I remember when my good buddy and former Peace Corps sitemate asked me if I knew the Russian for “it goes without saying.”
I looked at him for one long moment. “Are you sure this is a phrase you need?”
“Yeah,” he answered seriously. “I say it a lot.”
I admitted I had no idea what the Russian form of this idiom is—if indeed they’ve bothered to have their own version for a basically ridiculous expression—but that I thought he could get by perfectly well by simply omitting the phrase.
Instead of saying, for instance: “It goes without saying that when the sun shines we call it daytime,” he could simply say a) “When the sun shines we call it daytime,” or better yet, b) nothing at all. Perhaps squint at the sun happily in silence or summat.
My friend felt my answer was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, and squinted at the sun silently, ruminating perhaps on what else went without saying.
Then again, there also things that require saying. That require spelling out. In fact, two years on, I wonder if perhaps I prefer, indeed, to be told what goes without saying over not being told what requires saying. But what sparks this, you ask, wondering if I will say…
Funny you should ask.
Flash forward to this weekend. While the snow falls gently outside, I sat reading Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Romanticism.” I plugged through the book and even found interesting passages.
Why “even?” Am I implying the book’s boring or ill-crafted? No. But it’s been a long time since I bumped into a book like this. An “academic” book of “scholarship.” A book of literary criticism which doesn’t deign to translate the original texts it quotes at length into English.
Which would be fine if, say, the book was entitled “Die Redekunst der Romantik” and intended for German speakers. Or “La Rhétorique de Romantisme” for French speakers. Oui, then it would be fine. Danke, I would say. (Apologies for, uh, you know, language mistakes.)
You get my point. Its title is in English, the author clearly prefers to write in English, and English-speakers are reading it. So why is Holderlin cited only in German? Why must I glaze past entire paragraphs of French only to find neither footnote nor in-text translation of the foreign material? Is the literature cited not abundantly important—as in, say, the point of the entire book—such that the author doesn’t deign to translate it for his readers?
Now, when I was in college, I came across this often. Back then I would curse my ignorance, my feeble mind and derelict priorities, and imagine I was missing the kernel of wisdom that could somehow make me a sufficiently knowledgeable person.
No longer. Now I mirror the scholar-author; I raise my own brow in disdain. The author wants to appear smart, does he? Or he wants to protect his teaching from the masses; why else would he raise a barrier like that, or rather, seeing it up, feign lowering it (after all he is writing an entire book supposedly elucidating the matter)? Yes, yes, I know: he’s not writing for the masses.
Must literary criticism remain the domain of the select few who can puff themselves up with allusions and jargon, and feel important in the blank and frustrated gaze of the apes outside their pristine self-erected gates? How banal. I try to hush my ire, telling myself this book is from another time, when knowledge was considered the pleasure, office, vestige and flourish of a select few.
And because I’m stubborn and know there’s what worth knowing in there, I trampled onward.
Can I curse myself that at age 33, I still don’t know French and German? I guess so, but the little dingdong hasn’t yet quoted a Russian (were there no Romantic Russians?) and I could quite read that just fine–I’ve traveled the world speaking a variety of languages; I will not blink in the face of French and German and imagine myself an ignoramus because the author treats me as such. Nay, I will not blink!
*blink* Did I just call the author– Oh. Not that the author is a little dingdong, of course. (Did I really say that?)
*imagines a world in which an irate reader calls me a little dingdong*
*realizes this implies I have a reader*
*smiles in bliss*
Anyhows, that journey’s over with now and I’ve gleaned what I could, not knowing any of the Romance languages. I’ll have you know I tried; I read some poems and passages aloud in the hopes that spoken, the foreign words would conspire with me to share some of their meaning. I may have made up interpretations wildly off-base. Or written even better poetry.
Or maybe not. Maybe not at all. Thanks for that ego tripper, de Man, my would-be teacher.
It goes without saying that… Ah wait, let’s at least have integrity: I shall not say what goes without saying. Let the phrase keep its honor and truth. To be robbed of it in the speaking is just painfully wrong, and the more so in the writing.
What about you–any peeves to share? 🙂