Foreign languages and close reading   2 comments

In my experience, there is no other reading than close reading when reading in a foreign language. This is surely one of the benefits of reading in a foreign language, even when there may be a translation (or the original?!) in one’s own language to hand. There are layers in some books that ache for uncovering which we may easily pass over in our mother tongue but to which we nevertheless yield, tiresomely but grinningly, when the texts before us poke and prod with their reminders, perhaps just under our consciousness, that we better pay damn close attention or we’ll be lost. The ever-mustachioed Albert Schweitzer, who spoke both German and French from his childhood, opined that no one ever really has two mother-tongues, and that one of them requires more mental labor to use (see the note below). As for myself, I’m hardly a bilingual to that degree, so non-English reading (or listening!) often demands acute scrutiny and constant re-evaluation of the accumulating thoughts in the words.

While “close reading” is, as far as I know, a named product of twentieth-century literary criticism, it is hardly a new way of reading when understood broadly. Exegesis of important texts — poetic, religious, legal, etc. — has in various contexts long spawned voluminous commentaries filled with interpretation made up of sentences in a number far out of proportion to the words in the original text that they explicate. To be sure, there is a practical aim for some of this careful reading and explanation, especially in legal or, in certain societies, religious texts. But to be equally sure, another aim is mere, pure pleasure (delectatio), that which comes from the intellectual practice with considering in detail words, meanings, and grammar, and finally arriving at some understanding, and then going back to doing it again tomorrow; and of course, following all this slow, careful reading, or alongside it, may also be the animated discussion of it with fellow-readers.

Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins — in the preface to his delightful How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, which I’ve finally gotten round to reading — quotes the definition “Philology is the art of reading slowly,” a description he inherited from his teacher Roman Jakobson (see Watkins’ article in Comparative Literature Studies 27 [1990]: 25), for whom, too, it was an inherited classification. One reason philology is so often (but not always) associated with texts in foreign languages is that those texts are the ones we absolutely must pay close attention to while reading, that is, those are the texts we must read slowly; otherwise we may as well pack up and go home, and do so the poorer.

This weekend, then, perhaps with even more gusto than usual, let’s read something hard, preferably in a foreign language, and have fun with it, and if we’re lucky, there’ll be someone else equally minded for us to share the pleasure with.


1. The interesting passage from Schweitzer will be found on pp. 51-52 of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben und Denken (Leipzig, 1933), which I read years ago when first studying German, and which I recently translated (roughly!). Here it is, for those that care to read it: schweitzer_on_french_german

2. Nietzsche’s remarks quoted here are most apropos to the concept discussed here.


2 responses to “Foreign languages and close reading

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  1. I agree with this wholeheartedly. The classical languages and then Arabic taught me how to read this way, a habit that has affected the way I read English also. (Often to others’ annoyance). It’s a deep, close read that often reveals things about a text that others miss. Many times I have encountered scholarship that attempts to cover a broad subject or period, where the author has read his sources superficially and missed something important. So, I wonder how useful the modern push for broader, more synthetic rather than analytic studies is in academe, when the results end up even a bit “iffy”. Let’s return to the traditional first scholarly monograph being a work of philology, or at least deep analysis. Then we can all be confident that the scholar actually has the discipline to read a text, and only then encourage broader work.

    • Thanks so much for these words, Glen. Indeed, when we stick close to texts, all the other good stuff can follow. To me, at least, it’s exactly this kind of close philological work that’s the most fun anyway.
      P.S. Sorry it took a while for your comment to appear: for some reason it ended up among the spam comments!)

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