Speaking in tongues

As every cosmopolitan academic snob should do, I read the New Yorker. The magazine’s website, at least. Several of the longer articles they proposed along the years easily qualify as some of the best journalism I have read in English.

The website also proposes some impromptu comments and shorter pieces, like this text by Mary Hawthorne. Hawthorne asked three translators (David Bellos, Lydia Davis, and Arthur Goldhammer) to react to a New York Times editorial where former Harvard president Lawrence Summers gave his thoughts on the teaching of languages in American universities. The translators’ answers to Summers are wonderful pieces of reflection on languages, teaching them, speaking them, living amongst them. There is robust, concrete push-back by Bellos, a more nuanced approach by Goldhammer, and a reminder by Davis that language is culture.

Some extracts I particularly liked, for various reasons.


I.E. (International English) is not designed to carry nuance, and for that reason it is often ambiguous and of uncertain meaning. Non-native users of it are perfectly aware of this. All users of I.E. are fluent/native speakers of another language, which they can (and do) use for more important, personal, or subtle kinds of communication (such as inevitably arise in business, diplomacy, and treating the sick).

Most of what I know properly I learned before I left secondary school. I’ve lived off it for half a century.


I was a mathematician before I became a translator, so I recognize the kernel of truth in what Summers said: life is finite, one can’t master everything, choices have to be made. But—to put it in terms Summers would surely recognize—we choose under conditions of uncertainty, with imperfect knowledge of where life may take us. A certain diversification of one’s educational portfolio is therefore a kind of insurance against imponderable risks.

There is a tendency to conflate the teaching of language with the teaching of literature, which I think is unhealthy for both the minority passion and the more “universally worthwhile” pursuit.

…my French was good enough to find work as a translator. Thirty-five years later it is somewhat better, though still far from perfect. But as Nabokov once remarked, it’s a useful lesson in humility to stumble daily over challenges that a six-year-old native speaker can meet with ease.


Maybe the simplest way to object to Larry Summers’s statement is to say what may be obvious but bears repeating: each language (“around the world”) grows out of the culture that uses it, each culture is different, each is rich in its own way; if we lose the language we lose the culture, if we don’t know the language we don’t know the culture

…the Austrian classroom, where, fascinatingly, meaningless sounds gradually became meaningful.

It seems to me that academics with intellectual ambitions beyond their own mother tongue and national circles should consider the things touched upon in these texts: can we produce academic, scientific text in the Humanities while using linguistic tools we do not master, with which we cannot convey sufficiently subtle nuances? For those of us who, by circumstances or choice, cope with these questions on a daily basis, this is a good reminder of where we stand.

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