Once I wanted to do an MFA workshop on translation here, but, aside from other bureaucratic problems, it turned out that not enough students knew any languages. Universities are eliminating many languages, and turning classics into "classical studies" with no Greek or Latin.
I've been reading Lydia Davis's essay (part 2), mostly on translation. She also talks about learning some Spanish and Dutch, etc... She has some really great observations about translation in general, and about Proust in particular. Her essays confirm to me her brilliance over all as a writer. It's not just the same banal thing every translator says. It is a very pragmatic approach, not theoretical in the sense you might be thinking, but not naive or unintelligent either. Her approach to learning Spanish was to read Tom Sawyer, in Spanish. This is an approach I use sometimes: choose a fairly simple or straightforward text in the language you want to learn, and just read without looking up words in the dictionary. It's better to read 100 pages without understanding every single word than to decipher 10 pages completely, with perfect understanding of every word.
You could say most people don't need languages, and you could have education narrowly tailored to what people need. You had an idea of classical education, then, an idea of liberal education with at least some second language as part of it, then an idea of liberal education with nothing particularly difficult left in it. For a PhD, you used to need a language because scholarship was done in languages other than English, but that is less and less true. Scientists don't need German any more.
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