Monthly Archives: October 2014

Lost in Translations

One of my biggest disappointments with my schooling is that I never had much opportunity to learn foreign languages. My oldest sister started learning French aged 6, but they didn’t offer it to me until I was 13. And then when I was 14 it conflicted with geometry so they made me drop it again. I left school unable to do much more than recite the days of the week and count to 100.

I tried again to take French on my year abroad in Leeds, but in England everyone already knows French by the age of 18, so there were no introductory classes. I took a year of Spanish instead, which was quite good but not enough to make me comfortable with the language. And after the intervening years I can just about recite the days of the week and count to 100.

As a grownup I took evening classes in French, starting with a term of disastrous community college lessons at a local school, mainly filled with retired people of unusual obtuseness. The teacher was a teetotal vegetarian Frenchwoman, who couldn’t teach us how to order at restaurants because she never went. She clearly must have been driven from her homeland by an angry mob.

Finally about 10 years ago I took a proper series of evening classes at UCL. Over 1-2 years I probably got to the point where I could about pass a GCSE exam (or whatever they call the tests at age 16 here nowadays). I could read my way through Asterix comics without consulting a dictionary more than a few times per page, though I didn’t get many of the puns. And now…aujourdhui c’est jeudi le seize octobre? <Sigh>. That was a genuine attempt, and I don’t think it was quite right.

Despite this, I remain convinced that I would have been good at languages if I had been taught one at a young age. And my self-belief was given a boost this week when my first-ever attempt at translating a poem into English won second place in a contest on the Eratosphere website. It was Meleager’s bee poem from ~100 BCE. Obviously I don’t read ancient Greek, but the moderator Julie Stoner provided a phenomenal prose crib, so it was just a matter of trying to turn that into something that sounded poetic to a modern ear. It was tremendous fun; I just wish I knew a language well enough to be able to translate things at will on my own.

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