Discussion → how does language taste?

  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Jan 08, 04:58am

    this question came out of my re-reading dostoyewsky's THE IDIOT (in the engl. translation of david mcduff, penguin classics ed.), a novel that has deeply influenced me over the years.

    perhaps because of this group, because of many of you out there listening to strange tongues, or writing in them, i'm quite sensitive during my read for the 'taste' of the language.

    i don't mean the translation, because i think there is a taste of russian in this book that i feel in the english, the german or the french translation. obviously, a pizza tastes differently when served in a restaurant in italy, france, china or england, but it still is a kitchen sink creation, quintessentially italian: greasy, doughy, tomatoey, less layered than lasagne but still layered like italian society: the romans, the mafia, the vatican, the brutishness of berlusconi.

    the taste of russian is built on repetition and in the case of THE IDIOT, the translator says in his introductory notes, on the author's interest in other literary cultures (in this case, he says, predominantly the french one). this tendency to repetition, to monologues or descriptions that go on forever and ever without emptying out - or if they empty out they're still strangely filling - it's been employed in recent new translations of tolstoy (WAR AND PEACE, by pevear/volokhonsky), in the (original english) of nabokov (e.g. ADA) or in the more modern works of the strugatsky brothers (highly recommended).

    i’m not enough of a literature critic or linguist to say more about russian, which isn’t even my mother tongue. but the question is perhaps: is there a “taste of language” at all, independent of translation, independent even of a particular author?

    as far as german is concerned (which is my mother tongue), i think german tastes musty, like the pages of an old book. it’s long winded by nature and thought pattern and if german authors try to mimick the snappiness and quickness of english (writing sentences like hemingway, but also henry james or thomas pynchon - longer sentences but still trying to get to the point quickly), their work looks like a pizza prepared by a chef who had a light crepe, an almost weightless pancake in mind. when you close your eyes and bite into his creation, fully expecting a fluffy thing and end up with a mouth full of dough and sauce, the joy is gone. no, german writing is done best with foresight and hindsight: musil, mann, even goethe in FAUST. philosophical writing that is necessarily heavy, congested, and must be devoured on an empty stomach pre-rinsed with some sweet wine.

    i’m getting lost here, but i thought i would. my thinking isn't overly clear (it would not live up to the expectations over at the matchbook group...) but maybe it inspires you to reflect on different languages - what’re your thoughts on the taste of language?

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    Angela Brett
    Jan 08, 09:31am

    Foreign languages may have a variety of exotic flavours, but you can't taste your own tongue. :d

  • Trees.thumb
    Carol Reid
    Jan 08, 03:13pm

    My relatives hailed from a different Italy than the one you describe :) The taste of the Northern Italian language? Refined, slightly bitter , seasoned with elements of fantasy.

  • Flawntnewsmall.thumb
    Finnegan Flawnt
    Jan 09, 08:33am

    well put, angela.

    carol - i know. i was wrapped in cliché. i was married to an italian once and we lived in trieste. i agree with your assessment of that tongue.

  • Tn_nora_copy_4.thumb
    Nora Nadjarian
    Jan 09, 01:01pm

    hmm,the taste of language. that's an interesting one, never thought about it before. but now that i am thinking about it, english, though snappy and accurate, can taste a little bland at times. it is spiced up for me by other infuences and roots--greek, latin, french etc.
    having said that, i loathe reading stuff that is wordy, overly descriptive and excessive in its use of language. the kind of physical equivalent (for me) is so sickly sweet you want to throw up.
    so maybe some happy medium for a pleasant taste.

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