Sunday, April 29, 2018

Grinding out Meaning from Alien Vocables

A post over at The Palace at 2:00 a.m. brings to mind a passage in Jaques Barzun's Teacher in America, in the essay "Tongues and Areas":
Every two or three years it falls to my lot to conduct the language examinations for Ph.D. candidates in European history. I am invariably shocked at the number of mature men and women who suppose that foreign prose is basically nonsense They must suppose this, or they would not put down English nonsense at its equivalent. Of course I know how they get into this defeatist frame of mind, but I groan at the thought that they have stewed in it since first-year high school. Once or twice these victims have had some claim on my time, which I discharged by putting them through a course of self-tuition in reading. We take a work of Ranke's and one of Michelet's, the dictionaries, and we start for an hour of intellectual misery grinding out meaning from alien vocables. The hour is only a sample. The student goes on at this pace until he or she can read at sight fluently. Fluency does not mean exactitude, sense of nuance, or even infallible recognition of unusual words: it means going on with the author at a reasonable rate. New words can be guessed, shades of meaning deduced from a second reading and exactitude checked with a new translation. Scholarly work will bring its own assistance later through repetition and criticism.
What is deplorable is that this should not be a well-known technique, and that the determination to squeeze sense from a text should be so rare, even among professional translators....
Here and there in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James advocates roughly the same procedure, though for German he mentions Golo Mann..

1 comment:

  1. "Going on at a reasonable rate." That seems a good reward for "intellectual misery" of sorts. I wonder if the students loved Barzun for the task--later, if not at the time.

    That sent me off to read Wikipedia on Golo Mann. So sad! I take it Clive James means something like Mann's history of Germany.

    He must have had so much torment from his relationship with his father. Sad.