Monday 10 March 2014

Found in Translation

I spend a great deal of time thinking and dreaming about France. And so I think about language quite a bit I suppose. I mourn how I used to speak almost decent French, but now my abilities have wizened through disuse, and I wish I could speak, read and understand French better.

Linda Jaivin spends even more of her time thinking about language. Linda is an author in English, and a translator from Chinese. She specialises in subtitles for film and television, but she has also translated lyrics, poetry and fiction and worked as an interpreter. She is perfectly placed to write an essay musing on the importance of language, translation and culture.

Linda tells us right on page one that "translators are used to labouring in the shadows". She reminds us that unless we "speak all 7000 languages that exist in the world, or abide in a cave without even a copper-wire connection" that we live in a world found in translation.

Translation lays the tracks over which news, trade, aid, diplomacy, ideas and culture travel. Translation is the invisible skein that binds our world. 

I've been thinking more about books in translation since reading the amazing article Why Don't French Books Sell Abroad last December. Linda tells us that "about half of all the books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6% are translated into English"!

For the third year running, Guillaume Musso is the most read author in France.
And I'd never heard of him before. 

It's often only through travel that we step outside our language comfort zones. As a native English speaker, living in an English speaking country it's all too easy. Our comfortable Anglophone existence is rarely shaken. I will always remember our first trip to Paris with 9 year old Master Wicker back in 2010. He knew we were going to France obviously. He knew that they spoke French there. But it was only as we sat down in a cafe for lunch within minutes of arriving and he was handed a menu that he really realised it. "But I can't read this". Yes Dorothy, there is a whole French speaking world out there.

Linda reminds us that we native English speakers can be lazier than speakers of more niche languages. And we are lazy. Only 12% of year 12 students in Australia now study a language, compared to 44% back in 1968. And yet

Forty-five percent of Australians were born overseas or have on e parent who was born overseas. Between us we claim more than 300 ancestries and 200 ancestral homelands. After English and Mandarin, the most commonly spoken languages in Australia are Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, Spanish and Hindi. 

I'd never really thought of how our Anglophone habits affected our lives in other ways.

not just binge drinking but obesity, abuse of recreational drugs, overindulgence in cosmetic surgery, status-oriented spending, television and free-market ideology were also far more widespread in the Anglophone world. 

Are we really fat because we speak English? Do we binge drink because we speak English?

Linda tells us that "a culture doesn't grow just by talking to itself." Although English is not the only culture in the world to protect their own language. The French famously set up their own institution, Académie française,  to protect and guard their national language, from the many, often English words that "daily besiege its fortress". As well they should, because English is imperial, and it is becoming too pervasive, we need to maintain the unique visions of culture and civilisation that exist in other languages. Even swearing is cultural, helping us to understand "what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred".

This is an important, far reaching essay on such a broad topic, there is so much to ponder. I hope it's being widely read, see what Lisa at ANZLitlovers and Whispering Gums thought of Found in Translation recently.

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog


Paulita said...

Louise, This is definitely something to think about. It's not just the words that are different, is it? I think about the French books I've read or movies I've seen. The attitude, the expectation, the feeling of completion are all different in differing cultures.

Paulita said...

Forgot to say thanks for playing along today. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Linda said...

It is amazingly easy to lose ability to speak another language-even when living in a foreign country. My French husband and I only speak English and, since he is the main person I talk with and I only have English speaking Friends-my French doesn't improve.which I notice when called upon to use it.

Anonymous said...

Do we binge drink because we speak English! Good question. Hmmm ...

Anyhow, glad you read this book too, and reviewed it. It's difficult I think for Aussies to commit to learning a language because we don't have the opportunities to practice it. For most people, learning is about usefulness. There's not much sense for most people in speaking a language just for the "fun" of it. Europeans live cheek by jowl with each other so learn multiple languages from quite a young age. How lucky they are.

I guess my point is that it's easy to express concern about the lack of language in our culture - but I'm not sure it's realistic to expect change. That's probably sacrilegious. I was thinking the other day about the "history" of attitude to languages in schools in my area. In the 1980s/early 90s the emphasis was Indonesian. They were our nearest neighbours and important trade partners so let's learn them. Then there was a shift to Japanese. They are important trade and business partners and a significant world power, to let's learn their language. You know what I'm going to say next! Since the mid 2000s we've been starting to think Chinese! In none of these situations were/are the children likely to spend a lot of time with speakers of the recommended language. So, a few learn a language because their parents REALLY push it and/or they discover a love and facility but for most, I can see that it's really hard to motivate them. I believe learning a language has great value but so does learning a lot of things, like history - and all kids can't do them all.

skiourophile said...

Learning a language really makes one realise how one's own language works too. It's sort of sad that it's easiest to 'get' a language when you're young but one is far more motivated to learn one when one is older and can no longer remember anything (in my experience!)!