Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Monoglottal Stop - Charlie Butler

It’s shameful, really. Only 3% of books published in the UK in English are translated from other languages. By contrast, in most European countries the equivalent figure is between 30% and 40% - in Finland, 80%. In my travels around Europe over the last year or so I made a point of looking in on the children’s sections of bookshops, and the penetration of English-language books was very noticeable – and not only with the obvious suspects such as Rowling and Dahl. In the UK, however, while you will find classic writers such as Astrid Lindgren (though only the Pippi Longstocking books), Laurent de Brunhoff, Tove Jansson and Hergé, along with a very light sprinkling of contemporary stars such as Cornelia Funke, that really is about it.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if we were able to read foreign books in their original languages, but the British (and the English particularly) are notoriously bad at learning foreign tongues, so that route too is cut off. I’m no better than anyone else in this regard. At school I studied German for seven years, and French for three, and passed my exams with colours that fluttered bravely, even if they didn’t exactly fly. But within a few years the language learning part of my brain had seized up like a piece of neglected machinery. There are odd sprockets and cogs lying about, and a whole storehouse of disassembled facts, but the thought of being able to read an entire book in either of these languages – let alone reading one for pleasure – is a taunting dream.
I’m not proud of this. I come from, and later married into, a family of multi-linguists, and my deficit has always struck me as rather disgraceful. Moreover, as a writer I’m naturally fascinated by my own language, but English is such a mongrel that to be interested in it is necessarily to want to know about the vocabulary, history and grammar of French, German, Latin, Greek... Yet, although I’ve made occasional self-taught forays into Latin (not taught at my school), Welsh and Esperanto, I’ve never climbed further than the foothills of any of them. Whether this is due to lack of talent or of application is a subject of recurrent debate, but either way I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.
What have I lost thereby? As I suggest above, one thing is access to literature published in foreign languages, the vast majority of which is never translated. But I regret still more the slightly-rearranged view of the world that fluency in another language must afford: the chance to experience a sensibility that evolved out of a different history, in which such fundamental concepts as time and agency undergo a subtle tectonic shift, in which new distinctions appear like mountain ranges (‘“neuf” and “nouveau” both mean “new” in different senses! Who would have thought it?’) and others disappear beneath the surface of consciousness (‘They use “porter” for “carry” and “wear”? How on earth do they manage?’). I envy my father, who told me how, when he was a seventeen-year-old cycling across Europe in late August 1939 – not the best time to choose for a cycling holiday, but that’s another story – he stayed the night in a French farmhouse and dreamed, for the first time, in French. Even fifty years later, his excitement and pleasure were still palpable.
Each language holds up to the world a mirror made with a slightly different curvature. I can think of no better training for an imaginative writer than to walk through this linguistic funhouse, peering at oneself and seeing a cast of familiar strangers staring back. This more than anything else is why I regret the fact that, in the universal lottery, I was dealt the card of monoglottery.


Stroppy Author said...

A lovely post, Charlie! It opens up huge questions of how our understanding of experiences is limited or expanded by the languages we can express them in.

I wish I spoke more languages, too, and had not neglected to use one or two so that eventually they rusted up solid. (Mandarin Chinese, in my case, is the most rusted-up.)

But it's never too late to leave monoglottery. I knew of a woman here in Cambridge who, at 93, decided not to install heating in her crumbling cottage because she wanted to spend all her money on her education. She was learning Classical Greek at U3A. You're way too young to make excuses - sign up for a language course in the new year :-)

Lynn said...

Your wonderfully written post struck a chord. I, too, am a monoglot (shameful, as I grew up in Canada where we are supposed to learn French in school in the English parts of the country). Since moving to Germany two years ago, I've been struggling to learn the language, while watching in amazement as my two young boys have picked it up with ease. The older boy can now read Cornelia Funke, for example, in the original, while I must suffice with a translation.

Language is so much more than just words. It shapes and is shaped by the way we view the world, ourselves, and the interactions between them.

Through learning my paltry bit of German, I am coming to have a greater understanding of English. There is a thrill when I encounter a word in each language and can see the common ancestral word, but then notice how the differences in culture took them in subtly different directions.

I need to take Stroppy Author's advice and sign up for another German course.

Thanks for a thought provoking post.

catdownunder said...

I went to far too many different secondary schools in rural South Australia. They did not teach a language in any of them.
My "day" job now involves potentially working with any language still spoken by humans. I cannot actually speak a language other than English (although I know and can say polite words and phrases in many) but I have taught myself to read enough to get some idea of the content in a number of languages. One of the most useful things I ever did was to sit down and read Bodmer's "The Loom of Language" when I was about twelve. It is a very dated book now but learning about languages can be as useful as learning the languages themselves. You can then start to teach yourself and sometimes at least read a little of other people's literary treasures. I just wish I could read twenty or more languages!

Charlie Butler said...

I too am fascinated by the history of language, and love to delve into the etymological parts of the OED. I think I may even have the Loom of Language. Somehow, though, this assorted knowledge has never coalesced into fluency.

I wonder whether there's some unconscious reluctance at work? The same, perhaps, that stopped me learning to swim until I was in my mid-40s (when my daughter took pity and and taught me)? It's certainly not simply a matter of the hours put in.

I recall that Cato the Censor too started to learn Greek at a ripe old age. Maybe that's the best time to do it? I promise that if I live to 93 I shall make it my study!

Katherine Langrish said...

I too have actually dreamed in French - and more than once - even though my 'command' of the language is hardly that great. But we lived near Fontainebleau for four wondeful years, and I learned then to communicate in the language, though no one would ever mistake me for a native. I still find reading in French - not difficult, exactly, but a lot more of an effort than reading in English. Maybe my New year's resolution should be to read one French book per month...

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

This is a great post. I've lived in France for ten years and I think that I have a pretty good command of French, but I hate reading fiction in French. I hate the effort, I can read a magazine, newspapers, watch TV in French, but I still read Zola and Flaubert in translation. I know, I'm bad.

Leslie Wilson said...

I loved your final rhyme, Charlie! I have difficulty reading most fiction in French, myself, though I have managed Proust, and find him, oddly, easier than in English, probably because you HAVE to read Proust slowly. I do read German fiction, HATE reading any in translation, as I always want to translate it back to think what the German was. I hope this doesn't sound like showing off. I do (she said sadly) often feel a bit isolated because there are many writers who I love who English audiences have only vaguely heard of. I wouldn't be without them, though. But I'd say yes! Do have the German classes, because it is a great language, clear, logical, and very expressive. And beautiful! Well, that depends who's speaking it, I guess. But German poetry and fiction has produced as beautiful language as English has. And it has wonderful, wonderful compound nouns...


Charlie Butler said...

Alas, Leslie, it's not lack of German lessons that are my problem. I studied it for 7 years, and even got an A at 'A' level, in the end. I've always been good at jumping through academic hoops. But despite that, I couldn't hold the simplest conversation in German, nor read the simplest book for pleasure (as opposed to homework).

Like the man said, Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor.