So, the question was: why in hell should one bother learning foreign languages? Especially the more exotic/useless varieties (Latin, Greek, Wolof, Sumerian etc.).
I mean, everybody speaks some English nowadays, right? Well: everybody except Japanese people. But neither do they speak Greek, French or German for that matter.Being able to read great national authors in their own language is a nice perk. While some stuff can be translated more or less accurately, certain literary styles just cannot be appreciated in any but their original language. And if you think I’m being a snob here (which I am, but that’s not the point), just tell me how you would picture a translation of Hunter S. Thompson, Douglas Adams or even William Blake in a non-English language. Hell, even William Shakespeare sustains severe damage when translated (take the word from someone who once had a copy of “Romeo y Julieta” in his hands). Conversely, not speaking German considerably reduces the Kafka-reading experience, not to mention the whole German Romantic Poetry thing (but whether this is a loss altogether has already been established as highly debatable). Being able to read the untranslatable work of Boris Vian or Pierre Desproges would justify all by itself tediously mastering the aggregate of exceptions, illogical constructions and dusty idioms that has been collected under the misleading name of “French Grammar Rules”.
I should add that, imnsho and experience as an underpaid translator/student, the difficulty lies essentially in cultural issues (especially when humor is involved) rather than actual language issues. But let this not become an entry on the art of translation. No matter what abyss of snobbery I am ready to sink to, I will not bring myself to claim that the work of classic Latin or Hellenic authors can only be fully savored in their respective dialect. I mean, look at Homer’s (no, not him, the other one) famous soap opera: it’s just been made into a movie by a bunch of Hollywood guys, and it is doubtful these people can read plain English to begin with, let alone archaic Greek dialects… Does that make it any less of a quality movie?
Well ok, bad example. But you get my point: do you really need to know about homeric epithets or dactylic hexameter in order to fully enjoy all the blood and latent homo-eroticism filling the Iliad? I think not. Then why? Why bother? instead of leaving these dead languages in their grave and focus on more useful skills such as how to make portable bongs out of Pocari Sweat bottles or shave your cat efficiently. The answer: because it entitles you to do precisely what I’m doing right now. Brag about it! Of course, why would anybody subject themselves more or less willingly to such an unrewarding task, if not for the possibility every once in a while to rub potential interlocutors in the filth of their own ignorance. Unfortunately, nowadays, the shame that ought to fill these people upon discovering this unforgivable gap in their proletarian education is often replaced by mock disbelief, harldy hiding a certain snarling contempt for such vacuous occupation. Which is why it is all the more important to seize even the smallest of occasion to flaunt one’s knowledge in such obscure topics, even if that will most surely drown any entertaining evening in an asphyxiating miasma of pedantry. Beside, as we all know culture is like butter (the less you got, the more you spread it). Anyway, two days ago (seriously, you didn’t think I could spread such pointless ranting over two posts without at least the excuse of some personal anecdote to laboriously hang it to. did you?), such a golden occasion arose. When my friend, in reply to some disparaging comment, gravely threw in the discussion:
I could barely contain my excitation at such a huge opportunity to rise to new heights of nitpicking pedantry:
In the words of Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute?
The condescendance with which he started pointing out the alleged historical veracity of this quote quickly disappeared in a frozen smile when I unleashed that devastating truth upon him:
Julius Caesar? you mean Shakespeare, right?
Ha, never fuck with a hellenist, I thought, while nervously playing with the trigger of my dictionary.
What History? I thought you were referring to Shakespeare’s imaginary narration of this famous moment… Because Julius Caesar never said that.
I was gonna spare this fool’s life, when he dug his own grave in one short misguided attempt to protest:
The impudence, the insolence.
But everybody knows these were Julius Caesar’s last words, seconds before his own protégé gave him the fatal stab.
Was he somehow trying to defend his position against the might of my argumentation?
And that, my friends, is how you brutally turn an otherwise light and cheerful evening into a heavy discussion on the finer points of Roman History.
How could he have said that? when it’s a well known and documented fact he never spoke Latin in private. Having been raised by Greek slaves like most of the patrician gent in Rome, he quite naturally used the Hellenic idiom when conversing with very close friends or relatives such as Brutus.
Roman historian Suetonius, whose writings provided Shakespeare’s material, is categorical: Caesar, upon recognizing Brutus, exclaimed “Και συ, τεκνον” which literrally translates to “you too, my offspring?”, as it is no secret that Brutus was, in fact, his illegitimate son…
How could you ever doubt the merit of an intransigeant and rigid traditional education in humanities after that.