Speaking in tongues

I was reading my favourite Italian literary review, L’Indice, the other day. L’Indice contains reviews of new and recent books and articles, a bit like the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Review of Books.  One thing that struck me was that a significant number of the reviews had English words in the text. These were not English words as used in Italian but straightforward English words. Most of them were not translated. For example, one review quoted extensively from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with no translation into Italian, though the poem has been translated into Italian. Can you imagine a review in an English-language publication quoting from La Ginestra in the original Italian without translation?

I am certainly not pointing out anything original here in saying that even educated readers from the US, UK, Australia and other anglophone countries do not have a good grounding in foreign languages.  Yes, they know the words they have seen in ads (e.g. Fahrvergnügen), the words in the news (e.g. bunga-bunga, though it probably is not of Italian origin ) and, of course, the standard foreigns words that have crept into English (e.g. fait accompli).  Many Brits will have a basic grounding in French while some US nationals will have a basic grounding in Spanish but, on the whole, it is no secret that most of us do not really bother with foreign languages.  The reasons are obvious.  Everyone speaks English (they don’t but we like to think either that they do or ought to do so).  Stuff we need to read is generally available in English and, if it is not, we probably do not need to read it.  Your average educated Swede, for example, knows full well that s/he will have to learn English to read much of what s/he wants to read. And when we go on holiday or even meet them in our own country, if we shout at them loudly, they will generally get the message, even if they don’t speak English.

There is an apocryphal BBC weather report which allegedly stated “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off”. Despite our somewhat reluctant membership of the EU, we still do not really feel ourselves part of Europe, as recent rumblings over the Euro crisis have shown. The US is even more isolationist, as the Tea Party has shown, despite the fact most of them come, originally, from somewhere else. In short, all too often, we feel that we can do without them damn furriners and their nasty habits, their nasty religions, their nasty food and their terrorism. Yes, of course, other nationalities have been as jingoistic but probably less so, at least in recent years, when it comes to linguistic jingoism.

All this is leading to an issue I have noted while doing my website, namely that there are many books that have been written in a lesser known language and have not been translated into English, though they have been translated into other languages. This is doubly unfortunate. Firstly you would assume that the largest audience for most books is English, not just because of the large number of native English speakers but also because many others might read the book in English translation if they could not read it in the original and it was not translated into their own language. Secondly English speakers are far less likely to read books in the original language than some other nationalities, who are more likely to have learned not only English but also another language. How often will you see a book written in another language and not available in English reviewed or even discussed in a UK or US literary mag? Yes, the TLS, to their credit, occasionally does so but I cannot think of many other examples, except, perhaps abstruse academic publications. Looking at the current fiction best-sellers, IQ84 has creeped into the top ten NYT list but it is the only non-US book to do so. In the UK, it is all British and Americans. However, looking at Western Europe, US (and, occasionally, UK) books seem to be found on equal footing with the local works. And most of them, of course, use the English word best-seller.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are not enough books translated into English, usually because of cultural reasons towards other languages/cultures and not just because of the ineptitude/reluctance of the publishers, and not enough people learn foreign languages well enough to read other books in foreign languages. I shall almost certainly come back to this topic.