In French, they wait for the hand signal

This past Saturday I was fencing for the second time in several weeks, and our instructor decided that it might be nice for us to watch a women’s foil semifinal match from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The two fencers were Giovanna Trillini (who ended up with bronze) and Rita Koenig (silver). It was actually quite an interesting match to watch, particularly the constrast between a very athletic, agile Trillini and the more persistent Koenig. What was indeed surprising was the incredible small number of off-target hits. As any fencer knows, if you’re consistently getting off-target hits, your technique could use a once-over. So these people are obviously quite skilled.

But to get to the point, all international fencing competitions are judged in French. That is, the director, who instructs the fencers to go “en garde,” start and stop fencing, and who calls out the action and assigns points, speaks in French only when officiating. Now, in English, it’s customary when instructing the competitors to fence to first say “en garde,” i.e., go to the en garde position, then ask “ready?” (to which you may or may not get a verbal response), and then yell, “Fence!” which starts the action. Along with each of these commands/requests are gestures. First the hands are held to either side of the body (slightly in front), palms down. Then, for “ready?” the palms are turned inward and slighly up. Then the hands are brought together (soundlessly), iconic of two fencers approaching each other.

In French, though, the verbal part of the ritual goes “en garde” (I guess they borrowed that from English), then “prêt,” (‘ready’), and finally “allez” (‘go.’ Fans of ryoori no tetuzin will recognize this word even if they don’t know French, I suspect). All fine and good. But what if you didn’t know some facts about this. Like, you didn’t know that the director was speaking French? Well, then you might be like one member of my club, who heard English fence! when the French-speaking director asked prêt. Not totally unreasonable, given that not only is the the vowel quality is very similar, but the recording is from a consumer-level video camera, shot from many meters away from the stage, behind the director.

But then you’d have two problems. First, the fencers don’t actually start to do anything when fence! is called, but they do start to move after the “hands together” gesture. That’s odd. Also odd is that there’s an extra word that the guy yells out. What could it be? Faced with these problems, you’d (reasonably) ask your fellow club members, “What is the director saying after ‘fence’?” (Alternatively, you might just conclude that international fencing is odd, or professional fencers are odd, or French is odd, or some combination of the above. Of course, the more difficult option is to realize that there’s a simple 1-to-1 relationship between the French vocalizations/gestures and the English ones, and match them up; but then you have to admit that you heard “fence” when what you really heard was French for ‘ready.’)

4 Comments so far

  1. Aidan Kehoe on June 21st, 2005

    I like the look of the new blog–spare, but Firefox likes the way it’s done.

    … semifinal match from the 2000 Sydney Olympics […] As any fencer knows, if you’re consistently getting off-target hits, your technique could use a once-over. So these people are obviously quite skilled.

    In other news, Olympic sprinters described as “really fast” by onlookers–I do hope that skill is the norm at the Olympics, in general :-) And did your fellow club member _know_ that international fencing is conducted through French?

  2. Russell on June 22nd, 2005

    Hah, true, one hopes that skill is the norm. However, if you ever happen to view a men’s fencing bout at the Olympics, you may find that it is much less skillful-seeming than the women. This is often because guys (particularly American guys, but not limited to them) like to learn a few techniques perfectly, and then wait until the exact right opportunity to strike comes, and then charge. After a few touches the opponent figures it out and off-target hits abound for the poor technique-limited fencer.

    And no, he didn’t, I think (as I alluded to when I wrote “but what if you didn’t know some facts about this”). OR, he did know but thought that French for ‘ready’ sounded like “ready” does in English. NM, it’s pretty clear he didn’t know.

  3. Nassira on June 28th, 2005

    Mmm, that was a beautiful bout, wasn’t it?

    Another option to consider – that the ability of the director to cue the beginning of the bout has less to do with the words he’s saying than with the rhythm of the ritual. Granted, it’s been a good four years since I fenced, but I was a little suprised as I was reading your account to note that I didn’t remember the repetition of “ready” in English after “en garde.” As I played through the opening of a bout in my head, though, I definitely remembered that there were three distinctly-paced things that the director said, and I remembered what the appropriate response was to each of them. So I figure that, were I back on the strip, it wouldn’t matter much whether the director was speaking English of French; I’d still await the third word.

    That said, it remains true that international fencing, professional (and Olympic amateur) fencers, and the French language are, in fact, all odd. But that we knew already. ;c)

  4. Russell on June 28th, 2005

    Oh yeah, the ritual is set up so that you really don’t have to understand the language. The 1-2-3 for the start, the yelling of something for the halt, and the raising of the arm for assignment of touch. Of course, if you want to (for whatever reason) yell at the director for some detail in his analysis of the action, some basic vocab would help.

    This reminds me of when I was wondering about all the words for this stuff in Japanese, given the terms they have for kendo. Turns out they just use (Japanese-style) French. Pretty boring. =)