Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Academic Language Pretensions

FLG has been thinking more about that video Miss Self-Important posted a few days back about reading Heidegger in German and in particular about reading somebody in translation not being the same. That's true, but wrong.

FLG reads French. Undoubtedly, he gets more out of reading French than an English translation, but he took four years of college French and has been reading French everyday for several more years. Granted, he also focused on the ability to converse and write, and not just on reading. But learning a language takes years. Sure, you can get to a point where you can read/translate text with the help of a dictionary pretty quickly. But do academics really think that a couple of semesters of language training and a big fucking dictionary are better than simply relying upon somebody else, a somebody who knows both languages better than you ever will, to translate it for you?

If you are writing your thesis on Aristotle or Plato, then learn Greek. You need to read Greek.. If Derrida, although FLG questions your judgement, then by all means learn French. But you can't learn every language and shouldn't even try.

Now, FLG realizes that's the part of the point the video. However, he senses that there's an acceptance in academia of the unattainable ideal that one ought to read everything in the original language. When it's fucking bullshit. It takes years to learn the nuances of a language. Therefore, it's best to focus on the most relevant language and leave everything else to others. There's no shame in that.

FlG's theory is that this is an outgrowth of academia's self-perception as expert. So, this guy over here is the foremost expert on the Gunboat War. And that lady over there is the foremost expert on Norman poetry from 1066-1086. Very narrow, specialized with what FLG would call high barriers to entry. And the foremost barrier to entry are the requisite language skills.

So, for the humanities it's about focusing on language to secure there place and importance. For the quantitative fields, it's the level of math required. All to keep others out and to defend the level of expertise even from each other. In fairness, maybe FLG exaggerates, but he thinks there's a kernel of truth there.


The Ancient said...

A friend who fell headfirst into Derrida and Foucault in the late sixties used to joke about the professor who asked him, somewhat plaintively, "Can't you write more like T.S. Eliot?"

I don't think that's as funny today as I did back then.

Withywindle said...

Recollect that we are envious of our properly trained predecessors, who had French, Latin, and Greek under their belt by the time they graduated from the gymnasium, picked up German and Hebrew on the way to the BA, and then proceeded to their graduate studies without needing to go back to basic language studies.

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

My basic rule is to never trust any translation; if it's important, I read the translation with the original present for all those places where the translation seems like it might be off. Not that my language skills are better, but at least I know where my own mistakes might be made.

Miss Self-Important said...

It's not just internal pressure though or a barrier to entry--people outside academia expect you to know the languages of your field b/c these serve as a concrete yardstick of knowing something. Recall the main character in White Noise who is a professor--nay, progenitor--of "Hitler Studies" but doesn't know any German except the word "Hitler." This is a joke we can all appreciate.

You also subscribe to this view when you say that writing your dissertation on Plato requires Greek, Derrida French, etc. You have to have some advanced expertise. What if your dissertation is on Plato AND Derrida? Then Greek and French? What if it's on international Atlantic trade in the 18th Century--French, Spanish, and Dutch? What about Renaissance poetry--Italian, French, Latin, and Greek? See how this quickly gets complicated. Moreover, your dissertation is not the only thing you're preparing for in grad school; you have to be qualified to teach the broader field in which your dissertation topic is located. So, might want to throw German in there as well.

Flavia said...

But do academics really think that a couple of semesters of language training and a big fucking dictionary are better than simply relying upon somebody else, a somebody who knows both languages better than you ever will, to translate it for you?

In my experience, most academics do use translations if they're dealing with translated texts (it's hard to do if you're using, say, legal documents or state papers!), but having a working knowledge of the language means they can double-check the accuracy of crucial passages, or even just crucial words, to see if something has been lost, elided, or slightly misrepresented. That's important to be able to do.

Language skills are a means to an end, and it depends what your end is. My Latin has atrophied because almost all the primary texts I work on are either already in English, or have been translated. But a grad school colleague of mine, with the same language training, wound up having to work through lots of Latin medical treatises that don't exist in translation, so her Latin skills are now pretty damn good.

But does that mean she'd read The Aeneid in the original? Hell no. She's not a Classicist, and neither does her work involve the translation of the classical tradition, so why would she?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.