones of ten years old" is hardly proper English!
"des petits de dix ans" was the original, and many translations were possible yet correct ('little children of ten years' if one really really wants to stick to the literal wording, 'little 10-year-olds' if one allows for minimal leeway).
It irked me to see Simone Veil's words thus changed to make her sound almost senile.
Regarding contacts, I had to smile - another issue I have with the NYT's coverage is that Elaine Sciolino seems to have most of her contacts around the 5-6-7th arr. But it's a peculiar pet peeve of mine. ;)

Anonymous said...

Actually, "little one" does mean "child" in colloquial English --- see, e.g., here. It's a somewhat unusal turn of phrase, and a looser rendering might have been more appropriate, but what the Times printed doesn't really mean anything different from your own two translations.

lisa said...

The Australian reporting of France is much worse and full of even more cultural stereotypes than in the New York Times. I think this is largely due to the fact that it's too costly to have Australian correspondents in France, so practically all the articles that get published are syndicated from news agencies or international papers. I've found that The Guardian's reporting of French issues to be quite good - very indepth and varied. From what I've read, the New York Times tend to focus heavily on Nicolas Sarkozy and the French economy.

Unknown said...

The Times coverage of France could be perfected. But who cares now that you are here, Arthur? :) You might even help the Times reporters do a better job.

Journalists like to fault blogs. You show that the best journalist might be found in the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

It seems like about 80% of the NYTimes's "elective"(soft news) European coverage is about French food, wine, interior decoration, perfume, etc.

Sadly, that means less space for coverage of other important, interesting European countries like Spain, Germany, the UK, Greece, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic: areas where (statistically) Americans have greater racial and social ties (due to family descent) than France.

As for "quality," the Times's French coverage reads like France's unofficial tourist bureau and public relations mouthpiece. Insiders tell me that the French government is thrilled with the volume and tenor of Times coverage of the Hexagon; the Quai d'Orsay considers the Times a firm and reliable francophile ally. Is this related to the Sulzberger clan's long standing devotion to Paris as a second hime?

Times editors/writers seem happy to limit their coverage to a dated, 'fifties, "American in Paris" paradigm of wine, women, and song. One has to turn to the UK papers like the Telegraph, Observer, and Guardian for good inquisitive reporting.

Unknown said...


I think we'd need to look carefully at the coverage. My subjective impression is that the "American in Paris" stuff is not as prevalent as it once was. Furthermore, I have some reason to believe that the Quai d'Orsay does not always consider the Times "a firm and reliable francophile ally." The Times has devoted disproportionate coverage, in my opinion, to antisemitic incidents in France, contributing to the impression that France is unusually hostile to Jews. I believe that French authorities are aware of this and not pleased by it. Indeed, there have been letters from the embassy to the Times challenging some of these stories and the assumptions on which they are based.

Anonymous said...

I do remember an article on dilapidated French university facilities that compared them unfavorably to US ones. Never once did the article mention that university education in France was cheap (for the grandes ecoles) or free (for all the others). Harvard salad bars may be nutritious and clean, but they don't come for less than, what, 30,000 dollars a year?

That being said, the Times was responsible for last year's legendary article when Chirac shrugged over Iran getting nukes, considering it plus ou moins a fait accompli. Chirac's "shaking hands" and apparent morning dementia, as described by Sciolino, was a newsroom earthquake here in France and really confirmed the end of Chirac as a viable political figure; when the NYT and IHT put their minds to it, they give the French press a good kick in the ass... pardon my French!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. The remark that Raffarin made yesterday about Mignon might apply to the Chirac interview you mention: "S'exprimer, c'est un métier." Of course, it's all a matter of perspective: viewed against the anti-Iranian hysteria whipped up here in the US by the usual suspects, Chirac's willingness to concede that it might not be the end of the world or a casus belli for World War III if Iran managed to enrich uranium might have been considered a call to calm the debate rather than a sign of incipient senility. I think the French reaction was framed by an already formed conception of Chirac's debility. Oddly, when Jospin was equally clumsy but candid in saying that Chirac was vieux et usé, it contributed to the debacle of 2002. Volatility of opinion is always a force to be reckoned with in democracy, as we are seeing yet again in Sarkozy's current difficulties.