Polyglottia (of, if you like, Multilingualism)

Roger Bacon (1214–1294), Franciscan, philosopher, scientist.

Roger Bacon (1214–1294), Franciscan, philosopher, scientist.

For whoever knows a given branch of knowledge well, as logic or any other one at all, will see, even if he labor to render it into his mother tongue, that it comes up lacking not only in the ideas, but in the words as well. And so no Latin will be able to understand the wisdom of sacred scripture and of philosophy as it is supposed to be understood, unless he know the languages from which they were translated.

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I find this is especially true of philosophy, which is much more difficult to understand in translation than it is in the original.

The whole passage from which this comes is marvelous.

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Et sunt quinque, sine quibus nec divina nec humana sciri possunt, quorum certa cognitio reddit nos faciles ad omnia cognoscenda. Et primum est Grammatica in linguis alienis exposita, ex quibus emanavit sapientia Latinorum. Impossibile enim est, quod Latini perveniant ad ea quae necessaria sunt in divinis et humanis, nisi notitiam habeant aliarum linguarum, nec perficietur eis sapienta absolute, nec relate ad ecclesiam Dei et reliqua tria praenominata. Quod volo nunc declarare, et primo respectu scientiae absolutae. Nam totus textus sacer a Graeco et Hebraeo transfusus est, et philosophia ab his et Arabico deducta est; sed impossibile est quod proprietas unius linguae servetur in alia. Nam et idiomata eiusdem linguae variantur apud diversos, sicut patet de lingua Gallicana, quae apud Gallicos et Picardos et Normannos et Burgundos multiplici variatur idiomate. Et quod proprie dicitur in idiomate Picardorum horrescit apud Burgundos, immo apud Gallicos viciniores: quanto igitur magis accidet hoc apud linguas diversas? Quapropter, quod bene factum est in una lingua, non est possibile ut transferatur in aliam secundum eius proprietatem quam habuerit in priori.

Unde Hieronymus, in epistola de optimo genere interpretandi, sic dicit, “Si ad verbum interpretor, absurdum resonat.” Quod si cuiquam videatur linguae gratiam interpretatione non mutari, Homerum exprimat in Latinum ad verbum. Si quis autem eundem in sua lingua per se interpretetur, videbit ordinem ridiculosum, et poetam eloquentissimum vix loquentem. Quicunque enim aliquam scientiam ut logicam vel aliam quamcunue bene sciat, eam, etsi nitatur in linguam convertere maternam, videbit non solum in sententiis sed in verbis deficere. Et ideo nullus Latinus sapientiam sacrae scripurae et philosophiae poterit ut oportet intelligere, nisi intelligat linguas a quibus sunt translatae.

Rugerius Baconius, Opus Maius, 3.1.

Roger Bacon conducts experiment

And there are five things without which neither things divine nor things human can be known, the certain knowledge of which renders us capable of coming to knowledge of all things. And first is the Art of Grammar explained in other languages, from which has come the wisdom of the Latins [i.e., Latin-speaking men of western Europe in the 13th century]. For it is impossible that the Latins should arrive at those things which are necessary to learn in divine and human matters, unless they should have knowledge of other languages, nor will they have perfect wisdom in the absolute sense, nor even relative to the church of God and the other three things named before.

And this is what I now want to clarify, and in the first respect of knowledge in the absolute sense. For the entirety of the sacred text has been poured out through Greek and Hebrew, and philosophy has been led down from these and from Arabic; but it is impossible that the idiom of one language be preserved in another.

For even the dialects of the same language are varied among different people, as is patent in the French language, which is varied in manifold dialect among the Gallicans and the Picards and the Normans and the Burgundians. And what is said idiomatically in the dialect of the Picards causes the Burgundians’ hair to stand on end, and for that matter that of the Gallicans, who live closer! How much more, then, will this be the case in different languages? 

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I just want to add here, before we get to the good part, that I am always telling my students that the literal translation is almost never the best translation, is most of the time misleading, and often simply wrong.

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Wherefore, what is done well in one language, is not able to be translated into another according to the idiom which it had in the prior. Whence Jerome, in his letter on the best kind of translating, says the following, “If I translate literally, is sounds absurd.” But if it should seem to anyone that the grace of the language is not changed by translation, let him express Homer in Latin literally. But if anyone should translate the same author in his own language literally, he will see that the order is laughable, and the most eloquent poet is hardly able to speak [the play on words in the Latin cannot be translated, but it is something like, “the most eloquent poet is hardly loquent.” poetam eloquentissimum vix loquentem].

For whoever knows a given branch of knowledge well, as logic or any other one at all, will see, even if he labor to render it into his mother tongue, that it comes up lacking not only in the ideas, but in the words as well. And so no Latin will be able to understand the wisdom of sacred scripture and of philosophy as it is supposed to be understood, unless he know the languages from which they were translated.

Roger Bacon, Opus Maius, 3.1.

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Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.

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About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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