Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Sorbonne Confidential by Laurel Zuckerman

The author is an American forty-something former IT professional, naturalized French citizen with a French husband, mother of two children in French schools who speaks fluent French and has a degree from a prestigious French university.  She decided to challenge the uniquely French competitive examination ("l'agr├ęgation") to become qualified for 'lifetime' employment as an English teacher.

This "docu-fiction" was published in the original French version in France in 2007 and reportedly contributed to debate on education and the effectiveness of teaching English as a second language in France.  In February 2009, Sorbonne Confidential will be released in the US in English.

I enjoyed this book and admire the author both for writing it in French and for taking on the entrenched French education system—what a brave woman!—however, for this review, I defer to the many excellent commentaries on this book, including those by other reviewers at LibraryThing, as well as several erudite discussions on the Internet, which anyone would be well rewarded to read in detail.  I can't improve upon any of these reviews, so please do a web search, and enjoy.

The only critical comment I might make is that Sorbonne Confidential could be stronger and more vivid if the "voice" were consistent--I don't think we need the conceit that the fictitious "Alice Wonderland" is really the author, etc.--or on the other hand, make "Alice" a stronger, more blatant caricature of the author. If it is documentary, keep it so; if it's fiction, make it so...

Laurel Zuckerman's observations hit me on a very personal level from the point of view of trying to teach English in Japan.   I share a few superficial things with the author—I'm from the American southwest, studied French for several years (but never went to France), and find myself married to a foreigner and living the life of an expatriate, supplementing our income by tutoring English, but in Japan.

Although I'm relieved that the Japanese don't typically prefer English to be taught by Japanese people trained by a Japanese system (which would be the mirror image of the French system), there is quite an opposite bias here for "blue-eyed-blonde" English teachers as opposed to those with dark complexions from other continents whose English is actually more proper and precise than mine. 

I have encountered the exam-driven learners and the confusion of learning "British English" or "American English."  Most of the time when I ask my students if they enjoy learning English, I am only faced with blank stares.  Children undergo various private lessons, cram schools, private and public school curricula, but very few of them discover the fun they can have by communicating in English with real foreigners.  I was surprised to find after reading Zuckerman's book that the whole situation may be even worse in France than it is in Japan in terms of wasted manpower and resources.

"Reading…it's all personal."


Matthew said...

This sounds like an interesting read. Did Zuckerman translate it to English? If it was someone else, maybe the original voice got lost in translation.

I'll put this one on my list for when I go home.

nobooksnolife said...

I wrote to the publisher to ask if Zuckerman did her own translating. I would guess that since no credit is given to a translator, she must have done it herself, but I thought the most reliable thing to do is just ask.

I'll post if I get an answer.

I enjoy your blog, btw.

nobooksnolife said...

With permission, here is the answer from Summertime Publications, the publisher of Sorbonne Confidential:

"To answer your question about translation, Sorbonne Confidential was written in both French and English, as Laurel Zuckerman switched from one language to another for various practical reasons. The book was originally published in French in 2007 by Fayard, which lists a translator.

The Summertime edition is based on the original English manuscript with some corrections introduced from the French version. We are currently working on a revised and, we hope, improved, edition for publication in March 2009.

I hope this has helped. Laurel can tell you more about how she wrote the book and the translation process. You can contact her directly at
(She also now has a "Sorbonne Confidential blog" for readers interested in current developments.)"