I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expression — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment — and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn’t imagined.
—Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (via brainpickings.org)
I love the right words. I think economy and precision of language are important.
The forms of a language inevitably have repercussions upon the speaker, it is they which mould his face, his land, his habits, where he lives, what he eats. The foreigner learning Finnish distorts his own bodily features; he moves away from his original self, may indeed no longer recognize it. This does not happen studying other languages, because other languages are merely temporary scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs.
— Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar
- Salon: Do you think the rise of Google Translate — and astonishing iPhone translation apps like Word Lens, which allows you to automatically translate signs on your phone — means people are going to stop learning other languages?
- David Bellos: That could happen in the way the generalization of the pocket calculator means my grandchildren don’t know how to do arithmetic. That would be a sad result. Obviously it removes the motivation for language learning for all sorts of minor, everyday trivial tasks. But I think that people in positions of responsibility in the educational system and in schools and public life should know full well that the existence of Google Translate in no way reduces the educational need and the utility of acquiring foreign languages. We should struggle ever harder so that some of the next generation have a proper understanding of a variety of other languages — not just French, but Chinese, Japanese or Arabic.
- Salon: In some parts of the world, foreign movies are dubbed over instead of subtitled. I remember watching dubbed TV shows and movies when I was a kid, and even then I thought it was very strange. In the U.S., we clearly prefer subtitles.
- David Bellos: Even among the countries of the European Union, there are very different traditions. When sound came into movies in the 1930s and the industry de-internationalized, different countries established traditions and expectations that remained quite firmly fixed. France, for example, dubs its foreign films — except for films considered as art — while in England and America that’s unheard of. The way America treats subtitles says a lot. In Germany and France and Italy, the people who produce the local versions of foreign movies, whether dubbing or subtitling, are respected professionals with a public profile. Here they are a completely obscure network of guys who do it for a few dollars an hour in a garret at night. And I’m hardly exaggerating actually. And these are some of the most difficult operations you can do with language.
- Salon: Does that suggest that Americans just don’t care about translation as an art form?
- David Bellos: Twenty years ago, if you were an academic and also a translator you never put your translations on your C.V. because they would count against you when it came to promotion time. Translation was seen as second-rate. But I think that is changing. I think there is much more respect now for translators in the academy and elsewhere.
When you use the word ‘flummox,’ for instance, your tongue is rolling across the same territory of every person who has ever spoken that word. It carries every sentiment every person has ever meant when speaking that word, plus your own. They say that every third breath you breathe contains at least one of the same molecules Caesar exhaled as he was dying.
Muriel Rukeyser has said, ‘The world is made of stories, not atoms.’ Think of the words, then, the same words you breathe that have been inhaled and exhaled throughout history. If you’re looking for a link, there it is. They are only shapes and noises formed into meaning. How many shapes and noises have crossed the tongues of those who have come before? And this exact shape and noise has crossed centuries to come to you, fully formed … Words say simultaneously too much and too little. This is why they are perfect for communication, most people’s lives operating in the uncomfortable balance between too much and too little. Nothing more precise.
- Stephanie Nikolopoulos: Are official languages or a universal language signs of social progress?
- Bob Holman: Nope. Not that I believe in Progress! I believe in Poetry, in free expression. Why vote for an official language except to force people to use that language? France has a national language, and that’s making the revival of Breton and Alsace just that much more difficult. Esperanto is a Utopian idea; I love it! But languages are not ideas; languages are physical and real as bodies. So learn Esperanto, learn ASL, learn Klingon—I’m learning Welsh. But the important thing is to speak to your children in all the languages you know—knowing Alsatian and French is no more difficult for a child than being monolingual. It will enrich their lives, and keep their culture/identity alive to help humans figure out how to live on earth. And it has the side effect of actually raising your IQ 14 points, according to a study in Alsace.