The LH family (me and my wife) are longtime fans of Adam Gopnik (see, e.g., this early post), and of course I was especially delighted to see him address the issue of language and translation in the New Yorker in “Word Magic.” Alas, due to my incurable procrastination, by the time I get around to the piece I want to tell you about, the issue (May 26) is no longer on the stands, but maybe you can find a copy; you can read the start at the link above, here’s a typically sensible and well-written bit about Whorfianism:
A spectre haunts this book, however. It is the spectre of Benjamin Lee Whorf and the theory of linguistic relativism to which he gave his name. Whorf was an amateur American linguist in the first half of the twentieth century who became obsessed with the idea that the system of tenses in the Hopi language gave the Hopi a different view of present, past, and future. (His understanding of Hopi grammar turns out to have been rudimentary.) Whorfianism came to refer to a larger idea derived from this notion — the idea that our language forces us to see the world a certain way, and that different languages impose different world views on their speakers. It’s a powerful idea in the pop imagination. It sounds right when you say it.
Yet “Whorfian” relativism, at least in its strong forms, is one of those ideas that disappear under any kind of scrutiny. After all, if we were truly prisoners of our language, we shouldn’t be able to use it to see its limits clearly, or to enumerate the concepts that it can’t conceive. The ghost of Whorf haunts every page of the “Dictionary of Untranslatables”[...]
My only serious cavil is about his discussion of the well-worn problem of poetry translation near the end; while nothing he says is wrong, he ignores what I consider an essential point, that there are very different kinds of poetry. Poems that place a lot of weight on images and ideas, like Szymborska (whom he cites favorably), come across better than those that rely to a large extent on sound and rhythm; his “Poetry contains as much wisdom as it does word magic” flings itself across this gap in a heroic effort to bridge it, but I don’t think it works. Anyway, it’s a wonderful read, and I urge you all to find a copy by hook or crook. (Also, the book he’s reviewing sounds fascinating; alas, it costs an arm and a leg.)
Update. Since Christopher Culver writes in a comment below, “What an unfortunate surname,” it is only fitting that I link to Gopnik’s new BBC Magazine piece “The curse of a ridiculous name“:
I have a funny name. I know it. Don’t say it isn’t or try to make me feel better about it. I have a funny name. My children and social networkers tell me that. And you out there have even been tweeting about it: “@BBC POV, Gopnik: what kind of name is that? #weirdnames” [...]
It’s not just a funny name. It has become, in the Russia from which it originally hails, an almost obscenely derogatory expression.
A gopnik in Russian, and in Russia, is now a drunken hooligan, a small-time lout, a criminal without even the sinister glamour of courage. When Russian people hear my last name, they can barely conceal a snigger of distaste and disgusted laughter. Those thugs who clashed with Polish fans at Euro 2012? All gopniks – small G. And I’m told that it derives from an acronym for public housing, rather than from our family’s Jewish roots, but no difference.
Read the whole thing — trust me, you won’t regret it.
Further update: Michele Berdy on gopniks.