A dilemma? Between Monolingual and Polyglot

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we make a rhythm of melodies for bears to dance, while we wish to melt the stars,”[1]mentioned Flaubert in his novel Madam Bovary. Likewise, Confucius says “one can never go far if he speaks without eloquent words.”[2] If a language does enable us to experience the aesthetic, and if it does shape our lifestyle and assist us in propelling the culture(s), that should we either pursue the perfection of one particular language and be a perfect monolinguist, or should we aspire to be a polyglot becomes a question rather strenuous to answer. Many apparently see second language writing as a by-product of either colonialism or hegemony. For instance, Anglophone literature is often defined as literatures in English produced by writers whose nationality belongs to the former colonies of Britain (except the United States). Despite the fact that most Anglophone writers are native – born and raised in English-speaking environment – in English, some whose mother tongue are not English do engage themselves in English writing. Joseph Conrad (1857-1956), an Anglophone writer whose origin is Polish, left a number of renowned English novels and stories. On the contrary, English writers such as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) are bilingual in French and English, which thus enabled him to write famous French plays like En Attendant Godot (1953). Needless to say that some Anglophone speakers/writers do fall in the category of what Spivak defines as the “subaltern” because of the western impact and ideology[3], but while considering the current situation at which cross-cultural interaction is more frequent than ever, perhaps second language writing (SLW) is not only to grant a voice to the suppressed, but also one of the choices for writers to express their ideas or perception to the world.

Let us examine En Attendant Godot again. Beckett indeed writes this play in French and then translates it into English to make stage performance in English possible. Lawrence has identified, through close-reading the bilingual version of the script, that the English one seems occasionally more “colloquial and bleak”[4] than its French counterpart. Viewed in this light, translated version is unarguably heterogeneous from the original, as various versions give readers different impression. Goethe similarly implies the difference when it comes to reading his own work Faust in different languages, and he describes the French version of Gérard as “fresh, new and spiritually-rich”[5] (frish, neu und geistreich). Therefore, from both readers’ and writers’ perspectives, once the story is translated, it will be transformed into another work – a work of translator’s. If we constrain ourselves on being a mere monolinguist, we have to unfortunately rely upon translators who interpret to us the work, through the process of which the musicality of the original can only be appropriated, but the later can never a perfect replica of the former.

Some may argue that knowledge should precede language learning, since language is after all a means to achieving the crucial subject matter. Reading original works cannot secure that one fully grasp the meaning the author intended to be. There is no denial that nobody can be absolutely certain that s/he interprets the texts itself most accurately; we should be in delight even though we grasp the slightest part of truth. Yet what is before us in the translated scripts or texts is a deformed one, and instead of reading Goethe’s Faust, we are indeed reading Gérard’s Faust.

I have no intention to demonize the task of translator or translation studies, which most scholars like Auerbach and Susan Bassnett has focused upon. But as a reader we should also understand the constraints of translation, and try our best in reading the original. Nevertheless, two more questions follow: How many languages should we learn? Should we be satisfied with being a reader of foreign languages, or should we be superb in second language writing? The answers to them, I think, are always individual but we can discuss about them in the next entry.

[1] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1856), Pocket, 2016: p.212.

[2] Extracted from Zuo-zhuan (Commentary of Zuo): 言之無文,行之不遠。

[3] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988: p. 271-313.

[4] Lawrence Graver “Godot in French and English” in Beckett: Waiting for Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1989), p.84

[5] Peter Johann Eckermann, “Sonntage, den 3. Januar 1830” in Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens (Conversations with Goethe in the later years of his life), (e-version) p. 211

[Photo Credit: http://www.paintingyouwithwords.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Spirit-of-Flight-1024-enhanced-color-e1372261130513.jpg]

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