Friday, April 3, 2015

Don't Be Afraid Of Foreign Languages

I know that fear of the unknown is one of the most basic and primal human fears. And I also know that horrible things can be said in any language. But I also know that paranoia usually doesn't make sense, because most people have other things on their minds most of the time, than you. And whether they speak a language you don't understand or not, if you're nice, you greatly reduce the chances that they'll say nasty things about you. Does it really make much difference if they say something to your face in a language they assume you don't understand, or in your native language when you're out of earshot?

There are many, many perfectly good reasons to study languages, plural. One is that the beauty of the finest language, that of the most skilled writers, is untranslatable. Ovid's verse is so beautiful, line after line, that it gives me goosebumps, the same way that beautiful music does. I wonder, do you really have to understand Latin at all in order to hear and feel a great deal of the sheer beauty in lines like these?

Quae gemitus truncaeque deo Neptunius heros
causa rogat frontis; cui sic Calydonius amnis
coepit inornatos redimitus harundine crines:
"Triste petis munus. quis enim sua proelia victus
commemorare velit? referam tamen ordine, nec tam
turpe fuit vinci, quam contendisse decorum est,
magnaque dat nobis tantus solacia victor."

Those are the first 7 lines of book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

I realize that I'm undercutting my own point here by choosing the Metamorphoses to illustrate it. I chose Ovid because I've been reading him lately and I really love his work. In fact, right at the moment, Ovid is my very favorite poet in any language. He's just the best. however, the beautifully-written Metamorphoses is chock full of the most hair-raising content. Ovid's masterful verses describe many weird and shocking things. I had to search for a while to come across a handful of verses in a row with such relatively tame and unexotic content as those I quoted. This book does not spend a lot of time on the "then they came into a beautiful town, and the fields were lush, and they were welcomed with great hospitality and dined and drank in comfort as the sun sank peacefully into evening" -- sort of deal. It has much more to do with loving and fighting and deception and revenge and plots and wars and so forth, and, as the title indicates, with magic and transformations. Action-adventure Hollywood doesn't have a lot on Ovid. His beautiful lines deliver a lot of "adult-oriented" material, as it's sometimes called. Don't worry, though, the 6 lines I quoted above could be rated G. Very, very soft PG at most:

The hero who called himself the son of Neptune asked the Calydonian river-god why he sighed and how his forehead had been wounded. The god replied as he bound his unruly hair with reeds: "You ask something painful of me -- who wants to talk about his own defeats? But I'll tell you all about it, because the shame of defeat is mitigated by having fought such a mighty opponent at all."

But my translation of those 6 lines, and, frankly, every single other translation of those lines I've seen, squeeze all of the beauty of the original right out. The original 6 lines, like Ovid's work in general, are exquisitely constructed and balanced and polished like JS Bach's music. Translating Ovid is sort of like describing Bach's music in words instead of playing it or listening to someone play it: it sort of misses the whole point.

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