Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Today I need to make a confession that will have a large impact on any claim  I could have to my being anything close to being widely read: I have never read Dante. Over the years I have owned two different editions of the Divine Comedy, one a Penguin Classics in three volumes and the other I believe was a Wordsworth Classics in one volume. The reason, having owned two different versions, that I never read either is that one of them rhymed and the other did not so which of the copies should I read? The Italian language, because of the common vowel endings, lends itself to rhyme and in the original Italian the Divine Comedy was in rhyme however how much of the poetic language would be lost by struggling to fit the English translation into an English rhyming scheme? How much would be lost in translation?

There are some authors we are reliably informed who are so intrinsic to their language that they are rendered virtually unintelligible (in terms of their original poetic value) in any translated state. In German it is Goethe, in English it is Shakespeare and we are told that to enjoy Dante we simply must learn Italian first.  This leaves a problem for anyone who, possessing only one language,  wishes to become widely read amongst the greats of European literature.

Clive James's answer to this problem was to become a polyglot, at least in the sense of the written word. The cultural critic is able to read in eight different languages including French, German,  Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. His technique was to take a foreign language book, usually something non-fiction like a work of history or a book of essays and then sit with a dictionary and work his way through it looking up any words he doesn't understand. He is by no means fluent in these languages  and I doubt he could have an in depth conversation with someone from Japan in their language, but he can read in them and once you have that skill you open yourself to that culture. You're not just opened to books which are supposedly intrinsic to their language but to all the rest of the works, both fiction and non-fiction, which remain untranslated (and the proportion of works that remain untranslated even of well known or classic authors is huge).

This idea excites me a lot. I doubt that this is an easy route into a language and I know it will take a few books before I'm comfortable with a language but I think I'm going to give this a try. The languages I want to learn are French, German and Italian and I'll  keep this blog updated with my progress.