Translations, and then Languages

I’ve talked a bit about language learning in previous posts. It’s something I happen to be pretty excited about at the moment, but it hasn’t always been such a big focus for me.

When I first started to get excited about familiarizing myself with the history of philosophy, I had done a little bit of language study, but I was still very far from being very fluent in any of the few languages I had studied.

And at that point I was realizing how little I knew of philosophy, how much I needed to learn. It felt pretty urgent! It was a burning need, which I could not put off for long. So after some internal struggle, I made a deal with myself:

I will stop studying languages for a little while, I told myself, so that I can focus on reading through the history of philosophy in translation. But then later, I will return to my study of languages so that I can revisit the study of philosophy, at my leisure, in the original texts.

I hoped I’d find a way to study languages on my own, years after college, and then also to get pretty good at them! How foolhardy does that sound?

I knew when I made that deal with myself that it was a dangerous move. “I’ll study the languages more later” is the kind of thing someone says when they have studied a language in school and are about to leave it behind forever.

I knew it was possible that if I left the languages lying unused for too long, I might never find the time or motivation to return to them. So I gambled. I gambled on my ability to follow through and find a way to get back into the languages.

And so far, the gamble seems like it may have paid off. For the past couple years I’ve been easing back into the study of languages, and in the past half a year I’ve been making excellent progress.

It felt like stepping off a cliff, way back then, and hoping for the best. It was the only way forward I could see that would allow me to secure the things I desired in the order in which I desired to have them, but it was never a sure thing.

After I graduated college it took me a year to read through the complete works of Plato in translation, which I did often in the evenings or during coffee breaks at work. Once I had finished that, I knew there was still Aristotle ahead of me, Plotinus, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Kant, and so many others. And I wanted to move on to those other thinkers as soon as I could.

I knew that I couldn’t leap directly into the original languages and spend half a decade trying to read through Plato in Greek. I was hungry to know the history of philosophy, and reading it in translations seemed the best middle ground between reading in the original languages on the one hand, and reading a book about the history of philosophy on the other (which would be much faster, but also inexpressibly shallower).

So I did it. It’s certainly not a fast path, but it is fast enough, and it’s thorough.

And because it seems to be working out so far, I’m glad I made the choice I did, and I’m happy to recommend the same sort of approach to others. I can’t say it’s always easy, but in my experience so far, I can say that it does at least seem to be possible.

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