November 12, 2009

"The language of Europe is translation"

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
As Umberto Eco once perceptively observed, “the language of Europe is translation.” Linguistic diversity, in fact, is a defining feature of Europe, whose cultural heritage includes masterpieces written originally in different languages, but common to us all thanks to a long-standing tradition of literary translation. Eco’s famous statement reappears in Leyla Dakhli’s interesting review (in French) of François Ost’s Traduire: Défense et illustration du multilinguisme. [Thanks: Arthur Goldhammer]


  1. Hence the origin of the word 'babel'. But even together, the sound of European languages expressed simultaneously wouldn't necessarily create such an infernal 'babel'.

    Each national language evolves with the history of its nation. This includes the temporary or permanent adoption of words from surrounding nations. Many French purists think that the French adoption of English words, for example, represents a threat to the French language. This is nonsense. If an English or Italian word is periodically adopted by the French, it would be part of its natural evolution. This applies reciprocally to all living languages. Often such adopted words are 'Frenchified' such as 'foot' instead of 'football' ('on joue au foot').

    The history and culture of each European nation is too deeply rooted to be vulnerable to any external influence. The natural and timeless integration of foreign words can only enrichen a language, and this has been the case throughout the history of all living languages. For example the origin of 'Dandelion' as most of us know is from the French 'dent de lion' which describes what looks like the 'lion's teeth' on the dandelion's leaf. The French however no longer call it Dent-de-lion. They have come down to brass tacks by calling it 'Pisenlit' referring naturally to the Dandelion's diuretic attributes, even in bed! This example alone illustrates word adoption and cultural difference.

    Language evolution obviously accords with it's own culture and history which is why translation of texts such as 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' is a real challenge. The problem is finding cultural equivalents in order to retain the particular magic and atmosphere of Lewis Carroll's masterpiece. But this is another fascinating subject in itself.

    When one is reasonably capable of expressing oneself in more than one language, it becomes instinctively natural to use the language which one considers would be most appropriate to present a chosen theme the way one wishes.

    (Sorry to babel on Rob, but it is an interesting subject..)

  2. If you put a random collection of a dozen Europeans in a room together, the only thing they would agree on is to get out. There would be little conversation because of the language barrier.

    Whilst translation is a part of everyday life in Europe (although not much gets translated into English!) there is a need for a common European language. I suggest Esperanto.