28 March 2009

Linguistic relativism 3

"All observers." wrote Benjamin Lee Whorf in Science and Linguistics (1940), "are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." Even if this controversial statement were true only a little bit (I know that most linguists today do not believe it completely), it would follow that a critic should share the same linguistic background as the writer. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case, partly because of the reality check of critics usually being professors under pressure to produce a long work every year or so in order to be retained or promoted. Critics then have to try to quickly understand works which took their writers a much longer time to create. Remember James Joyce saying of Ulysses, "I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it." With multilingual texts or texts written in second languages, a critic must then know all the languages that the writer knows. How many critics have made fools of themselves writing about Oedipus Rex without knowing classical Greek? Anyone that has ever tried to translate a literary text knows that there are nuances of language that just cannot be recaptured in another language, even by the best of translators. When I had to learn Persian to teach in Iran, I found out, even with my very elementary Persian, that the version of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that I read in school was, well, pretty distorted. FitzGerald did not share Omar Khayyam's linguistic background, even if he could understand individual words of Persian and even if he tried his best, through several editions, to revise the English to come as close as he could make it to the Persian.

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