Kenan Malik in The Guardian:
In 1768, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder paid a visit to the French city of Nantes. “I am getting to know the French language and ways of thinking,” he wrote to fellow-philosopher Johann Georg Hamann. But, “the closer my acquaintance with them is, the greater my sense of alienation becomes”.
It was not just because Herder despised the French. It was also that he did not think it possible truly to engage with another culture. Every people was bound by its Volksgeist or inner spirit. In each language dwells “the entire world of tradition, history, principles of existence: its whole heart and soul”. That was why he could “only stammer with intense effort in the words of a foreign language; its spirit will evade me”. Cultural divides were unbridgeable.
I was reminded of Herder’s letter by the controversy last week over the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poems into Dutch. Gorman is the African-American poet who stole the show at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony.