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Linguistic approaches to Tense, Aspect, Modality, Evidentiality, based on Albert Camus’ Novel L’Etranger and its Translations.

Scientific description

With close to seven million copies sold and translated into sixty languages, The Stranger, Albert Camus’s first novel, is the record best-selling paperback novel in France, just before another mythical work of French literature, Le Petit Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” For Jean-Paul Sartre, L’Etranger was “the best book since the end of WW2”. These past few years, several publications have put the novel back in the spotlight – in a recent book (University of Chicago Press/Gallimard, 2016), Alice Kaplan explores the various stages of the genesis, the writing, publication and circulation of the book, which has kept its mystery in spite of all the comments and critical reviews it has undergone.

The Stranger presents a peculiar narrative form: written in the first person (“je”) and in an apparently simple transparent language that merely reports facts, it follows the conventions of the diary. As Sartre (Situations I, 1957) and Robbe-Grillet (1960) pointed out, the book caught the attention of linguists and literary critics because of its treatment of time. What is at stake here is the main character Meursault’s relationship to time – he neither recalls anything from his past nor projects himself into a desired, or simply imagined, future. “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We bounce from sentence to sentence, from void to void. […], Sartre writes (109), and goes on to mention the “American narrative technique” that inspired Camus: “ […] What our author borrows from Hemingway is thus the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time […]”. And of course, “ […]It was in order to emphasize the isolation f each sentence unit that Camus chose to tell his story in the compound past tense. [In contrast,] the simple past is the tense of continuity […]”. The compound past forms in the 32.400-word novel total 1.754, against only 7 simple pasts.

The expression of time relations – the use of the passé composé (abbreviated as PC)

Many reference grammars (Riegel et al. 1994, Wilmet 1997, etc.) of French contain a special subsection about the use of the PC in The Stranger.  While the simple past in French is the canonical tense that expresses narrative progression, the PC (Swart and Molendijk 2002:203), is “not authentically narrative; although it can be coerced into expressing narrative progression, in and of itself it does not introduce a temporal order between the situations that are reported […]”. Many linguists have observed that with the PC the story becomes less fluid, and that the situation fails to open onto the next but appears as closed in on itself. Weinrich (1973) added that the PC is the tense used for retrospection, as it does not naturally express narrative continuity, which then has to be suggested by the use of adverbs like puis (“then”), alors (“afterwards”), etc.

The use of the PC is what makes The Stranger striking: it is the tense for oral communication and retrospection, it denies literature and favors reality. Combined with a first-person voice, it brings us into the daily life of the main character, but by isolating and freezing each situation, cutting it off from the previous or upcoming situations. According to Sartre (ibid., p.6), a sentence with the PC like “ […] ‘Il s’est promené longtemps’ conceals the ‘verbality’ of the verb. The verb is split and broken in two. On the one hand, we find a past participle which has lost all transcendence and which is as inert as a thing; and on the other, we find only the verb être, which has merely a copulative sense and which joins the participle to the substantive as the attribute to the subject. The transitive character of the verb has vanished; the sentence has frozen. Its present reality becomes the noun. Instead of acting as a bridge between past and future, it is merely a small, isolated, self-sufficient substance.”

Purposes of the conference

This conference is aimed primarily at studying the use of verb inflectional classes (so-called “tiroirs verbaux”, Damourette & Pichon) in the novel, in particular the narrative use of the PC, but also of the imperfect and pluperfect, in a monolingual comparative approach, but also from a contrastive cross-linguistic perspective, comparing the aspectual-temporal forms used by other languages in the published translations of the novel. The method of contrastive linguistics, which consists in finding translation equivalents for a given grammatical form, is “a reliable way of mapping the [items’] functional spectra “, according to (Furko 2014: 182). J. Guillemin-Flescher (1981) also contends that translations are linguistically significant if they are systematic. The purpose of the conference will be thus to throw light on the TAME systems of languages as typologically diverse as possible, and to do so with a single “small”  authentic literary corpus of mid-twentieth century French. All theoretical approaches of linguistic investigation are welcome – formal theories (generative grammar, formal semantics, lexicalist-driven theories) as well as usage-based theories (cognitive, functionalist, construction, utterer-centered, approaches).

Call for papers

We invite anonymous submission of abstracts in the areas of linguistics and translation studies, on the following topics:

- the equivalents of “verb inflectional classes” (tense, aspect, modal and evidential systems) in the translations of the novel, in typologically unrelated languages.

- the study of time relations, the structure of sentences and the lexicon, the use of temporal –aspectual adverbials, in the source or target language(s).

- from a more literary perspective, the problematic, almost static, time structure of the novel, that accounts for the peculiarity of its narrative form. As Sartre did, it might be fruitful to question the genre of the text and to what extent Camus drew from the “American technique”.

In short, any paper that contributes to the specificity of the verb inflectional classes used in the French original, and/or that assesses the similarities or differences between the TAME systems of other languages.

Proposals should be submitted (anonymously) via Sciencesconf.org by May 1st, 2017.

400 word abstracts (plus references) in French or English will state the research issue, methodology and data, findings and the different possible areas of research as listed above.


Plenary speakers

Laurent Gosselin, Université de Rouen.

Alice Kaplan, University of Yale.

Sandra Smith, University of Columbia & New York University.  

Henriette de Swart, University of Utrecht.


Important dates

February 1st , 2017: Abstract submission starts

May 1st : Abstract submission deadline

June 26th  : Notification of acceptance

July 1st - November 15th : registration

[1] http://www.sysprv.com/sartre_explication_stranger.html

[2] i.e., the present perfect form, composed of an auxiliary (be or have) and the past participle of the main lexical verb.









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