Academic writing is a very particular form of writing, with strict rules about how you can write and what you can write about. It also tends to rules the lives of academics (if you’ve ever heard of “publish or perish”, you know what I’m talking about), even though our writing is only one part of what we do (teaching, admin work, supervision, engagement, enterprise, outreach, and so on are also important aspects of our jobs).
So it’s interesting to see that there are some tentative moves afoot to challenge the system. I’m personally not convinced that it really makes sense for there to be just a few top journals per field and for the system to be such that if you don’t get your articles published there, it is hard to get tenure and/or promotion.
Check out this piece and this one to learn about a possible academic strike and some of the greater issues there are with this system.
Many months ago, I attended the London Book Fair, as I have done a number of times in the past. It’s an exhausting but fun trade event, and there are always some good nuggets of information or new ideas.
Danny commented at one point, “The target text is the thing.” He spoke about how he wants readers to read his work as though it had been written in English and for them not to consider that it is a translation. Obviously, I disagree with this to a certain extent (read this). But it’s clearly a fine balance.
And meanwhile, Maureen said she thinks about translators as “writers who translate”, so their writing skills matter more than their source language skills.
Both of these are interesting ideas that are highly debated in translation studies. What do you think?
I was never a J.R.R. Tolkien fan as a child and for whatever reason I was quite reluctant to read his works until the past few years when, encouraged by my Tolkien-fan partner, I gave it a go. And I discovered that I actually really quite liked his writing.
So then I got interested in learning more about him and I read Humphrey Carpenter’s good (if sometimes a bit too fawning or overly detailed) biography. I was amazed to find out just how learned he was (although the books should have been a pretty clear indication) and especially how good with languages he was (both actual tongues and those he invented).
Tolkien, it turns out, also did some translation. And he had some very strict views about the art of translation. Although I haven’t yet been able to find the introduction he wrote to a translation of Beowulf, Carpenter explains that in that text, Tolkien says that translators must adopt a “high style” when translating texts about so-called “heroic matters”. Carpenter goes on to connect this to Tolkien’s own writing style, particularly in regard to the famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which he was working on at the same time.
The film version of the trilogy is very good (and I’m eager to see The Hobbit when it comes out later this year), but I urge you to read Tolkien’s works and to pay close attention the language. And click here to read about how his trilogy was translated to Swedish.
John Man’s book Alpha Beta is on the history of the Roman alphabet, as you might be able to guess from the title. He covers a range of related topics, such as non-alphabet systems, symbols, rebus, archaeology, orality, and history, and his book is imaginative and exciting. He includes many interesting titbits of information, such as how some of what we think is Roman is actually Etruscan and how Cyrillic is named after Cyril but wasn’t created by him. He refers to languages as diverse as Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Korean and he explains “why Czechs and Slovaks today look to the West, and use the Latin alphabet.” (299)
One of the major points Man makes in this enjoyable work is that what alphabet is used where and how is often about power. “Script, status, power, identity: the four were indissoluble.” (100) He analyses hieroglyphics and the Greek alphabet to explore their importance to their own societies as well as to later ones. “With this new-fangled intellectual device [writing], the Greeks could aware their own though processes, become self-aware, refine ideas, exchange them, build upon them, create systems of ethics, philosophy and science, evolve new forms of poetry, pioneer history. In brief, it was the alphabet that allowed the ancient Greeks to lay the foundations of civilized discourse as Europe and its descendant cultures came to know it.” (21)
He also explores why alphabets change, or don’t. “Change, it seems, does not arise spontaneously from within. Something has to happen to release a new creative impulse.” (81)
He has what he terms three Working Theories of Script Evolution:
“1 In a writing system, complexity knows no bounds and imposes none.
2 A writing system will last as long as its culture, unless changed by force.
3 New writing systems emerge only in new, young, ambitious cultures.” (82)
In other words, much is required before a language will change.
Another interesting section in this book is where Man discusses four assumptions about literacy and culture and explains how they are false. The assumptions are:
“that alphabetic literacy must have spread from the top levels of society downwards;
that the alphabet would immediately be considered a superior achievement, and be instantly taken up by anyone with a claim to intelligence and culture;
that non-literate cultures are necessarily simple and inferior;
that poetry is more refined than prose and must therefore come later.” (231) Man demolishes these ideas.
While some people might think that one alphabet is better or more sensible than others and while Man does comment that Korean is perhaps one of the most sophisticated and successful of all alphabets, he also writes, “the alphabet is an intellectual device with which to symbolize speech, and it is a mistake to equate it exactly with anything in the real world. Since it exists in minds, any physical representation is only one of an infinite variety. There is no Absolute Alphabet.” (114) There are many possible alphabets, with no single right one.
In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I can point out that I’ve been publishing some book reviews in Wales Arts Review lately. There are plenty of other good articles there, so do check out the magazine.
In Robert McCrum’s book Globish, he discusses the history and meaning of English, and its relevance today. This is a book that feels longer than it actually is because it covers a lot of ground, looking at history (slavery in America, the Seven Years War, etc), current events and situations (India’s Silicone Valley, for example), and important people (Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, V.S. Naipaul, Barack Obama, etc), and the connections to language. It goes back and forth in time and sometimes the book feels too detailed. Despite that, it shows the history of English and makes predictions about where it is going.
As McCrum explains, “‘Globalization’ is a word that first slipped into its current usage during the 1960s; and the globalization of English, and English literature, law, money and values, is the cultural revolution of my generation, before and after the ‘credit crunch’. Combined with the biggest IT innovations since Gutenberg, it continues to inspire the most comprehensive transformation of our society in five hundred, even a thousand years.” (3)
He explores England and the development of the English language from the Normans and old English (for example, “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought.” (26)) through medieval and Renaissance periods (Shakespeare plays a starring role, of course), up to modern times, with stops along the way in creole, black English, Indian English, texting, the influence of cyberspace, and more. He even includes some discussion of translation, particular in you regard to Alfred, King of Wessex during the ninth century, and of course in terms of the bible.
Today, he points out, “global English, floating free from its troubled British and American past, has begun to take on a life of its own…the twenty-first century expression of British and American English – the world’s English – is about to make its own declaration of independence from the linguistic past, in both syntax and vocabulary.” (6)
It’s worth quoting one of McCrum’s final paragraphs in full, as it sums up his thoughts about where English is going: “The enemies of English culture will criticize its guile and greed, but the outcome is beyond question. In the first decade of the twenty-first century English-speaking people and their culture are more widespread in numbers and influence than any civilization the world has ever seen. Globish, a world dialect, will be less a language and more a means to an end. It will continue to enfranchise millions who lack the benefits of a formal education into a global economy and provide a means of communication that will, for the most part, leave local languages unscathed. Globish might seem to have imperial roots, but it is not imperious. It derives its character from a language that has always been hospitable to change, from the roots up.” (257)
Originally from Chicago, I lived in southern Sweden for nearly 5.5 years, and moved to southern Wales in September 2006. I completed a Ph.D. translation studies in June 2009 at Swansea University, with a dissertation on the translation of children's literature.
Now I live in Norwich, England, where I am a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, and I also work as a translator, writer, and editor.
Contact me at bravenewwords (AT) gmail (DOT) com.