Wikipedia:AIL Ignorance

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Ignorance of Foreign Languages[edit source]

Kant was first made known to Edinburgh in 1803 not in the German original, but through a French translation. John Stuart Mill was able, though with difficulty, to read German, but preferred reading translations, and never learnt to shift for himself in a German railway station. When Carlyle met Louis Blanc, "it was the veriest fun to watch their conversation. Carlyle's French was a literal translation of his own untranslatable English, uttered too in his own broad Scotch. Louis Blanc could not at all understand him, but would listen attentively, and then answer very wide of the mark." (Car. Fox.) Faraday knew no German, and consequently Robert Mayer's and Helmholtz's investigations were a "sealed book" to him. "How different," said Dean Stanley, "might have been the case of the Church of England if Newman had been able to read German." When a German scholar sent an annotated edition of Macbeth to Dr. Furnivall, the director of the New Shakespeare Society, the Early English Text Society, etc., the latter wrote back to regret that he could not read the notes, but that he saw from the figures that the author had gone into metrical questions. When Zola fled from France during the Dreyfus troubles, he was utterly unable to make himself understood in English. And the same was the case with the Danish poet Herman Bang, who died miserably in America in 1912 unable to make his simplest wants understood by those about him.

Nor is a similar inability unknown among statesmen. It is said that it was injurious to Denmark in her difficult political situation in the middle of the last century, that Madvig (the great Latin scholar) and other ministers spoke French with difficulty and felt shy of talking bad French to the foreign ambassadors. Similar things are reported from the World War. Sir Edward Grey could not speak French, and the French ambassador, Cambon, spoke bad English. None of the French or English generals, with the exception of Lord Kitchener, spoke the other nations's language at all well, and at the Peace Conference Clemenceau gained an undue ascendancy because he was practically the only one who had complete command of both languages. It requires no unusual amount of wisdom to understand that confidential talks between mighty statesmen of different nationalities on topics of world-wide importance lose a great deal if they have to be carried on by means of interpreters: how much better if the mighty of this earth were able to meet on an equal footing linguistically speaking - but that could only be possible by means of a perfectly neutral language.

It is true that we have translators and interpreters, but good and efficient translators are neither plentiful nor very cheap. I take from Miss Pankhurst's book the bit of information that during 1926 the Geneva staff of the League of Nations included 29 translators and interpreters at salaries amounting to £19,800 - besides shorthand writers and typists. And then, the League is only a modest beginning of that vast political organization of the whole world which has to come in a not too distant future!

In these days of cheap travel, of commercial interchange between all parts of the world, of airplanes and broadcasting, of international science and of world-politics, it seems an urgent need for merchants, technical men, scientists, literary men, politicians, in fact for everybody, to have an easy means of getting into touch with foreigners and of learning more from them than is possible by visiting other countries as tongue-tied tourists. The word "international" was only invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1780 - nowadays we have come to the point of needing an international language.

Let me mention here also the recent invention of the speaking film, which is now being brought to a rare technical perfection. When Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen's "phono-film" was shown to a small audience in Copenhagen, my thought leapt out to the time when by this means it would be possible to have plays and speeches made visible and audible and comprehensible all over the world - the advantages of cinema and radio combined and made still more useful by means of an Interlanguage!