Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Beautiful Misunderstanding

Today I got a four-volume edition of "the philosophical-theological works," "die philosophische-theologische Werke" of Nicholas of Cusa, off of the shelf and began browsing around in it for the first time in a while, a bilingual edition, the original Latin on the left and a German translation on the facing page. It's a Sonderausgabe, a special edition. German publishers seem to offer great deals very often through these Sonderausgaben, high-quality editions offered at a small fraction of the usual prices. In this case the four fat volumes of my Sonderausgabe of Nicholas of Cusa contain eleven works which the same publisher originally published in eleven separate volumes, which together cost several times as much as the Sonderausgabe. It's a set-up similar to one sometimes offered in compilation volumes by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the US: the texts are copied directly from the individual works, so that the page numbers start over from from scratch with each new work within the volume, and the type is recognizably different in each work as well.

Maybe US publishers offer such bargains as often as the Germans. I wouldn't know: it's been a while since I did a lot of shopping for new books in English. In the 1980's my primary reading interest shifted from English to German, and since then it has shifted again from German to Latin.

I have complained often about bilingual editions such as my Sonderausgabe of Nicholas, saying that for one thing half of the paper and shelf space is wasted by translating everything, and that for another, instead of encouraging people to learn the untranslated language, it will actually hinder them from doing so: the temptation to read the translation and simply skip the original will be too great. (I didn't get this edition for the German translation, but simply because it was by far the least expensive way I knew of to get my hands on a large amount of Nicholas' writings in the original Latin.) I have never taken any classes in Latin and only met a few people who are fluent in the language. One of these people sharply disagreed with me about the bilingual editions and said that they were a great help to her students in learning Latin or Greek. Maybe she's right. I think of our disagreement often. I thought of her today as I decided to dust off the Latin-German edition of Nikolaus von Kusens philosophische-theologische Werken. In any case, I felt I could use some help with my Latin today. Comparing the German translation with the original encourages me that I am making progress, getting closer to fluent in Latin.

It's a subjective question, in my opinion, at what point one is a fluent in a language. Even the most fluent native speaker still has room for improvement.

It was Peter Sloterdijk, a contemporary German philosopher, who first led me to Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century Catholic cardinal and philosopher. In the second volume, Globen (Globes), of his three-volume work on spheres, Sloterdijk refers often to Nicholas.

I like Sloterdijk quite a lot. I wonder whether I understand him better or less well than the many German intellectuals who dislike him so intensely, a few of whom have tried quite hard to explain to me personally just why I am wrong to value his work so highly. It seems to me that he irritates other Germans in part by cheerfully disregarding, and occasionally even mocking, certain preconceived notions in German culture which are so ingrained in most German intellectual heads that it is much harder for them to perceive them and their arbitrary, senselessly limiting nature, than it is for an outsider such as myself.

On the other hand, perhaps those Germans have perfectly valid reasons for disliking Sloterdijk so much, reasons which are lost in translation by an outsider such as myself, even though I read Sloterdijk's books untranslated. I often notice how nuances of English are lost or changed in people for whom English is their second language, or their third or fourth or... and of course I have to wonder how much I and other native speakers of English routinely miss in other languages.

A non-native speaker of English might just occasionally get some things right in English that I miss, just as I might be right about Sloterdijk when so many German intellectuals are wrong.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I see all sorts of things in Sloterdijk, by way of imperfect fluency in German, which simply aren't there, the way that so many English-speaking people see meanings of melancholy and grim internal strife in the word "angst" which simply aren't there in the German original. In German "Angst" means "fear." That's all. All the other associations to the word which are common in English-speaking lands, English-speaking people made up all by themselves. I don't know how "angst" in English has come to mean something for which the Germans have a perfectly good word -- "Weltschmerz" -- and English didn't, but there ya go. A new word was born in English by means of misunderstanding a German word. This sort of thing seems to happen all the time when languages intermingle

Björk once described her reaction to English-language pop music as "a beautiful misunderstanding." I heard her say this, on a talk show, years before I began to relax about things like the English meaning of "angst," and Germans saying things in English which English-speaking people would never say, but which rhyme. (Germans love to rhyme almost as much as they love David Hasselhoff.) I remembered what she said, but I think that it took me years before I started to understand the implications. Language lives and grows, it will not be bound by rules, and this is particularly true when different languages interact. And it is beautiful.

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