Sunday, June 10, 2007

Speaking in Italics

Over at Blogenspiel, where ADM is raising questions about gatekeeping in academia, Marc Comtois suggests that foreign language is often unfairly used to judge the quality of scholarship. He perhaps feels a little bruised after the comments that followed.

Perhaps he has a point. Many of the arguments against Marc focused on the problem of understanding sources from the perspective wherein they were written. In this sense, knowing how to read in a foreign language is not just invalauble, but critical. Original documents are not the only place where historians encounter foreign language. Works written in English routinely import foreign words and phrases that are "untranslatable."

Germanists must be the worst offenders in this respect. Words like Sonderweg, Fuehrer, and Wiedergutmachung often appear untranslated throughout texts, perhaps with cursory explanations about the complexity of the term. I am certainly guilty of this. Indeed, I often leave Land and Landschaft in German. But I do so to avoid confusion and complicated explanations when talking about regionalism. Landschaft causes special problems because landscape (the direct translation) no longer carries cultural, political and social meaning in English as it does in all other Germanic languages.

Do all terms need this treatment? Heimat seems famously beyond the comprehesion of English speakers, and numerous mini-series have been produced for German TV to explore images related thereto. Yet home and hometown are equally evocative and complex. Our home may not be equatable with Germans' Heimat, but they are both ways to use the local to see the larger imagined communities to which we belong, stirring powerful emotions in the process.

What's interesting is that I tend to use untranslated German more than untranslated French. Indeed, I might have more trouble finding an equivalent concept in French for either home or Heimat. I suspect, however, that the problem is not with the languages but the various academic traditions associated with those languages. It seems that Germans place more emphasis on Begriffsgeschichte (another German concept) than others, raising the cost of entry of discussions on German history. The proliferation of italics could very well scare off those with meager linguistic abilities. Yet I would find it difficult to say that someone without German could not make a meaningful contribution to German history--many do.

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