Café Van Gogh, Arles, France in 2007 (left), and Van Gogh's painting 'Café Terrace at Night', 1888.
Café Van Gogh, Arles, France in 2007 (left), and Van Gogh’s painting ‘Café Terrace at Night’, 1888.

I was looking for the original title of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace at Night (above right), because I wanted to upload my photo (above left) of the same scene to my profile on the website. I try not to leave the ‘description’ field completely empty when I publish an image there, so I thought I’d check out the name of the café, the original name of the painting, and the English name of the painting. The way I see it, there is something of a distortion in the translation. The French name is Terrasse du Café le Soir,  and by the time it’s in English, Café Terrace at Night, it’s a generic café terrace in the evening.

The actual meaning of its French title is that it’s the terrace of a café called ‘Le Soir‘. At least that’s my interpretation; as I understand it, in French, a named café puts the word ‘Café’ before its name, for example, ‘Café le Baron‘ is a café called ‘The Baron’. So Café le Soir could be interpreted the same way.

Please correct me if I’m completely wrong; I make no claim to actually being any good at French.

So have I discovered, here, that when an English speaker looks at the painting and sees this title, they are being given misinformation? Is it really an incorrect translation that misleads us when we read into the meaning of the painting? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if the title actually matters. It’s a café with seats and tables in the street, and it’s in the evening.

When people look at an image of any kind, they interpret it in their own way. The title of an image can have a very important impact on how we interpret both its content and meaning. At a very simple level, let’s imagine a red square being printed onto canvas and hung in three different art galleries. In each gallery it is given a different title: ‘Sauce’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Claret’. The audience at each gallery will probably perceive the painting in three very different ways.

The source of the apparent difference in translation with the Café Terrace at Night may be that when it was originally put on display, it was titled Café, le soir, or Coffeehouse, in the evening.

So perhaps the confusion is down to the lack of a comma?

So it’s easier to compare, here are the four different variants of the painting’s title:

Original English: Coffeehouse, in the evening
Original French: Café, le soir
Current English: Café Terrace at Night
Current French: Terrasse du Cafe le Soir

I’d be interested to read other peoples’ thoughts …

I think I visited France twice in 2007, once with a friend in the summer for a week to Brittany, it looks like I didn’t take any photos on that trip, so that means I can’t actually remember when it was.

My parents were visiting France in November 2007 for three weeks, and in the middle of this they had booked a holiday cottage in Arles. I decided the night before they were due to arrive there that I was going to fly out to meet them, so I asked them to pick me up from Avignon airport the next day. As they had their car out there it was easy enough, and it was easy for us all to go and visit various places.

Roman Theatre, Arles
Roman Theatre, Arles

It was also cold. The Mistral is a wind that can be particularly strong down the Rhone valley, and brings particularly cold air in the winter. I wasn’t expecting it to be that cold. What it did mean though was beautifully crisp, clear skies for the whole time we were there, and stunning views wherever we went.

First we explored the town of Arles, a lovely town, with a number of Roman buildings including a theatre, amphitheatre and bath houses. It is also home to the Café Van Gogh, the subject of Van Gogh’s 1888 painting, ‘Café Terrace at Night’.

Les Arenes, Nîmes
Les Arenes, Nîmes, view from ‘Tour Magne’

We took a trip out to explore Nîmes, with beautiful 19th Century gardens and the Roman ‘Tour Magne’ (Great Tower) atop a hill, with stunning views of the city.

We also took a trip down to the Mediterranean coast, to the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes, with well-preserved defensive walls. The walk around the top of the walls was bitterly cold but well worth it.

Driving back we saw flamingos in their natural habitat on a lake in the Camargue, Western Europe’s largest river delta. It is largely made up of brine marshes and shallow pools.

My final exploration was when my parents dropped me off in Avignon so I could catch my flight home. I convinced them to take my luggage in their car and bring it home with them later on, so that when they dropped me off I had the day, and my hands, free to explore the town.

I first went to the tourist information centre to book a taxi to the airport for that afternoon, for some reason, the staff didn’t recognise my accent and offer to speak in english, not that I was offended.

The Pope's Palace, Avignon
The Pope’s Palace, Avignon

I took a walk round, and went out onto the Pont St Bénezet, perhaps better known as the Pont d’Avignon from the childrens’ song. I then went round the Pope’s Palace, a stunning and massive Gothic building. Unfortunately photography was banned inside, which was quite a disappointment.

Time for the taxi to the airport, and it didn’t turn up. I returned to the Tourist office, where the helpful staff (who still didn’t speak any english) directed me to a taxi rank and said if I couldn’t get a taxi I should come back and they will ‘sort something out’.

Below are some of my favourite photos from this trip: