Monday, 24 February 2014

On Learning Gaelic...

Bilingual road sign in the Highlands

As some of you may know, I am studying Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, to be exact. I am currently approaching the half-way point of the online course that I am taking –, and one of the activities now is to listen to people talk about why they started and continued to learn this language, in fluent Gaelic. I am still nowhere near that point, but I have learned to understand a great deal, and gradually worked up to understanding it at the normal speaking pace. The course gradually builds up to that, and this helps you come to grips with listening to people just engaging in everyday conversations.
But why did I start learning it?
I have always been fond of learning languages. At quite a young age I became interested in French and English and in school I was always enjoying these lessons as well as taking classes in classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well! Besides that I taught myself bits of Spanish and Italian.
Later, I discovered the Celtic languages with their often very quirky spellings and enigmatic –and mysterious!- “look”. First Irish, but after a while I became frustrated with the –at that time- rather uninspiring learning materials. And now, Scottish “Gàidhlig” which I find grammatically easier than Irish and there are also some superb learning materials available.
Bilingual welcome!
Our first vacation to Scotland sparked this interest, as “Gaelic” is quite visible there, even in cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh, but more so as soon as you are approaching the Highlands. All of a sudden, the road signs are bilingual, with yellowish words that at first glance seem unpronounceable. And in several places you actually hear people converse in it, on the Isle of Skye for instance. And then there is always the music, from the classical and vast Gaelic folk repertoire to the contemporary rock songs by Runrig.
Still, this is just the interest, but there’s more. By learning Gaelic on a regular basis I also ‘make contact’ with at least an important part of the Scottish ‘group-soul’. The material that I use, on, is made by Scots, and performed by Scots at locations in Scotland, some of them very familiar. And there is also a lot of local news and interesting articles communicated through the medium of Gaelic, which you gradually learn to appreciate first-hand. The language has an intricacy and exhibits a special world view that cannot be adequately put into English. And it is a great feeling to actually be able to follow at least some of that.
"Keep Calm and Speak Gaelic"
There is one wish only, and that is that I actually need to learn how to speak it. And unfortunately, that needs someone with whom I can speak it! I could always tape some monologues and study them, and maybe I will just do that to get practice in that area. For now, my focus is to complete this course within a year or so and then maybe delve deeper by taking immersion courses in Scotland itself. First things first, though…

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

On translation- and what to do with ancient Greek and Latin

 I do not like translations. Whenever possible, I try to read books in the original language. As most of what I read was originally written in English, that usually presents no difficulty. I noticed a long time ago that something is lost in translation, and that something is actually very often quite a lot. There are peculiarities in each language that cannot be transferred to others, and that is what makes a language unique. That is also what makes the job of translation so fiendishly difficult, at times. But I have found several awesome books become completely unpalatable upon translation into Dutch.

So what makes for a good translation and what will turn it into a bad one? It helps tremendously if a translator has an affinity with the text he or she is translating, otherwise what will come out is nothing better than what Google Translate produces: mechanical, inflexible and methodical word-for-word, with hopefully a semblance of good grammar. Harbouring preconceptions is also deadly; that is why many translated fantasy or scifi novels are found to possess a rather childish tone to the language, as if the translator cannot bring him- or herself to take the subject seriously.

It is actually killing if a translator does not understand the subject of the text at all. Translation means a continuous search for the best possible words to describe as accurately as possible what the original is saying. Very often, words have multiple meanings in other languages and a wrong choice completely distorts the meaning of a text. A grueling example from ancient spiritual texts is the categorical translation of the Greek word ‘δαιμων’ into “demon”, whereas the usual meaning of this word is “non-corporeal being, spirit”. It is also noticeable in translations from for instance Greek, Latin or Arabic alchemical texts, which are notoriously obscure and opaque anyway, and which are usually unreadable and completely incomprehensible when translated.

Fortunately, I have studied Greek and Latin in my –somewhat remote- past and I feel it is time to dust that off, brush it up and start putting it to good use. I am currently looking for original texts that I can study in this way. Working that closely with a text really lets you dig into it and ponder its meaning, word by word sometimes. The first one to tackle will probably be Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis in the Greek version. This will be an interesting –and time consuming- project!