An affecting poem by Maurice Leiter:

Lacking languages I stumble
in the darkness of translation
finding satisfaction second-hand
Here is Cavafy soft-spoken subtle
speaking free of affectation
or so it seems in this translation
said to be exemplary by many
But the curtain of my ignorance
keeps me from truly knowing him
nor is his work the sole example…

So learn those languages, folks; you don’t want to wind up, like the poet, saying “Too late I see my life’s great error”! (Via wood s lot.)


  1. As someone with nothing more than tourist French and Portuguese, I always stand agape with admiration for those who have several languages. I’d love to know how you would go about learning a language of a country you’ll never visit and whose literature you rarely encounter.
    You seemed to imply that you know some Serbian, for e.g. How did you start? Was it just a case of getting a book and cassette tape out of the library?

  2. I’ve been learning languages since grade school, and was bilingual in Japanese and English early (though I quickly forgot the Japanese), so I’m hardly an average learner. I don’t actually know Serbocroatian, but I can extrapolate enough from Russian and Old Church Slavic to use my dictionaries effectively.

  3. Continuing the basic question theme; I’ve just taken up Tajik–you made a comment at Metafilter once upon a time about Persian’s relative lack of morphology, which made my ears prick up , and the general sanity of the Cyrillic alphabet† makes me think I’ll be able to communicate something without years of obsessive study of the tiniest details–have you any insights into making oneself more intelligible to Persian speakers, or comments on the things you had trouble internalising?
    † As opposed to the, umm, awkwardness of using the Arabic alphabet for Persian.

  4. Nothing occurs to me at the moment, but yeah, with Persian you definitely don’t need “years of obsessive study of the tiniest details” — that’s the benefit of a language that (like English and Swahili) has gotten its edges worn off by long use as a lingua franca. I’ll be curious to hear about your experiences once you’ve gotten some Tajik under your belt.

  5. Heh. Cavafy is one of my favourite poets and I too have wondered at the extent of what I’m missing.

  6. Yes, that’s all very well. But what about those of us who would LOVE to learn languages but just can’t, no matter how hard we try…

  7. Well, you could try reading a favorite poem in the original without trying to “learn the language,” just to get a feel for the sounds and rhythms (of course, that only works if the language uses the Roman alphabet).

  8. After spending my summer in Italy, and actually having a man there pour out his heart to me in Italian…and understanding none of it…I too found myself longing for a true understanding of their beautiful language! My basic knowledge just left something to be desired.

  9. Speaking of had I only, are there any others here who, like me, never use it? The ifless conditional. I suppose my aversion to it is similar to my aversion to whilst, which I associate with the most clumsy attempts at ascent to a more formal register than the speaker is at ease in. What say’st thou, learnèd reader?

  10. I use it occasionally (usually in the collocation “had I but known”), always (I think) in a playfully formal way. I never use “whilst,” but I think of that as British rather than formal.

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