The Corner

Media

À chacun son goût

Jay, about those foreign phrases: For the very reason you mention (instantaneous translation of unfamiliar phrases made available by the Internet) I am much more likely to use fun and interesting foreign words or phrases simply because they are fun and interesting, for the right kind of reader. (I don’t think the other kind of reader is likely to enjoy my work or to benefit from it.) And why not? It is not a cosmic necessity that the Internet make writing more stupid, even if it mostly does.

One red line for many writers used to be non-Latin script, and so Lenin’s question would be rendered “Who, whom?” rather than “кто кого?” even though the Cyrillic is more evocative, at least to those of us who grew up during the Cold War. I might hesitate to use that in a daily newspaper column or something similar. But in a long essay or a book, I think phrases in non-Latin script can add a bit of extra flavor. They’re a little bonus for people who know Russian or Greek or whatever, and those people need encouragement. And sometimes they make a lot of sense in context, even though they also are an invitation to error.

I’d be curious to hear from others around here how they go about deciding when to include or exclude foreign phrases — or more recondite English for that matter.

Most readers probably would not recognize ὀχλοκρατία or streitbare Demokratie (to take two terms I rely on in The Smallest Minority), but I think it is fun to throw them out there for readers raw. And they also let people who don’t like that kind of writing know that this isn’t meant for them. (“It’s the sort of thing you’ll like, if you like that sort of thing.”) Stephen Hawking said that when he was writing A Brief History of Time “someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales.” Of course most of us prefer to sell more books rather than fewer, but, at the same time, it is reasonable to ask: Are the people who are skipping a Stephen Hawking book because it has an equation in it the people who are going to benefit from reading a Stephen Hawking book? Are the people who object to untranslated French in Jay Nordlinger columns looking for Jay Nordlinger columns? If so, why?

A Brief History of Time is said to be a world-record holder when it comes to the delta between the number of people who bought the book and the number of people who read the book, and I suspect that Hawking here uncharacteristically got the math wrong: Those equations may not have halved the sales, but they may have halved the readership.

T. S. Eliot may have assumed that his readers would have enough Latin and Greek to understand the quotation from The Satyricon that he uses as an epigraph to The Waste-Land

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβνλλα τί ϴέλεις; respondebat illa: άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω.

and that they would recognize the compliment to Ezra Pound (il miglior fabbro) in the dedication as a line from Dante, but I suspect that he would have used the untranslated foreign terms in any case for aesthetic reasons, to convey an impression of that “heap of broken images” he wrote about.

For us less rarefied writers down here in the world of opinion journalism, there’s the ever-present question of what it is we are supposed to be and to be doing: Are we writers here to inform and entertain, or are we political functionaries here to move the ball forward on behalf of this or that party or cause? A few years ago, I was in a room full of very angry Republicans demanding to know what I was doing to help to ensure that the GOP had a good showing in the upcoming elections, and they were annoyed and confused when I answered: “Nothing.” That isn’t what I do. There is certainly room for that kind of writing, and there is a very large and lucrative market for that kind of broadcasting, and you probably don’t want a lot of untranslated French or Latin or Greek in it. All that railing against “elitism” makes sense if your project is building an electoral coalition.

If your project is something else, then that “elitism” (which often is not elitism) may be inescapable, since there are many worthwhile pursuits that are neither popular nor democratic nor reconcilable with the populist-democratic sensibility. Taylor Swift is going to put a hell of a lot more paying asses in concert-venue seats than Itzhak Perlman will this year. And if that is how you calculate value, then you are going to prefer the more accessible mode of writing. The kind of writing that doesn’t have a lot of untranslated French in it is going to get a lot more clicks than the kind of writing that has a lot of untranslated French in it.

But there still is room for that less popular kind of writing, too, I hope. (The first printing of Pride and Prejudice was 1,500 copies; Michelle Obama’s memoir sold 3.4 million copies in 2018.) I think the trouble comes when readers (and, just as often, writers) don’t know which is which, or which is being attempted. I hear from time to time from readers who cannot figure out how an essay about the hideousness of Washington’s architecture or the general awfulness of public art in the United States is going to help Republicans cut corporate taxes or win souls to the one true faith of conservatism. They end up disappointed because they come looking for one kind of writing and find a different kind.

And that’s the tricky thing to get right in advocacy journalism: the relative proportions of advocacy and journalism. If you are the kind of writer who awaits personal vindication on Election Day, then you’ll probably favor a more popular idiom. At the risk of making this an extended commercial for National Review, I am grateful that Bill Buckley’s magazine exists and still publishes the kind of writing that might include an occasional French phrase, along with more accessible material. À chacun son goût.

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