Speaking in tongues

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One of the advantages of having a day job in academe is the people with whom one gets to work – not the apalling managements but the genuine academics: the older I get, the more I find myself in awe of these remarkable people. Many of my colleagues are truly talented people of great intellectual achievement and, more importantly, are superb communicators. Academic work transcends the conventional boundaries of nationality and language and many of my colleagues are at least to some extent multilingual. For many of them, the ability to deliver a conference paper in another language is as fundamental a skill as being able to write it in the first place but, to a man, they would deny that their grasp of these languages is anything other than very basic: the academic benchmark of fluency is placed very high indeed. In this respect, my colleagues occupy a strange position: able to discuss the most esoteric of subjects in a given language but often confronted with difficulties when dealing with the more mundane applications of the language in airports, hotels or restaurants. This, of course, is the opposite of the experience of the rest of us: we may just about be able to order a beer in a foreign language but have little chance of having a meaningful discussion on an academic topic.

For me, language – any language – is problematic. I have a pathological dread of being misunderstood and an almost unhealthy obsession with expressional nuance and this leads me, even in my own language, into minute details of editing and correction. So, like my colleagues (although for a different reason) my benchmark for acceptable fluency in a foreign language is often set at an unattainable level. For some people, language is never a barrier: a smile, a shrug and they’re understood in any – or perhaps more correctly, no – particular tongue: for me, the risk of ambiguity or misunderstanding is a powerful inhibitor to the use of a language not my own. And that is, I think, a key concept: making a language one’s own seems to be a precondition of proper expression or comprehension. If we cannot think in a language, can we hope to speak in it?

So it would seem that, for some of us at least, our facility with a language not our own is to some extent mediated by context, by the purpose for which we are using that language. One might reasonably conclude, therefore, that, if any ideas or texts are likely to be readily rendered from one language into another, academic ones will probably prove to be the easiest. After all, the more colloquial a text, the more it is often unique to the language of its origination. If the Inuit have twenty-plus words for snow (apparently they don’t, actually), we would need substantial interpolation to translate a Jack London adventure or even something as prosaic as “Nanook of the North” from English into Inuit. So the rendering of an academic tract into another language should be a translator’s walk in the park.

Yet this turns out not to be so: in an attempt to position my photographic work in some sort of context, I’ve been assiduously reading every text I can get my hands on and many of these were not originally written in English. This should not, I thought, be a worry since many of my favourite literary works had similar origins: many an enjoyable hour has been passed reading Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann in translation. When I struggled with (and gave up upon) Proust, I simply assumed that my experience was pretty much the same as everbody else’s. It was only when I came to read heavyweight theory that I was driven to the conclusion that works originally in German actually came through the translation process in a better and more comprehensible state that those that came from French texts. Hence Barthes and Merleau-Ponty remain (quite literally) frustratingly closed books to me whereas WG Sebald and others continue to delight. The only exception seems to be the wonderful works of Gaston Bachelard and this drives me to the thought that it may simply be that there are some ideas (like the many forms of snow) that don’t translate into English.

One implication of this is that, if we don’t have French as a native language, we may, in the final analysis, be conceptually incapable of comprehending much of postmodernist theory: a sad loss indeed to our intellectual lives!