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I was trying to learn some history of the Middle East; however, I thought to myself that most relevant sources about it are in Arabic, a language I don't know how to read or write, and you must rely on translations whose accuracy you're not able to assess.

Another example of this is the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648, of which it is often said that you need to be able to read eleven languages to really understand it. How can I overcome these limitations?

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    For academic sources, best bet is usually to look at peer reviews. You seem to be making two assumptions though: (1) that sources in the language of the country you want to study are necessarily reliable and unbiased, and (2) that languages don't change over time; you speak English but primary sources for early English history would be mostly incomprehensible to you (and most were written in Old French or Latin anyway). Nov 4 '21 at 4:17
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    I'm skeptical of the assumption that we can't learn the history of a country or region with sources in our native language. While it might be more challenging to contribute original research in the field without mastering the native language, few of us have that goal. The way to "properly learn" history is with joyful intellectual curiosity; anyone who limits that is doing it improperly.
    – MCW
    Nov 4 '21 at 11:34
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    @MCW To some extent, that does depend on what ‘our native language’ is and what the country we want to learn about is and in how much detail we want to learn about that country’s history. I would not expect, for example, to find good comprehensive sources about the history of Luxembourg in Thai. Nov 4 '21 at 12:27
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    @AustinHemmelgarn - While I wouldn't argue that point, I believe it is an edge case. My concern is that the line of reasoning that advances from "only native language sources" can be used/has been used to reach conclusions that make me very uncomfortable. History leads us to understanding humanity; attempting to limit understanding only to native cultures/languages borders on assertions of cultural/racial superiority, and that makes me uncomfortable.
    – MCW
    Nov 4 '21 at 12:35
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    In many cases if you really want to learn the history of a country, read not only what was published in that country, but also what was published in neighboring countries. It's not uncommon to see examples of countries making up a fake (but better sounding) history for themselves to justify their current ideological views.
    – vsz
    Nov 5 '21 at 15:03
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When people say you need to read sources in n languages to fully understand some piece of history, it is usually motivated by one of two things:

  • A desire to exclude someone's expertise by saying they don't speak the necessary languages, as described in Jos's answer.
  • The person writing is an expert, who is very familiar with the details and hence understands the additional nuances which reading the relevant languages would provide, and the limitations of reading translations, or who wants to contribute original research to the field. An academic studying the Thirty-Years War, to use your example, would be very limited if she only read sources in English.

From your question it does not seem like you are seeking a graduate-level understanding of these parts of history – you are not in the position of the academic in my second bullet point. Moreover, from your writing it seems like you are a competent English reader, which is an advantage as the majority of modern scholarship is written in English.

Therefore, you should read books in languages you understand by reputable historians, starting with introductory texts which will help direct your further reading, and also will help you understand that further reading.

The fact that you have asked this question shows that you understand the importance of reading sources from a diversity of backgrounds, and reading critically; both of these are important in helping you get a more rounded understanding of the history. (Note that reading in the local languages would not by itself give you a detailed, comprehensive or balanced understanding anyway.)

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    Superb answer - you said it better than I could have
    – MCW
    Nov 4 '21 at 13:01
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You read what reputable (usually peer reviewed) authors have written in a language that you can understand. It's a common fallacy to eliminate contradictory views by stating that you have to have certain knowledge or quality before you have an opinion.

Muslims sometimes claim non-believers cannot have an opinion about the Koran, as they can't read Arabic. There are non-Muslim people fluent in Arabic (Palestinian Christians or Assyrian Iraqi, for example) but they are also disqualified, because they lack a required level of understanding of the Koran. That required level of understanding does not apply to adherents of the faith. Likewise, feminists claim fairly often only women can have an opinion about certain matters. (These are just examples, there are plenty more.)

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    Or that one must be Dutch to have an opinion about the racism of Zwarte Piet. Nov 5 '21 at 13:21
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    I had one Muslim scholar point out to me that the Koran was written in 7th Century Arabic, not modern Arabic, and this can cause a lot of misunderstandings from people who only know modern Arabic. I don't know how much Arabic has changed since then, but in the same timeframe Beowulf was written, and that barely even looks like English to me.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 5 '21 at 15:58
  • @T.E.D., rumor has it that Arabic has multiple diverse dialects, but Modern Standard Arabic is fairly close to the classical one, at least in written form, precisely because of connection to religion. A fair comparison would be not how how well Americans understand Beowulf, but how well Catholics understand written Latin of Late Republic, and for the same reason: the conservation of the religion's tongue.
    – Michael
    Nov 5 '21 at 20:06
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    @Jos, I'd love to the the list of "group A claiming that only the members of their group can have an opinion on subject B", preferably with quotes. A list like that would be fairly entertaining, I imagine.
    – Michael
    Nov 5 '21 at 20:10
  • @Michael - It would kinda have to be. I can't imagine trying to make do with something like the King James bible if it had been written in Old English. Still, the point dude was making was the problems when people think they know what its saying, when they really don't because their modern dialect is a bit different.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 5 '21 at 20:30
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Let's suppose you want "to properly learn history of" England, and that you do speak and read English. How far back will you want to research?

A thousand years? Then you'd certainly read Beowolf in its original English:

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas.

Well, perhaps you're not that interested in history that goes back that far after all.

How about only 400 years ago, when the Early Modern English language was at its prime with Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible.

Such as Hamlet's soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? 'Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish'd. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there's the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shufflel'd off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd Loue, the Lawes delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is sicklied o're, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turne away,
And loose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons
Be all my sinnes remembred.
Hamlet (Folio 1, 1623) :: Internet Shakespeare Editions

Or Paul's description of charity:

And though I bestowe all my goods to feede the poore, and though I giue my body to bee burned, and haue not charitie, it profiteth me nothing.
Charitie suffereth long, and is kinde: charitie enuieth not: charitie vaunteth not it selfe, is not puffed vp,
Doeth not behaue it selfe vnseemly, seeketh not her owne, is not easily prouoked, thinketh no euill,
Reioyceth not in iniquitie, but reioyceth in the trueth:
Beareth all things, beleeueth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charitie neuer faileth: but whether there be prophesies, they shall faile; whether there bee tongues, they shall cease; whether there bee knowledge, it shall vanish away.
1 Corinthians Chapter 13 KJV

The Bible was deliberately translated with simple words to make it more accessible, so it's much more understandable than the Shakespeare. But, some of those words have different meanings now than what they had when this was written. The first line for instance no longer makes sense: If I give everything I own to feed the poor … but don't have charity …. Doesn't "charity" mean giving to feed the poor? Yes, it does now, but it didn't when this was written.

If you read a word whose meaning has changed, and don't realize that it has changed, you'll totally misinterpret the text.

Many words in the KJV no longer mean what they did when they were written.

And think of the words that are retained in songs that we still sing today: "don we now our gay apparel" means something quite different from what it meant only a century ago.

And what does "Naught be all else to me, save that thou art" mean? All those words are used with their current meaning, but the structure of the sentence is like nothing one would say today.

(See what to do when words change in meaning.)

The point is, that being fluent in a language is only of limited help in studying history. If you want to make use of it to study original documents, you're going to have to learn all the ancient version of it too. It's much easier and, unless you study so much that you become a famous scholar in ancient languages, more reliable to simply trust the work that others have done to translate the original works into the modern version of the language. But if you're going to do that, why not read works that have been translated into modern English, and not bother learning the modern version of a language that isn't going to help understand the original works anyway?

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  • Good points all. But obviously the King James Bible has the extra issue that early modern English was not the original language for that work either, nor was even the language it was being translated from (4th Century Latin). People who I know who want to get serious about learning a language to better understand The Bible learn languages like Koine Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew (whereupon they run headlong into the other typical ancient historian issue of "original sources" being various nth generation hand copies that are fragmentary and contradictory)
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 4 '21 at 18:32
  • Hmm. If you're actually interested in properly understanding those particular areas of history you need to directly understand the sources. The argument here seems to be that no-one could possibly understand all areas of history but, yeah, no-one can and no-one does. Nov 5 '21 at 18:02
  • @JackAidley, the question was from someone that was "trying to learn some history". At that level, its enough to read English translations, and then for the few really interesting bits look at the original language and work on it with a dictionary in hand. For instance, learning modern Greek and Hebrew really isn't going to be a lot of help in studying biblical texts (learning the two alphabets will help, a lot, but after that it's diminishing returns). Nov 5 '21 at 23:19
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Unless you're a linguistic polymath, obviously you can't study such things from primary sources. Even if you were, there are nuances of language that change over time, so it would help to also be an expert in the language dialect for the period and place. Tunisian Arabic is different from Syrian Arabic, and 17th century Syrian Arabic is different from modern Syrian Arabic.

Fortunately, very few people actually learn history directly from primary sources. There are professionals who spend their careers doing that, and then digesting it for the rest of us to understand.

What I generally suggest is to learn things first from a macro view. Historical Atlas resources like Colin McEvedy's Penguin atlases for me do a really good job of giving a rough idea of the relations of various historical events along the dimensions of both time and space. Then if you have something specific that interests you, you will have the knowledge to know how to zoom in on it, and at least some ability to keep the overall context of what you're reading about in mind.

And then you have to realize that there's probably important stuff that happened that we will never know about, because no recorded sources referring to it have survived to this day. There's also stuff we just have wrong, because our surviving sources had it wrong.

History is a lot like physics, in that its likely not possible to ever truly know it. The deeper you look at one thing, the more new detail there turns out to be. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know, and ultimately probably can't with our human limitations.

So don't beat yourself up over your limitations. Learn to accept them, be humble, and measure yourself by the standards of improvement, not perfection.

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There are 2 very different cases:

  1. Do you want to learn, even as a professional, about x country history? You don't need to learn any language, as long as there are enough studies and research published in your language.

  2. Do you want to research, contribute in academia or become an expert in x country history? You certainly need to learn any number of languages needed.

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  • Re point 1, it often helps if you can read English, though. And sometimes French.
    – Jan
    Nov 4 '21 at 20:56
  • I see this as a frame challenge, even. Someone incorrectly told the OP your case#1 required the original language, when that's not a thing. Whereas your case#2 is a common observation, even for non-countries -- the Bible for instance. Nov 5 '21 at 1:58
  • There's also the dimension of the degree to which the part of history you want to learn is a matter of dispute, and whether the research published in your own language was translated from or informed by primary source materials in the language of the people whose history it is. In many colonial contexts, that's not the case and the legitimacy of such "histories" is highly sus. Nov 5 '21 at 22:37
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Speaking the language of a country is in most cases neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding that country's history.

However, learning the language can help a lot with understanding (current or recent) culture and social dynamics. E.g. because you become more likely to get into closer contact with people from that country. And understanding recent culture and social dynamics can help a lot with understanding recent history. It makes it easier to quickly sanity-check some of the less valuable secondary sources. It gives you a better idea why people would act in a certain way, of what is socially acceptable and what is not, etc.

Of course learning a language also takes a non-trivial.amount of time (much more time than just the few days it takes to learn, e.g., Arabic letters), so there definitely is a trade-off. If you want to make a living from your deep understanding of Middle Eastern history, learning Arabic, and possibly Turkish and Persian, might be quite important. If it is just a hobby, you might as well do without it.

Last not least, certain details (say, Egyptian eye witness accounts from the Six-Day War, but this is just a guess) might only be covered well in the local language and not in English. And speaking a bit of the language can be really practical when visiting a country. So while not strictly necessary, it can still be quite useful.

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Knowing multiple languages to learn the history of a given country depends on just how deep you want to go in your learning. The first consideration is whether you want to go beyond the secondary sources & consult the primary sources.

(In a few words, primary sources are the eye-witness accounts of the time, such as contemporary newspapers, private letters, official records, etc. Their value depends on just how well one understands what they are saying. Secondary sources are the accounts that use primary sources to recount the events of the period covered, & their value depends on the skill of the person who writes them to explain what happened.)

Take the example above, "to properly learn history of England". While @RayButterworth mentions the various kinds of English one needs to learn, more likely to read primary sources for any period before 1600 one would need to be proficient in Latin, & perhaps Norman French. (Norman French was the language used in law courts from 1066 to the middle of the 14th century.) Or if one wanted to study diplomatic history, the primary sources would not only be in English, but of the other country -- or in French, which was the most commonly used diplomatic language until recently.

On the other hand, many primary sources have been translated into English, but with varying degrees of skill: an amazing amount of primary sources about ancient Greece & Rome, for example, have been translated into modern English. So the answer here is "it depends."

Now if you want to limit yourself to secondary sources, you could get away with knowing only English. Many histories are written in English, even by scholars whose native language is not English. It depends on what you are trying to learn about the period, & how deep you want to go. However, even here it might not be wise to limit yourself to just one language. In the case of the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648, this is a subject of interest to many different countries with many different languages. I imagine many important histories about that war have been not only written in English, but German, French, Polish, Czech, Danish & Swedish -- just to mention the countries that played a major role in that conflict. And it's not unimaginable that thoughtful analyses have been written in Russian, Italian, Finnish, Chinese & Japanese. So it all depends on just how far one wants to dive into the secondary literature.

As a consolation, consider that even experts on the period of the Thirty Years' War are proficient in only a few of the languages I mentioned above. As a result, experts are more likely to publish in more familiar languages such as English (the first choice), German, or French.

So it all depends on just how deep you want to dig into the subject. If you are reading about history just for pleasure, don't be embarrassed about sticking to only English-language materials -- although it might be rewarding to read primary sources in their original language. If you have a need to know more about a specific topic in a historical period, the best first step is to find out which languages will help you most to learn what you want to know, then learn those languages. That way you aren't blocked with fear you need to know a dozen languages just to answer a few specific questions.

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