Literature is business. Period!

Written by J.D. Ian Barton & Dr Salvatore Ivan Italiano;
© (2017)

A few days ago I was talking to a Human Resources expert about the importance of speaking more than one foreign language. However, I was really surprised about his lack of interest in literature and poetry and I was reminded of how poor and lacking must be the work produced by translators, interpreters and other professionals involved with foreign languages but with no knowledge of the related literature. I have a feeling of schadenfreude every time a lawyer in the USA is punished with a fine and a suspension and is made to pay a thousand dollars on account of his/her legal brief being full of English grammar mistakes. The US judges know how to keep them on their toes.

I have many times been asked the same question over and over again: what is the use of literature? In answering this question I usually paraphrase the words of the German poet Ulrike Draesner: literature, poetry and the liberal arts are, generally speaking, the Anwalt des wissenschaftlichen Unsichtbaren – the champions of what is scientifically invisible.

Mankind’s need for meaning and the yearning for happiness are not fulfilled by science and material wealth (1). Literature and poetry develop our skills for interpreting language and specific cultural principles of those foreign languages we deal with and deepens our ability to further understand what is being said by the native speakers.

It is amateurish and unprofessional to ignore the denotation and connotation of the specific cultural principles of languages that can only be learned properly only by an in depth study of literature. Even the most practical and unemotional individual can benefit from learning something beyond his own field of competence, and a study of literature provides the type of imaginative human development that can prove very valuable in the long run.Unfortunately today, many universities have decided to emphasise business and technical education at the expense of the humanities – to the detriment of our human nature. This soulless and coldly calculated decision stems from the assumption that literature has no utilitarian value – what type of professionals are being produced out there?

Literature involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing and writing and its practical pedagogical value lies in stimulating these mental activities and thereby improves the ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. It is no surprise that 95% of the speakers of English as a second language lack sophistication and are known to make a mess of contractual negotiations and agreements when involved in a business.

The study of literature takes us directly into the analysis of complex literary texts and in so doing it develops complementary verbal skills which are transferable to other spheres. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend and analyse other variations of text (newspapers, reports, briefs etc.).

By way of example, I was reading a German article (2) when I suddenly came across a peculiarly Italian cultural concept, which reads as follow: „wahnsinnigen und vollkommen verzweifelten Studium“– of which the only possible Italian rendering is […] “studio matto e disperatissimo.”

Studio matto e disperatissimo is an Italian cultural specific expression which refers to the manic seven year period of study that Giacomo Leopardi undertook on his own in his father’s library from his childhood into adolescence. This expression could also be considered a linguistic metonymy with a variation of meaning: had he such feelings of ‘desperation’ and ‘mania’? So much so that his feelings were in some way transferred towards his studies?

This is only a basic example of how a thorough grounding in literature automatically provides knowledge of one’s linguistic literary heritage while at the same time increasing awareness of cultural values, history, sociology, psychology and almost every branch of human knowledge. The study of literature expands our capacity to sympathise with other human beings, enhances our ability to see and comprehend human complexity, and broadens our intellectual horizons by enlarging our power to experience life vicariously.

In point of fact, together with being foreign language professionals in the domain of international communication and translation we, at Lawinwords, are melancholic enthusiasts of sophisticated and valuable words, and firm believers that some form of Orwellian conspiracy is currently at play in the world attempting to eliminate a valid stream of free human thought by the weakening and destruction of the very bricks of thought – words.

This is one of the reasons why we could choose to render, for example, the German Hofbräuhaus with the culturally specific English term ale house and the English story telling with the Italian Affabulazione (every cultural tradition should be respected using the very specific words of that culture). Yes! We do not envisage a standardised translation hotchpotch!

(1) Dr Salvatore Ivan Italiano (2017).
(2); August 2017. Italienische Literatur. Erheiterung einer Mumie – Von Maike Albath.

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Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano
Dr Salvatore Ivan Italiano

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