By Christopher Grocock, Teacher of Classics
This week I had the pleasure of taking Jaw, something I have always enjoyed doing, and talking about my experience of learning languages over the 60+ years I have enjoyed doing it (I include English – we all learn at least one language of some kind, even if we don’t realise we are doing so at the time!) It was interesting to have the opportunity to reflect on this since Latin (and some Greek) have been a part of the ‘Languages’ department – and not just administrately – for the last year and a bit. This also mirrors my own experience as a linguist – I have both learned and taught ancient (dead) and modern (living) languages. They are all languages and there are similarities in the way we get to grips with them (learning) and teach them (passing them on, education) but there are many differences, too.
Doing this Jaw also gave me the challenge of trying to answer the question ‘Why bother with language?’, especially now there is Alexa and Google Translate readily available to help us out. I think there are multiple answers to that question. First, though, I admit that new languages can be a real challenge to us. You have to find ‘traction’ – ‘hooks’ so you find your footing in a new language; and you may find yourself with lots of unfamiliar shapes in the way that the new (to you) language is written. Studying ancient languages can seem very dry and dusty – the experience of the playwright Patrick MacGorain at school was that “the little grudge I bear is directed against those men who taught me the literature of Rome and Greece and England and Ireland as if they were little pieces of intricate machinery… we were so engaged in irregular verbs and peculiar declensions that we never once smelt blood or felt gristle”. He couldn’t see the wood for the trees. This is a familiar experience when you are doing ‘first steps’ in anything – but persevere, and you begin to see a more complete picture. Better still, you begin to ‘feel’ the sense of the original – to taste it, almost. As Lucy Nicholas from the King’s College London Classics department notes, when you start to immerse yourself in an original text, you get more than you can from even the best of translations; writing about Vergil, she says “he plunges us into real life, the lives of the dispossessed, the disoriented, the vanquished, the triumphant, the dying, the lovelorn. His poems don’t offer words, words, words, but blood”.
The poet Robert Frost once said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation” – though a good translation can have a musicality of its own, as Patrick Leigh Fermor found when he got into conversation with a certain Baron Reinhardt von Liphart-Ratshoff, a man of frankly alarming culture (in A Time of Gifts, pp. – the whole book is well worth a read!) Asked if it were true that the German translations of Shakespeare were as good as the original, the Baron said: “Not true at all, but it’s better than any other foreign language. Just listen!” He took down four books and read out Mark Anthony’s speech in Russian, French, Italian and German. The German had a totally different consistency from any other utterance I had heard on this journey: slow, thoughtful, clear and musical, stripped of its harshness and over-emphasis and us; and in those minutes…I understood for the first time how magnificent a language it could be.
As diverse a knowledge as that might be beyond us now – but learning a language means that the knowledge is yours, not Alexa’s or Google Translate’s. You don’t feel at a loss in the world; you know where you are because you have an idea of where you and your language, your culture, have come from. Even more, you can get into another culture ‘from the inside,’ and knowledge and understanding becomes a part of you. The critic and philosopher George Steiner sums it up very neatly: “A sentence always means more. Even a single word… It can, and usually does. Each language speaks the world in its own ways. Each edifies worlds and counter-worlds in its own mode.” In short, “The polyglot is a freer man”.