Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages

“Don’t worry! I just came to tell you I’m not like other grizzly bears.”

There cannot be, as far as I’m concerned, too many translated books. We would love to read our favorites in the original, but that would require an all-consuming love of languages, not to mention talent, in an age when universities  have targeted language departments for budget cuts.  Spanish is, oddly, the sacrosanct “practical” language: the college presidents may imagine students are conversing with illegal migrant workers, or ordering drinks in Spanish in Cancun (though spring break is canceled next year).

I wonder if the American lack of interest in languages is, to a large extent, because we travel so little. Certainly, this was true when I was growing up. Family travel was expensive: if we felt like a trip, we went to the funny, charming movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” (It’s still one of my favorites.)

When we did travel in those halcyon days of the 20th century, it was likely to be a camping trip in Montana (where we didn’t speak Bear) or camping in Canada (where we still didn’t speak Bear). In fact, I was happier at home studying dead languages (ancient Greek and Latin), which, like Bear, are seldom spoken by humans.

Few stumble into classics of their own accord. (They’d rather speak Bear.)  Literature in translation is the lure. Where would we have been without a Classics in Translation class? How many of us rushed to sign up for Greek or Latin afterwards? We owe it to Richmond Lattimore (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), David Grene (Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), Robert Graves (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries). Today we have other brilliant translators: Betty Rose Nagle (Ovid, Statius), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Anne Carson (Euripides).

It turned out we loved the grammar and translation.  We especially loved our summer Ovid class, which tipped the scales in favor of Latin, though we studied both.  Once you’ve read Ovid, there’s no going back. “We’re the Ovidians!” (I wish I had the T-shirt.)

And it’s not just ancient classics, of course. There are so many classics we love in translation. I am a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:  you should see my collection of different translations. (My favorite is the Maude, but I also recommend Rosemary Edmonds.) And then there’s Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian), Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian), Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (German), Balzac’s Cousin Pons (French), and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Japanese). Some of my favorite modern translators are Tina Nunnally, Lydia Davis, Ann Goldstein, Juliet Winter Carpenter, and Lisa C. Hayden.

I still don’t speak Bear, but I am grateful for the many languages that reflect the cultures and literatures of our world.

9 thoughts on “Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages”

      1. Oh, I’m sure of it! What a good obvseration! Not every translator could tackle poetry, or even poetic prose. I really would read anything by the Maudes, though they stuck to Tolstoy. I think Lydia Davis might be able to do it all; I loved her translation of Swann’s Way. But, hmm, I don’t think enough about the translators.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had to look Lydia Davis up. I read French literature in French at school and in Dutch translations later, but, tbh, not a lot. The Maudes knew Tolstoy and were able to ask advice while translating, that must have been very useful.

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