My son (does he know his daddy, or what?) for Christmas gave me a copy of David Bellos’ well reviewed book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything which I’ve recently begun reading. My interest in the subject of translation arises partly because I work weekly (possibly weakly as well) with a translated document whose translation is often contested or mishandled and partly because I’m just interested in lots of strange stuff. (And, I confess, the obvious reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the title was an attraction as well.)
Just a few pages in and I’m already fascinated enough to want to share a couple of random paragraphs. The first has to do with how English has become the predominant language in which scientific work is published. Its reference to an early “Writer on Scientific Topics” is intriguing:
English is the language of science worldwide; learned journals published in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, Berlin, and Paris are now either entirely in English or else carry English translations alongside foreign-language texts. Academic advancement everywhere is dependent on publication in English. Indeed, in Israel it is said that God himself would not get promotion in any science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Why not? Because he has only one publication — and it was not written in English. (I do not really believe this story. The fact that the publication in question has been translated into English and is even available in paperback would surely overrule the promotion committee’s misgivings.)
The second has to do with the number of languages one would have to learn in order to communicate without translation with significant portions of the world’s population.
To engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all their first languages. You need to learn all their vehicular languages — languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. There are about eighty languages used in this way in some part of the world. But because vehicular languages are also native to some (usually very large) groups, and because many people speak more than one vehicular language (of which one may or may not be native to them), you do not need to learn all eighty vehicular languages to communicate with most people on the planet. Knowing just nine of them — Chinese (with 1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million), and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion — would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotiation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 percent of the world’s population.
Makes me lament my monolinqualism.