Saturday, February 25, 2006

The mystique of a foreign language

Many people are familiar with The Little Prince, a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is superficially a children's tale but contains many ideas about love, identity, and spirituality, among others. I was first introduced to it in my high school German class as a reading assignment. I recall that one of my classmates later decided to read the English translation, and declared to me that it was better in German. When I myself decided to read it in English, I wholeheartedly agreed.

To this day I wonder why that was the case. Since the book was originally written in French, it could simply be that the German translation was better than the English. Or, perhaps German is somehow more suited for writing about such topics, in the same manner that Latin works well for law; language develops according to the needs of those who use it, after all, and many great philosophers were German.

But I frequently wonder whether it's simply that reading such a story in a language in which I'm not totally fluent added to the mystery which was such an integral part of the experience. Perhaps the limitations of my German abilities forced me to process my thoughts in a more childlike, innocent way that helped me appreciate the story's charm. It's impossible to separate all the different effects of reading in a different language, so maybe I'll never know. Even if I were to become fluent in German at some later time in my life and reread the book, I wouldn't know if any changes in my experience were due to the improvement in my language understanding or simply the passage of years.

Last month I went to a performance of Russian war songs by the noted baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I only had tickets as part of my subscription to the San Francisco Symphony and wasn't that excited about going (I'd never heard of the guy, and wasn't familiar with any of the works), but found it to be profoundly moving. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Hvorostovsky's artistic skills, but I think part of it was the fact that I didn't understand the Russian words. Even though there were printed translations in the program notes, my inability to comprehend the lyrics forced me to listen to the music on a more fundamental, primordial level. Though I don't like to put it this way, I wasn't "distracted" by the words.

The late great physicist Richard Feynman once described a conversation he had with an artist who claimed that scientists couldn't properly appreciate beauty, that they would take something like a flower and view it in terms of boring biological processes. Feynman's response was that on the contrary, a scientist could appreciate the flower's beauty on multiple levels, that he could understand not only the visual attractiveness but also the beauty of its atomic structure, and so on. At the time, I thought this was dead-on true, but now I'm not sure. There's no question in my mind that seeing too much in something can be distracting, like in that game where one has to identify the color of a word that is itself a color (GREEN, RED, YELLOW). Maybe the mystique of a foreign language is a manifestation of this same phenomenon. Maybe, sometimes, it's better not to understand too much.

11 comments:

irina said...

mmm I don't know about that... I get more pleasure and I feel there is more beauty, the more I understand... Because it feels like I can enter a forbidden world and go deeper and deeper. When I learn a foreign language I chase its idioms, what can't be easiy translated in any other language, what makes it special among the others.
I do think that the English translation of Le Petit Prince that you read might just be a not very good one. In French it is perfect, therefore it does sound good translated in any Roman language.
I like mystery myself, but it always makes me want to discover it, run after it until I find its treasure...

Language Lover said...

Indeed, I'm not even certain I agree with what I just wrote. As a scientist, I'm trained to believe that more knowledge is always better. And yet I feel there can be some value in mystery, if only because it leaves us wanting more.

I'll find a Spanish translation of the novel and see how I like it.

irina said...

The true mystery, Language Lover, is the one that gives you the satisfaction of tasting it (oh you feel great when you discover something), but which also makes you understand that there will always be something there to run after!
IMO, the more I know the less I know... and it's not discouraging but intriguing and fascinating... What you have already discovered gives you such bliss that can only help you imagine how sweet your next discover will be...

Lane Savant said...

The problem with science is that in paving the way to beauty with rigid numerology, it is essentially trying to build a highway to a place one already occupies. An appreciation of a rose does not depend on the shape of the pedals or a thorny stem or even if one knows the name of the thing. Molecular structure has nothing to do with what a rose is to you or me.
The first application of science is to name. This act isolates and virtually destroys the raw human experiance. Science is to my mind a profound form of denial.
Mars, for instance used to have canals. Now we spend millions trying to find water, or signs of life.
I got water and life in my back yard, science.

Language Lover said...

Whoa, whoa, Lane. I disagree with you completely that science has nothing to do with beauty. (By the way, "numerology" is an occult study much like astrology which is decidedly NON-scientific...I think you mean "rigid numerics" or something like that.)

The purpose of science is not to name, but to discover. When you probe into the depths of what nature has to offer, you find beauty on many more levels, particularly in the underlying symmetries that seem to rule our universe. Many scientists, in fact, are guided in their research by seeking that which is beautiful.

It sounds like you may have had bad experiences in the past with poorly-taught science classes which focused too much on what things were called than what they meant. The same mistake can be made when teaching something like history, if students are forced to memorize a bunch of names and dates without seeing the big picture. But to claim that the study of history or science is useless because of this would be a big mistake.

Christina said...

(Oh darn, the comment I wrote last night really did get wiped...) Although science assumes a reality that can be fully known, I see our progress in understanding the world around us as being asymptotic--we get closer, but we'll never quite reach that point of knowing everything, and so there will always be an element of mystery no matter how much we know.

I think that too much information at once can be distracting, but in that case you have to choose your filters for a given instance wisely.

christina said...

On music: I find that when I listen to vocal music that has a string of syllables with no semantic meaning, it's a different thing entirely from listening to music in a different language. I'm conscious of the difference and it's only in the case of the former that I can listen to the voices on an entirely instrumental level. I suspect that we subconsciously want to give real words meaning even if we don't understand them, and end up projecting what we think the music *should* be about onto what we hear. The whole market for "world music" is built around our cultural expectations regarding the "exotic other". At least some of the mystique and power that comes from listening to music in an unintelligible language is having some of our own ideas reflected back at us.

Christina said...

Oh yeah, and... in my original post I mentioned Tool's "Die Eier von Satan" as a funny example of a band messing with an audience's expectations--to anyone who doesn't speak German, the musical setting makes it sound like a Satanic incantation or a neo-Nazi rally. It's actually a cookie recipe. So, that was the whole cookie thing... ;)

Language Lover said...

That's really funny, Christina. I'll have to listen to that!

ZZiby said...

You have a great blog! Very thought provoking. I’ve read the “Le Petit Prince” several times in French and I love that book. I love how I can actually read and understand it in French and that he has an eloquent yet easy way of making philosophical points.

When I read your post, it reminded me of how years ago, when I studied in France we were given "Mal Vu Mal Dit" to read by Samuel Becket. ("Ill Seen Ill Said") Apparently, despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because in French he could write 'without style'. I assume this was, like you wrote, his way of not being ‘distracted’ by the words. I remember nothing about the story but I’ll never forget the opening line…"Comment dire, comment mal dire?" which I translate as, "How do you say it? How do you say it badly?" I often think of this when I'm grasping for French words in a conversation. It's an interesting feeling when I don't know the word for something in French and I'm forced to describe a "spoon" as "a gadget used to eat soup". Not only is it a humbling experience but it gives me a break from being distracted by the 'words' and focus more on basic 'communication' between people.

Language Lover said...

Thanks for your post, ZZiby. I hope to be able to read "Le Petit Prince" in the original one day. Regarding grasping for words and thinking of alternate ways to say something, that's a subject I'm interested in and will blog about in the near future. Stay tuned!