Friday, October 24, 2014


Although - as a member of a Philology Department - I know a few people who are living proof that the above quotation is less than accurate, it is hard to tell to what extent Shaw's words are true - especially because there is no definition of what "fully capable" means. What I can tell you, though, is that these words can be found in Maxims for Revolutionists, a sort of annexe to The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion. This, in turn, is an addendum to Man and Superman, as many of you already know. 

Shaw's interest in foreign languages was rather limited, with the exception of the translation of his plays. Whether because of the incompetence of many of his translators or because he wanted to oversee everything concerning the publication of his works, Shaw exchanged a number of letters over specific words, phrases or passages in translation. His Collected Letters contain many examples of these, particularly with the Hamons (Augustin and Henriette), his French translators, and with Siegfried Trebitsch, the German one. 

On a more personal note, however, Shaw was quite aware of his lack of ability for foreign languages, as he conceded on a number of occasions. Perhaps one of the most oft-quoted anecdotes in this respect is recounted in his letter to Dino Grandi, Italian ambassador to Britain at the time, who had invited the Shaws to dine. (Bernard Shaw Collected Letters Vol. IV, p. 371-2) Shaw politely declined the invitation, partially on the grounds of what had happened the last time: 

"Your lady graciously came and spoke to me. I lost my head completely and tried to speak in Italian (which I cannot speak). The result was a stammering in very bad French (I am the worst of linguistis - not like you, who speak English better than any Englishman). It was evident to the Signora Grande that I was very drunk; and the conversation ended abruptly before I recovered my presence of mind."

Despite these shortcomings, Shaw was regarded by some as a very good speaker of a few foreign languages - although for reasons beyond his actual mastery of any of them. As Archibald Henderson puts it in his Bernard Shaw: A Critical Biography (p. 492):

"[Shaw] speaks no language but his own, and reads no foreign language, save French, with ease. I remember hearing someone ask Rodin whether Shaw really spoke French. "Ah! no!" replied Rodin, with his genial smile and a faint twinkle of the eyes; "Monsieur Shaw does not speak French. But somehow or other, by the very violence of his manner and gesticulation, he succeeds in imposing his meaning upon you!" Shaw is fond of relating the incident which laid the foundation for his reputation as an Italian scholar. “Once I was in Milan with a party of English folk. We were dining at the railway restaurant, and our waiter spoke no language other than his own. When the moment came to pay and rush for the train, we were unable to make him understand that we wanted not one bill, but twenty-four separate ones. My friends insisted that I must know Italian, so to act as interpreter, I racked my memory for chips from the language of Dante, but in vain. All of a sudden, a line from The Huguenots flashed to my brain: Ognuno per se / per tutti il ciel (‘Every man for himself / and heaven for all) I declaimed it with triumphant success. The army of waiters was doubled up with laughter, and my fame as an Italian scholar has been on the increase ever since.”

At any rate, nobody can blame Shaw for trying to pass as a great linguist. As he himself acknowledged in a note he wrote on the occasion of the premiere of The Devil's Disciple at the Raimund Theatre, Vienna (the manuscript is transcribed and annotated in The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, Vol. 20, pages 247-252): 

"Like all really able men I am congenitally incapable of acquiring foreign languages; but I have been so steeped in German music, and consequently in German poetry, all my life (having indeed learned more of my art as a writer for the stage from Mozart than from Shakespear, Molière or any literary dramatist) that I cannot help believing that I know German. I sometimes speak it; and my German friends are all agreed that nobody else in Europe speaks it in quite the same manner."

"Shaw and Foreign Languages and Literature." Sounds like something someone should write a book on. 

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