The virtues of multilingualism

When the British media announced that pupils took more A-levels in physical education than French, it became clear to many that a further milestone on the gloomy and lonely road to national monolingualism was reached. This has nothing to do with the language being French, but with reversing a trend which started in the 6th century AD, when the Anglo-Saxons were slowly but inexorably introduced to a language other than their own, the Latin of the Church and of classical culture. Whether in respect to Latin, French, German or any other language of significant cultural and literary exchange, this process is now starting to slow down, dampened by an unconscious strand of what may be called linguistic imperialism – the expectation that the rest of the world should speak your language and that you should put no effort in meeting someone from a culture very different from your own on their own linguistic terms. This is so obvious in practice wherever English-speakers travel – or when they approach other cultures linguistically – that nothing more should be said about it.

Education should be the first and last bulwark against monolingualism, which itself is what makes linguistic imperialism possible. In his influential survey of the influence of classical culture on European literature, Gilbert Highet underlined the medieval and Renaissance bilingualism and the importance for a nation to open itself to other languages (not only by adopting food names and beverages, but by learning foreign languages, meeting foreign speakers on their own terms). Outlining the three types of engagement with the Greco-Roman antiquity (translation, imitation, emulation), he writes that

Translation, that neglected art, is a far more important element in literature than most of us believe. It does not usually create great works; but it often helps great works to be created. In the Renaissance, the age of masterpieces, it was particularly important.

The first literary translation from one language into another was made about 250 B.C., when the half-Greek half-Roman poet Livius Andronicus turned Homer’s Odyssey into Latin for use as a textbook of Greek poetry and legend. (Traditionally, it was about the same time that a committee of seventy-two rabbis was translating certain books of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek for the use of the Jews scattered beyond Palestine, who were forgetting Hebrew and Aramaic; but that version was not made for artistic purposes, and was not such a great milestone in the history of education.) The translation made by Livius Andronicus was a serious and partly successful attempt to re-create a work of art in the framework of a different language and culture. It was the first of many hundreds of thousands.

To the precedent set by Livius we owe much of our modern system of education. The Greeks studied no literature but their own: it was so various, original, and graceful that perhaps they needed nothing more. But the native Roman literature and Roman culture were rude and simple: so, from the third century B.C., Rome went to school with the Greeks. Ever since then the intellectual standards of each European nation have closely corresponded to the importance assumed in its education by the learning and translation of some foreign cultural language. Roman literature and Roman thought rose to their noblest when all educated Romans spoke and wrote Greek as well as Latin. The poetry of Vergil, the drama of Plautus and Seneca, the oratory and philosophy of Cicero, were not Roman, but, as we have often called them, a perfect synthesis which was Greco-Roman. When the western Roman empire ceased to know Greek, its culture declined and withered away. But after that, throughout the Dark Ages, culture was kept alive by the few persons who knew another language as well as their own: by the monks, priests, and scholars who understood not only Anglo-Saxon or Irish Gaelic or primitive French, but Latin too. With the spread of bilingualism through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, European culture deepened and broadened. The Renaissance was largely created by many interacting groups of men who spoke not only their own tongue but Latin too, and sometimes Greek. If Copernicus, Rabelais, Shakespeare, if Queen Elizabeth and Lorenzo de’ Medici had not known Latin, if they had not all, with so many others, enjoyed their use of it and been stimulated by it, we might dismiss Renaissance latinity as a pedantic affectation. But the evidence is too strong and unidirectional. The synthesis of Greco-Roman with modern European culture in the Renaissanceproduced an age of thought and achievement comparable in magnificence to the earlier synthesis between the spirit of Greece and the energy of Rome.

Since then the culture of each civilized European nation has been largely based on the teaching of some other language in its schools and the constant flow of translations, imitations, and emulations into its literature. The other language need not be Latin or Greek. The Russians profited from learning German. The Germans profited from learning French. The essential thing is that the additional language should be the vehicle of a rich culture, so that it will expand home-keeping minds and prevent the unconscious assumption that parochialism is a virtue. The main justification for learning Latin and Greek is that the culture they open to those who know them is nobler and richer than any other in our world.

The intellectual importance of translation is so obvious that it is often overlooked. No language, no nation is sufficient unto itself. Its mind must be enlarged by the thoughts of other nations, or else it will warp and shrivel. In English, as in other languages, many of the greatest ideas we use have been brought in through translation. The central book of the English-speaking peoples is a translation—although it comes as a shock to many to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated by a committee of scholars. There are many great books which none but specialists need read in the original, but which through translation have added essential ideas to our minds: Euclid’s Elements, Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1946), pp. 104-106.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: