I’ve finally reached January 9 as I work through the stack of old issues of the TLS, and the Freelance column by Lydia Davis (probably subscribers-only) was obvious LH material:
These days, I begin my morning happily absorbed in reading a book that would have seemed highly unlikely to me a year ago: it is in Norwegian, a language I did not know before, and was described by some irritated critics in Norway, when it appeared last year, as “tedious” and “unreadable”, though it also received much admiring praise. Dag Solstad’s “novel”, Det Uoppløselige Episke Element i Telemark i Perioden 1691–1896 (428 pages), is entirely factual. Its storyline consists for the most part of detailed accounts of the births, marriages, deaths, and property transactions of his ancestors in Telemark, with little incident, almost no real drama, much authorial speculation, and the occasional memorable character, such as the pipe-smoking widow Torhild, the spendthrift Margit, and the power-hungry Halvor Steinulvson Borgja (b. 1625). […]
Then, last spring, I was describing to [Davis’s Norwegian translator, Johanne Fronth-Nygren] my difficulties with a project of my own involving several generations of my ancestors, one that promised to be long, complex and confusing. She recommended a new book she admired by Dag Solstad (pronounced “Soolstad”), now in his early seventies and considered by many to be Norway’s pre-eminent contemporary novelist. I had already dipped into the two paperbacks of his which I had in English translation. Johanne told me this new one was unusual, and quite controversial: how could it be called a novel? She said that although I would not be able to read it, I could at least look through it and get an idea of what he was doing.
I sent for the book. […] I was also frustrated: this was a book I wanted to read, and it did not exist in English. So, seeing no alternative, I tried the first sentence: “Les langsomt, ord for ord, hvis man vil forstå hva jeg sier”. With the help of German cognates (lesen and langsam), I understood the first two words right away: “Read slowly”. Although it took me a few minutes to realize that ord had nothing to do with “order” or the German Ort, but meant “word”, I then found I could decipher most of the rest: “Read slowly, word for word, hvis one will understand [G. verstehen] hva jeg sier”. I thought jeg could mean “I” (Fr. je, Dutch jij, etc). The whole turned out to be a surprisingly apt directive: “Read slowly, word for word, if you want to understand what I am saying”. I made up my mind that I would simply keep reading; even if at first I understood almost nothing, I thought, I would in time understand more and more, and perhaps actually learn to read Norwegian.
And that is what has happened. I do read slowly, though no longer always one word at a time. I often reread at least part of a sentence. I don’t use a dictionary, attempting to figure out the words from their contexts with the help of cognates, though that can lead me astray. Norwegian ferd has nothing to do with German Pferd, horse – which in Norwegian is hest; giftet seg means “got married”, though gift by itself does, like the German Gift, mean “poison”. I write down each new word I figure out. Many sentences I can now read without stumbling; more and more rarely do I find myself in a thicket of incomprehensible language. By now I am within eighty pages of the end. […]
Adding to the suspense, in my case, is of course the adventure of learning the language as I go along, seeing more and more mysterious words become familiar. In the beginning, as I made my way into this partly incomprehensible Telemark of the 1600s and 1700s, I felt, pleasantly, all the farther away from home in both time and culture for not knowing half of what I was reading. Now that the mists are clearing, each page offers another reward: not only the unfolding story, but also a linguistic revelation – not only about Norwegian, but also about the roots it shares with English. When I learn svar, I glimpse the source of our “answer”. I knew “neighbour” was related to “nigh”; now that I know the Norwegian bor means “dwell”, I see “neighbour” for what it is: one who lives nearby. The English words become strange again.
It reminded me strongly of the opening of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (see this post, and if you haven’t read it, go read it); my one cavil: I don’t believe the “I don’t use a dictionary” part. I can believe she avoids using a dictionary as much as possible, but there are words you simply can’t get from context, and it seems to me it would just be too frustrating to move on leaving some crucial word a mental blank.
Update. It turns out people do learn by reading foreign texts without using a dictionary (see comments below); once again, I’ve overgeneralized from my own experience.