Dr. David Gramling is a Professor of German Studies and Head of the Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies (CENES).
Originally from the United States, he joined the CENES Department in January 2021. Dr. Gramling’s main research interests include monolingualism, multilingualism and translation. Melissa Phua, Program Assistant for German Studies, spoke with Dr. Gramling about his research, multilingualism and language learning.
One of your main areas of research is translation studies. What brought you to this field?
I was working on a huge project during my graduate studies that required me to translate and edit hundreds of pages of German and Turkish into English for a book called Germany in Transit. This practical experience introduced me to a lot of the everyday problems, concerns and joys that translators and interpreters enjoy: designing for audiences, shaping the message, choosing phrases and tones that are adequate to the original dynamics of the piece, etc. It was only after having that workshop-like apprenticeship that I got into translation as a research topic.
What do you enjoy most about your research in translation studies?
The practical work of translating, the nitty-gritty of it, is for me the field upon which all matters of language and — frankly — of human culture and existence are tested. I’ve always felt disappointed in approaches to translation that are too highly abstract, that leaves the real handiwork and the real intelligence of the work behind. I like how languages make things difficult to universalize in the world. That’s the joy and the spark of translation for me, when it kind of gets out of control — as the bilingual writer Peter Waterhouse says!
You’ve also written books about multilingualism and monolingualism. Why do you think multilingualism is important?
There is knowledge and insight dwelling in all of the world’s 7,000 languages. Multilingualism is simply the best way we can discover necessary solutions to difficult problems, new concepts and images that make life worth living, not to mention the sounds and pleasures that all those languages house. Astrophysicists acknowledge that the universe is complex and unknowable. I feel the same way about this way too about the multilingual world.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start learning foreign languages?
Read it aloud, be gentle with yourself. Speak along with the TV, podcasts, TikTok or radio. Slow the audio down to 50% speed, play it back multiple times. Record yourself speaking a text, song or poem, and keep re-recording it until you’re happy with your pace, flow, phrasing, pronunciation. Find a voice in that language that you love, and imitate it. Find something in the language that you find utterly irresistible, take it home with you, and put it on your wall. It’s difficult to learn languages well, and you’ll need many sparks of enchantment along the way. The only way to stick with it is to collect all those sparks along the way that you can.