Expression Through Language and Film

November 29, 2012Comparative literature major Charlotte Japp (C’13) recently won a national contest for her video, “Without Expression Through Language, Angoisse.”

In her major and art history minor, Japp works primarily with French and German. “I have a strange background. My dad is English, my mom is German, and they met in Paris,” she explained. Japp began to learn French and German as a child in Paris. She spent two years in France before her family moved to New York.

As she learned English, Japp lost her nascent skills in French and German. “I decided from a young age that I was going to push myself to regain any sort of language I used to have,” she said.

Japp entered Vista Higher Learning’s video contest after seeing a flyer in the French department. “My motto’s always been to try things out. If you see an opportunity, take it,” she said. The contest prompted entrants to illustrate how language can come alive. Inspired by a film she saw in her Québécoise film course, Japp used a Nouvelle Vague style to tell the story of Karine, an American student who struggles to grasp the works of French artists and philosophers.

“This girl is frustrated that she can’t understand what she’s interested in directly, because it’s all in French, and reading translations doesn’t really work to achieve the same meaning,” she said. “It really considers how important it is to learn a language—to read something or listen to a song in the first-hand language to understand it.”

The video is narrated in French with English subtitles, a pairing that can help refine language skills. “To have the English there brings out ideas more profoundly, which I think is a perfect comparative literature connection. You have the literature—and then the ideas and sentiments that come with just naturally watching and listening,” she explained.

Japp’s focus on natural learning comes from her studies at Georgetown. “I found in the German department here that they really believe in teaching without a textbook with grammar tables and things like that,” she explained. “They want you to read primary source documents—at appropriate levels—but they want you to experience the language and learn the natural way, as if you’re living there.”

In the short video, Karine learns how language changes the way she relates to others. “In terms of language, there’s so much more than sitting down and memorizing,” Japp said. “It’s about connecting people.”

As a comparative literature major, Japp has discovered the depth and richness of foreign languages. “French is such a great example where words don’t translate the right way, like ‘ennui’ and ‘angoisse.’ These sentiments don’t really exist in English. We could try to figure out the best way to describe them in English, but the feelings are very different,” she explained.

“As Derrida theorized, words take on meaning by associations they have within their culture and also by association to their literary context. A dictionary translation of ‘angoisse’ will say that it means ‘distress,’ but it is not at all the same kind of distress that English speakers think of,” she continued.

Like other seniors, Japp has fielded questions about her choice to study comparative literature. “I always tell people that being a comparative literature [major] means you can express yourself eloquently.” She has become a better writer in French and German but also English.

Japp’s language skills also gave her the opportunity to work in Berlin while studying abroad. “When I was in Berlin, I was able to work at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. I was the official blogger,” she said. “A lot of it was in English, but they also needed me to blog in German.

“As soon as you leave the United States, people expect you to have some sort of idea of different languages,” she said. “You can’t really connect with someone if you can’t talk about literature in common or chat about films.”

Knowing German changed Japp’s experience in Berlin, allowing her to establish relationships with other students, coworkers, and, most importantly, her grandfather. “I got to recreate a relationship that didn’t exist because I can speak German now.”

—Elizabeth Wilson