Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.
For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.
Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.
So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.
Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.
I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.
Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.
Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.
Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.
I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!
Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.
El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.
How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.
Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.
For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.
With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.
I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.
The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.
Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.
Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.
The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.
For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.
Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.
For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.
To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.
Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.
For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.
I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.
I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.
At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.
A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.
If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue. No day without a line, no day without a word.
To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?
It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.
Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.
Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:
If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.
All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.
Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).
Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.
This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!
Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.
Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.
This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.
Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.
Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!
Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?
First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.
Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.
And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.
This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.
Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.
At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.
This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.
Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.
The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!
The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.
This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.
Last February, I went to a small Spanish town of Girona, to share with PhD students my own experiences doing a PhD in the early 2000s.
The town was full of young people, local students and visitors alike.
Perhaps because of this youthful crowd, or of nostalgia of my distant student years, or perhaps of my looming birthday, I could not stop thinking of a Russian saying, Если бы молодость знала, если бы старость могла (“if youth only knew, if age only could”).
Wait, suddenly said my inner linguist, but where does this saying come from?
It turns out, it is a translation of a French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait, which was attested in the 16th century.
The source is Henri Estienne (1528 or 1531 – 1598), also known as Henricus Stephanus, a 16th-century French printer, humanist, philologist, and Classical scholar. His most celebrated work is the five-volume Thesaurus graecae linguae, or Greek thesaurus, published in 1572 and still in use today.
In 1594, he published a collection of epigrams related to proverbs and other sayings, called Les prémices, ou le premier livre des proverbes épigrammatisés, ou des épigrammes proverbiales rangées en lieux communs. Epigramme Nr 191 refers precisely to the French saying si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.
An accomplished philologist, Etienne not only explains the meaning and the usage of the French saying, but analyses its equivalents in Ancient Greek, where a similar saying existed: exploits to the young, advice to the old:
quelques autres languages ont des proverbes correspondants à celui-ci: & notamment le grec: disant,
C’est à dire, aux jeunes les exploits, aux vieux les conseils.
Ils ont encore une autre semblable à cestui-ci.
Mais il me souvient aussi d’un tiers, auquel il est fait mention de ceux qui sont entre deux âges. & quant aux vieillards, il ne fait mention que de leurs souhaits. Car il dit aussi:
ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων
C’est à dire, les exploits des jeunes, les conseils de ceux qui sont de moyen âge, les souhaits des vieillards. Mais il est certain que de ce proverbe n’est pas authentique comme l’autre.
Now, what is the source of the Greek saying? It turns out, Estienne quotes Souda, or Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, a compilation of 30000 entries, many of them using Ancient sources that have since been lost. A lexicographer himself, Etienne must have known and consulted the Suda lexicon.
In fact, the proverb figures in one of the Suda’ entries: Νέοις μὲν ἔργα, βουλὰς δὲ γεραιτέροισιν (young men should act (but) their elders advise). An English translation explains:
A truncated version (also in Appendix Proverbiorum 4.6) of an axiom attributed by Hyperides (fr. 57 Jensen) to Hesiod: ἔργα νέων, βουλαὶ δὲ μέσων, εὐχαὶ δὲ γερόντων , “Young men’s acts, the middle-aged’s advice, old men’s prayers”.
Here you are. From Russian, to French, to Ancient Greek, with probably some steps lost in between: for example, how a quotation from a learned work in French became so popular in Russian?
Curiously, on English, there is an expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’, but its meaning is different, and I don’t like it. The only English phrase about age I use frequently is ‘old age is not for sissies’, which is the title of a funny book my friends gave me for my 30th birthday.
I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.
When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.
I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.
A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.
she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.
The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:
After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.
The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.
As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.
Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.
Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.
I published a beautiful book
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
Did I plunge into grief?
I published another,
written with fervour –
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
started to write:
for men who rob the exchequer,
couples living in sin,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.
And when it was published
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.
Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.
The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name. Trīs grāmatas
bet visi veikali
no manas grāmatas.
Bet vai es noskumu?
Izdevu otru es
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.
es meklēju viņu
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
Un, kad es,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
smaršoja tikai vairs
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
auto šoferiem un
Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
manas grāmatas vārdu.
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
— Lai dzīvo! —
Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.
This post is inspired by a beautiful initiative presented by a philharmonic orchestra of Grand Canary, La Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. Last Sunday, its 79 musicians played and recorded themselves from their homes, apartments, and gardens. Their technicians mixed and edited the audios and videos, to give a magical impression that the orchestra played together.
The performance is stunning musically, technically, and also humanly, and you can watch it here.
One additional aspect struck me as I was reading the final credits: how multilingual the whole endeavour was. The orchestra is Spanish, the conductor is British, the soloist is Latvian, the musicians, judging by their names, are from all over the world, and the music is Gustav Mahler’ Resurrection Symphony.
Classical music is one of the fields where multilingual is normal. A question is often asked whether having a musical ear (which is definitely not my case) helps one to learn foreign language. Singers have to learn texts in a variety of languages paying particular attention to pronunciation and enunciation, and these techniques can be used by simple mortals to improve their accents. Still, between being able to perform in a language differs from speaking it, thus researchers are not certain about the relation between musical and language learning abilities.
More significantly, I think, is that many musicians lead truly multilingual lives: they study abroad, perform all over the world, travel to competitions and festivals, and have international friends, colleagues, and often families. For example, the soloist in the video, Elīna Garanča, who is my favourite opera singer, probably masters at least five languages: Latvian, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and sings also in Italian and French.
On a completely different note, multilingualism in the music world is satirically reflected in a filmProva d’orchestra (‘Orchestra Rehearsal’) by Federico Fellini, where Italian musicians revolt against the conductor, who speaks with a heavy German accent.
In the early 2000s, I participated in the International Poetry Club. We would meet every couple of months in someone’s house, share food, and recite poetry in different languages. Each session had a topic, and each of us would present a poem related to that topic, in the original and in English translation.
Several times I presented poems by Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a famous Latvian poet.
His poetry is a mixture of modernism, futurism, and absurdism, but above all, he is an urbanist. Whereas most of his contemporaries were singing the beauty of Latvian countryside, he was singing the hustle and bustle of a city. More precisely, the city, his Riga, where now a central street, always busy and at places seedy, bears his name.
Čaks is one of my favourite poets. I like his humour, his extravagant comparisons and unusual metaphors, unexpected, even absurd turns and twists.
This poem is entitled Slikti, meaning ‘Too bad’, a title rather appropriate for the current situation.
I, Latvian poet
What shall I sing about?
Is dry and thin
Like worn out leather
of an armchair.
Were I a black poet,
I would sing songs
Dark and warm,
Like nights in July,
Without stars and wind,
Would sing songs
About flesh of girls,
Brown and strong like the earth,
Would sing songs
About freedom far away,
Like clouds in the air,
Were I a black poet.
Now we have
who paint their tiny lips like cloth,
We walk on them
Quietly like cats,
And die quietly.
es, latviešu dzejnieks,–
par ko lai es dziedu?
sausa un plāna
kā izkopta āda
Būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks,
kas tumšas un siltas
kā jūlija naktis
bez zvaigznēm un vēja,
par jaunavu miesu —
brūno un stingro kā zemi,
par brīvību tālo,
kā mākoņi gaisos —
būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks.
kas lūpiņas krāso kā drēbi,
ar kurām mēs ejam
klusi kā kaķi,
un nomirstam klusi.
A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.
This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.
Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.
Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.