Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Reading in tongues

Since my Italian tutor is away this summer, I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, a few pages a day. At the same time, my research has taken a turn that means much of the scholarship I need is in French. So I've been reading an article here, skimming a book there. Eventually, I also have to read a long scholarly essay in Italian. (It's been sitting in a file drawer for two years. I like to think I'm working up to it.)

This is a pleasant turn of events. Though my research has certainly required foreign-language knowledge before now, studying the literature of seventeenth-century England means that I don't need it that often, and certainly not to the degree that an historian or a comparativist of my period might. Ninety-five percent of the time, when I call upon my French or Latin or Italian "skills," I'm just double-checking someone else's translation. That's important to be able to do--to see where a translation is imprecise or where there might be a pun or ambiguity in the original--but it's not high-level stuff.

Reading scholarship in a foreign language is more complex. On the one hand, interpretative nuance can be hard for someone of my skill level to follow. On the other hand, it's still a deeply familiar genre and the usual rules of scholarly due diligence apply: I skim to find the key ideas and the major claims, slowing down only when something seems truly interesting or immediately relevant. And as with the English-language scholarship I dredge up, at least 50% of it isn't that relevant.

This also doesn't require anything close to fluency, but it's still gratifying to feel that a whole new area of knowledge is opening up. I've always wanted to read Dante in the original, and maybe I will someday--but I can read Dante in translation. A scholarly article on some minor motif in medieval romance? No one's translating that shit.

Maybe my third or fourth book will involve a direct engagement with Continental literature, and maybe I'll eventually have a fuller appreciation of stylistic, syntactic, and poetic virtuosity in a language other than my own. But for now, having a working sense of the wider scholarly conversation feels like achievement enough.


Historiann said...

The great thing about working with non-English language texts is that few if any U.S. Americans will ever contradict your interpretation of them, b/c they are so monolingual! So from here on in, as they say, it's a free show. . .

Greetings from Quebec!

Susan said...

When I was in grad school I read a lot of French scholarship. It was quite funny to be visiting my sister and brother in law in Toulouse, reading LeRoy Ladurie's _Paysans de Languedoc_, and realizing that I could probably have a better conversation about medieval and early modern agriculture than about contemporary politics... A friend who worked on Danish stuff studied Danish from reading Hans Christian Anderson, and when he moved to Denmark for dissertation research he said he got lots of comments about how old-fashioned his speech was: it was like speaking out of a Dickens novel.

Anonymous said...

If you're reading scholarship in Italian, you're doing very well (and might find some parts of Dante to be straightforward by comparison!) Much Italian scholarship--most, until very recently--is written in a very particular and elevated register.

And I definitely have the problems Susan describes, exacerbated by the fact that much of what I read in Italian is sixteenth-century epic. I broke my foot in Verona last summer and realized that if I were to go to the emergency room, I would have no trouble explaining to the doctors that I had been jousting and had been cut in the eye by a splinter from my opponent's lance, or that I had been in a swordfight and had been struck on the helmet by the pommel of my opponent's sword--but that I had been walking down the street without looking where I was going and had kicked the curb hard? That doesn't happen in the stuff I read...


Flavia said...


Ahahahaha! (But I'm glad that you--apparently--got your foot tended to without significant trouble.)