Saturday, November 15, 2008


I can't tell if it's sign that I'm living my life right, or that I'm living my life wrong, but this afternoon, in order to listen to an announcement on the train, I had to lift my eyes from a page of Russian text* and turn down my Hindi music** so I could focus on the spoken French.

I've been thinking about foreign languages a lot lately, partly because London, as a post-imperialist city, is packed full of people speaking everything but English. In fact, I have not heard so much Russian spoken around me since I was last in Moscow. In Haringey, I hear a lot of Panjabi, Hindi, Urdu, etc. The other day, I was in an off-license buying chocolate, and a guy came in to buy something out of the cooler section. The cashier kept yelling at him, but clearly the customer had no idea what was being said. The customer eventually just shrugged and walked back out without buying anything. When I got up to the counter, the cashier complained to me that he didn't know why the guy didn't understand, since he was yelling, "Milk!" in Gujarati. Is everyone in London expected to speak Gujarati? This morning, when I got on the tube, there was a Turkish newspaper abandoned on the seat across from me. Four stops later, a man got on, sat down, turned on his i-pod, picked up the paper, and started reading it, just as if he'd expected to find a Turkish newspaper waiting for his arrival.

So, there's that, but mostly I've been thinking about the relationship between foreign languages and research--shouldn't there be a limit to how many languages a person should have to know to do dissertation research? Right now my MS Word spell check is set up for English (United States), English (United Kingdom), French (Paris), Persian, German (Germany), Portuguese (Portugal), Hindi (India), and Russian (Russia). Also Arabic (Algeria), but that's just for a few astronomy words, not something I've really used in the past two months. The rest of it, though, is completely real--all languages in which I've read or transcribed manuscripts over the past eight weeks. It's starting to feel like a bit much--I know I'm supposed to be all postcolonial and into the local and everything, but I'm starting to wonder why I don't rely on the Persian/French/German manuscripts that have already been translated to English, instead of finding new manuscripts, or double-checking old translations? I just read a perfectly decent book that relied heavily on the English versions of Tavernier and Bernier, for instance--was there any need for me to read it in French?

Probably not. When I was doing post-bacc. work in Art History, one of the assignments in the Modern-Contemporary Survey Course was an annotated bibliograpy. Each student was assigned a female artist whose work was exhibited in the Paris Salon (1907? 1917? can't remember), and we had to produce all the sources we could think of to research that artist's biography. The artist didn't have to actually show up in any of the sources; rather, the sources just had to be real possibilities for information (checking the Thieme-Becker for an artist showing at the Paris Salon of 1910-ish would have been a good idea, for instance, even if the artist didn't actually appear in it). Anyway, I put down the standard list of sources, but I also put down a bunch of Russian bio catalogues, because they were from the right time period, and they included information on the Salon exhibitions. Instead of giving my paper back in class, the professor asked me to come to his office to retrieve my assignment. Why? He wanted to ask me why I put down all those Russian sources in my bibliography. I said they were relevant, and in fact, my artist appeared in one of them. His response? "I don't think you put them there because they're relevant, I think you put them there to show off." No one else in the class had used any foreign language resources (except the Thieme-Becker and the Benezit, obviously), so of course, I was showing off.

Well, okay, that's a very wordy and round about way to say that it feels like I really am just showing off at this point. Who the hell cares if I'm translating the road book from the Chahar Gulshan myself? I mean, really? Does it really matter if I just use Tod's history of Rajastan for clan lineages instead of struggling through the #*^&&!!!! Jaipuri myself? I think no one would notice or care if I used the Ball or Phillips translation of Tavernier, instead of citing the original French. Ditto for Tieffenthaler (although in that The original was in German, and the translation I'm using is in French, so...not English). I would be getting a lot more work done if I just stuck to the English archive, that's for sure. I'm not quite sure what I'm up to here, but I'm definitely tired of thinking in foreign languages--not a good sign when I'm a) on day 1 of a 14 day stay in Paris; and b) looking ahead to a 9-month stay in India.

Revisiting my opening statement, I think it might be the second choice--if the nightmares you've been having about being trapped outside during aerial bombing attacks on London are in multiple languages, that's probably a sign you're doing something wrong.

*I'm reading Pikovaya Dama again because a note in the edition of Crime and Punishment that I've been reading this week [in English!] says it was a direct inspiration for Dostoevsky's story

**I seriously need to expand my collection of Bollywood music, the last new soundtrack I purchased was Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

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