The Melody of Language

If language is like music, surely translators are in the best position to notice it, and to respond, whether with joy or foreboding. Probably all of us hear it. There’s a particular beat, a range of pitch and volume that’s recognizable as human speech, and one particularly recognizable as our own; there are also certain patterns of marks, in lines, on a surface that are identifiable as writing in a particular language. There are continuities and differences among them. Still, it must take a translator to really appreciate them.  A translator can be at “home” with the qualities of a particular language, familiar enough to hear it as a melody, and also be able to move between melodies, in a sense between worlds.

In the short text “Melodie der Sprache”,  Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) makes a brief, sweeping survey of such melodies, starting with the four he used on a regular basis (German, Portuguese, English and French, in order of frequency) and goes on to align them in the broader spectrum of language as such, pointing out both subtle and broad contrasts, e.g. between Western and Eastern languages, between spoken and written language. Overall, he advises his readers not to try to “explain” the melody of language by looking at its origins or development.  At the end, he returns to the issue, concluding that the question is unanswerable.

Flusser was, I’d like to emphasize, a translator par excellence.  He is still best known as a theorist of “new media,” (read: digital), although his engagement with language began long before the time of his close focus on communication technology, and ended long after.  He was a writer, a speaker (with exceptionally broad interests in science and history and art)  But more to the point, he translated constantly. Many of his own essays exist in multiple versions, translated back and forth among languages at different times in different circumstances, according to his own need to “exhaust” the meaning of a given text, or in response to a publishing opportunity. “Melodie der Sprache” is in fact a bit unusual in that he apparently never translated it.

I have translated it from German to English primarily to satisfy my own curiosity (English is my native language) as The Melody of Language, available here.  I’m familiar enough with Flusser’s writing to trust him to always  create, invent, mine his topic as he writes. This text is no exception. It is rich in insights about how languages reflect and reproduce their speakers’ and writers’ cognitive patterns.  It has, further, inadvertently persuaded me that although I’ll always understand him as a writer, speaker, and theorist, I will think of Flusser above all as a translator.

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