In Diego Marani’s The last of the Vostyachs, which I have just reviewed, the two linguists argue about language. The Russian, Olga, sees language as key to communication across cultures and to conveying plural meanings. She says to the Finnish Jarmo:
Your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves, because it tells of a tiny country no one knows … our language is translated into a hundred others. A hundred other peoples want to understand us, and invent words in their own language which express our truths.
And hopefully, I presume, to then discuss respective truths heading towards mutual understanding!
For Jarmo though:
Translation causes a language to become solider; like blood in a transfusion, which is gradually tainted by impurities … By being translated, a language picks up meanings which are not its own, which infect it and poison it, and against which it has no defences.
Jarmo clearly has no interest in a global world! He’s not interested in change. In fact, at another point in the novel he says “change implies mistakes”. I’ve had many thoughts about change over my life-time but I must say this idea has not been uppermost.
In the next few weeks, I plan to review the current Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation: In praise of a plural world. Having just read Marani, I think I am going to find this even more interesting than I had expected!