|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.|
Polari is/was an argot, a kind of secret language, a language that exists within another language for various purposes. Like Verlan in French is an example of an argot, or creole, pidgins may be examples of argots. Polari was a very specific argot, that originated 500-700 years ago, it came out of Romance and the Roman-egypsi languages: the language of travelers, of fairgrounds and carnival folk. And in the 19th and 20th centuries it became, in one example (the Polari we mostly think of) it became the secret language of gay men who were working in the theaters, who needed a language in which they could converse.
There’s a reason we have Polaris, there’s a reason we have these argots. The point of an argot, and the point of Polari very specifically, are two- and they are opposite and interacting. The first one is that it’s a language in which only you can speak about things of which only you can speak and there may be a danger of speaking to others about, and that sometimes it’s necessary to say things in secret and not to have them understood by outsiders. And there’s also a group identity - that by speaking in this way you assert an identity."