Thursday, August 16, 2012

SPECIAL: SECUNDA PHILIPPICA IN STUDENTES LITTERARUM

2. EVEN THOUGH THEY DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH, THEY ONLY SPEAK ENGLISH

IMAGINE, IF YOU WILL, A PERSON WHO HAS BUILT HIS IDENTITY AND CAREER ON HIS LOVE AND KNOWLEDGE OF MUSIC; WHO HAS SPENT YEARS AND CONSIDERABLE MONEY STUDYING MUSIC; WHO HAS GRADUATED WITH A DEGREE IN MUSIC; WHO PERHAPS TEACHES MUSIC TO CHILDREN OR EVEN LECTURES ON IT AT A UNIVERSITY. NOW IMAGINE DISCOVERING THAT THIS PERSON HAS ONLY EVER HEARD ONE INSTRUMENT IN THEIR ENTIRE LIFE: IT IS THE SAXOPHONE.

IMAGINE AN ARCHITECT WHO HAD NEVER BOTHERED TO ENTER A BUILDING MADE OF ANY MATERIAL BUT BRICK, OR AN ART CRITIC WHO HAD ONLY EVER SEEN THE COLOUR BROWN; A GOURMAND WHO EATS ONLY POTATOES. IMAGINE, O REM RIDICULAM, A STUDENT OF LITERATURE WHO ONLY READS BOOKS IN ENGLISH -- AND THEN UNDERSTAND THAT WE GRADUATE THOUSANDS OF THESE EVERY YEAR.

THERE ARE MANY OBJECTIONS TO THIS BRAZEN FARCE: THE FIRST IS THAT VIRTUALLY EVERY FIGURE THAT AN ENGLISH MAJOR WILL STUDY OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR DEGREE WAS, AT MINIMUM, BILINGUAL. FROM ROME ONWARD, THERE IS NO MAJOR POET IN WESTERN LITERATURE WHO DID NOT SPEAK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. (IN FACT, YOU CAN GET MORE SPECIFIC: THE ONLY ONE I KNOW OF WHO DOESN'T SEEM TO HAVE KNOWN ANY LATIN WAS THE GREAT WALT WHITMAN, WHO LEARNT GOOD FRENCH, SPANISH, GERMAN AND ITALIAN ON THE DOCKS.) WRITERS HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN THE INTELLECTUAL VALUE OF MULTILINGUALISM: NOT ONLY DOES IT EXPOSE YOU TO ALIEN PROSODIES, SYNTAXES, WAYS OF MEANING; IT ALSO TRAINS YOU TO SPOT THE HIDDEN TRAPS AND SNARES OF YOUR OWN LANGUAGE. IT IS THE ONE EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN ENGLISH GRAMMAR (SEE PREVIOUS DISCUSSION). AND YET ENGLISH MAJORS BY AND LARGE REFUSE TO BOTHER WITH FOREIGN LANGUAGES. CONSIDER THIS PEARL OF WISDOM:
"I don't think there's any substance to the 'you must read an author in their original language' argument; translation is creative, and good translations are as much works of art as originals, they're just as likely to be superior as inferior."

IT WOULD TAKE A TRUE MONOLINGUAL TO BELIEVE THIS, AND A TRUE ENGLISH MAJOR TO EXPRESS IT, DESPITE HAVING ABSOLUTELY NO RELEVANT EXPERIENCE OF WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT. LET'S GO BACK TO OUR MUSIC ANALOGY. IF YOU'RE WRITING A PIECE FOR PIANO YOU'RE GOING TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT WHAT THE PIANO IS CAPABLE OF AS AN INSTRUMENT: ITS ABILITY TO PRODUCE MANY NOTES AT ONCE WILL LIKELY HAVE A BIG EFFECT ON YOUR COMPOSITION. AND YOU WILL DO THE SAME FOR THE DRUMS; YOU WILL THINK OF WHAT THE INSTRUMENT CAN DO AND THEN UTILIZE THAT AS BEST YOU CAN.

THE TROUBLE BEGINS WHEN YOU START TRYING TO PLAY THE PATHETIQUE SONATA ON THE DRUMS. SOME THINGS CAN BE IMITATED: YOU CAN TAP OUT THE RHYTHM, FOR INSTANCE, AND YOU COULD STILL PLAY SOME SECTIONS LOUDER THAN OTHERS. BUT THE DRUMS CAN'T DO EVERYTHING THE PIANO CAN, NOR CAN YOU SIMPLY TRANSLATE A DRUM SOLO INTO PIANO MUSIC. LANGUAGES, LIKEWISE, ARE NOT TRULY TRANSLATABLE ONE INTO ANOTHER: TAKE SOMETHING LIKE CLASSICAL CHINESE, WHICH HAS NO SYSTEM OF TENSE, PERSON, NUMBER OR GENDER -- HOW DO YOU TRANSLATE IT INTO A ROMANCE LANGUAGE, WHICH DEMANDS THE IMPOSITION OF CONCEPTS THAT WOULD NEVER HAVE OCCURRED TO MENGZI OR TU FU OR WHOMEVER YOU WILL?

GREAT THINGS ARE AVAILABLE TO THE WRITER IN ENGLISH, BUT THEY ARE NOT THE SAME GREAT THINGS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO THE WRITER IN CHINESE; THERE COULD NEVER BE A CHINESE MILTON FOR THE SAME REASONS THERE COULD NEVER BE AN ENGLISH LI BAI. ANY CONTRARY BELIEF IS AN ILLUSION PRODUCED BY THE EMBARRASSING FACT OF NEVER HAVING LEARNED TO THINK EXCEPT IN ONE'S NATIVE LANGUAGE: THE LIMITS OF THAT LANGUAGE THEREFORE FOSSILIZE INTO THE LIMITS OF ONE'S MIND.

1 comment:

  1. 'it is the saxophone' made this post for me tbqh

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