What is Fantasy to the French?

One of the unsettling aspects of working between two sets of linguistic settings in literature is the discrepancies that can exist between two countries’ literary history. Most genres are developed both in French- and English-speaking countries, whether through original works or translations and have their dedicated sections in bookshops and libraries. Fantasy is a literary genre whose popularity in the last few decades has never stopped growing. Although originally English – and its parenthood is often attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien and his novels – it has exported itself all-over the world and extended its grasp over several other media (films, series, graphic arts, video games…). Visual adaptations and original creations in the genre are numerous and as diverse as the written production the word encompasses; furthermore, most of the original works of fantasy are now available not only to an English speaking public but to the greater part world.

Yet, the term has no equivalent in the French language so it has appropriated it as it is. “Fantastic literature” which refers to the genre of fantasy in English could not have been translated directly in French due to the already existing genre of the fantastique which was especially studied in France, focusing on the large corpus of 19th century texts available[1]. Therefore, the French literary critics and editors kept the name of the genre as it was (including its pronunciation) and still lack an appropriate adjective.
But the definitions of the genre in the French and the English speaking worlds are not exactly the same. Two tendencies are to be discerned: on the one hand, the English dictionaries tend to associate or contrast fantasy with science fiction; on the other hand, French dictionaries will use the fantastique in about the same manner. These tendencies are also reflected in the popular definitions [2] both French and English distinguish between fantasy and horror (intent on bringing feelings of fear through the supernatural), but, while the English tend to set fantasy apart from science fiction due to its lack of scientific theme while admitting a possible overlapping of the genres, the French tend to set fantasy apart from the fantastique because the genre does not introduce supernatural elements in a real setting and does not present the notion of doubt which is so central in the fantastique.
The Anglicism might displease some purists of language and French dictionaries, under the entry of “fantasy”, often amend their borrowing by warning of an “official recommendation” to spell the word à la française: “fantasie” (as prescribed by the Comission d’enrichissement de la langue française which reports to the Ministry of Culture) [3]. Yet, this spelling is almost never used and, although there exist differences between English and French produced fantasy fiction, the cultural bridges formed by our increasingly connected world tend to lessen the effect of unfamiliarity another’s culture can bring.

[1] Besson, Anne. La Fantasy. 50 Questions, vol. 37. Klincksieck, 2007.

[2] “Fantasy (English)”. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy.Accessed December 2018. “Fantasy (French)”. Wikipedia, fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy. Accessed December 2018.

[3] “Fantasie”. FranceTerme.culture.fr/franceterme/result?francetermeSearchTerme=fantasie&francetermeSearchDomaine=0&francetermeSearchSubmit=rechercher&action=search. Accessed January 2019.


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