Idées Fixes of the Week

“Intellectual nihilism becomes boring in the end because it just seems to be an expression of unresolved adolescence. Moreover, in practise it is tied to a substantive conservatism: all attempts at serious analytical explanation are derided, leaving force and established mores in possession.”

Stefan Collini’s essays on the literary and intellectual culture of Britain from, roughly, the early twentieth century to the present, from which the above fragment comes, are stimulating and thought provoking. I’ve been reading the essays in Common Reading and intend to read his latest Common Writing, before taking in his earlier Absent Minds.

Discovery of Collini’s work is timely as I have little appetite for fiction at present. I found David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? rewarding. Its humour is endurable; lurking beneath is a decent study of the art and ethics of translation along the lines of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.

Last night, on my way back from listening to Alexander Kniazev & Nikolai Lugansky perform at Wigmore Hall, I listened to a Craig Raine interview on Radio 4. I find Raine’s work puerile but he quoted a letter of Henrich Heine’s that I found both unusual and beautiful. The “macaroni” is a good touch.

“There is nothing new to tell you, my dear Robert, except that I am alive and still love you. The last will endure as long as the first, for the duration of my life is very uncertain. Beyond life I promise nothing. With the last breath all is done: joy, love, sorrow, macaroni, the normal theatre, lime-trees, raspberry drops, the power of human relations, gossip, the barking of dogs, champagne.”

Speaking Around the World in 13 Languages

“Knowing just nine of them [vehicular languages] – Chinese (with 1,300 million users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million) and English (somewhere between 800 and 1,800 million) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotiation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 per cent of the world’s population. (The startlingly wide range of estimates of the number of people who ‘speak English’ reflects the difficulty we have in saying what ‘speaking English’ means.) Add Indonesian (250 million), German (185 million), Turkish (63 million) and Swahili (50 million) to make a baker’s dozen, and you have at your feet the entire American landmass, most of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, the great crescent of Islam from Morocco to Pakistan, a good part of India, a swathe of Africa and most of the densely populated parts of East Asia too.”

This is a fascinating passage from David Bellos’s Is That A Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the meaning of everything (2011), which turns out to be just the book I wanted to read today.

Learning enough of these thirteen languages to make sensible conversation seems a reasonable goal. My daughter and I speak English as a first language, and between us either speak/write or are learning six others (in her case: Ancient Greek, Russian, French and Japanese; in mine: Latin, French and Malay, from which Indonesian is not an unimaginable leap); now just to decide whether to begin a single new language or to tackle two simultaneously.