Friday, 22 February 2013

Why are all the good historians British?

After work I popped by Gazeta Café for a meeting with two eminent British historians, both of whom are having their latest books about the Second World War launched in Polish translation. Anthony Beevor (left) and Norman Davies (right).[Thanks to Paddy for the tip-off!]

The event was staged as a question-and-answer session, with both men offering their interpretation of the same historical point. Nothing greatly staggering nor novel in either's answers, until a question came from the audience. "To what do you attribute the success of British historiography? Why are the works of British historians so readily translated into other languages, compared to those of, say, French, German or Russian historians?

A very good question. Why indeed? Anthony Beevor replied that he considers history to be "a branch of literature... From Gibbon's Fall of the Roman Empire, there has been a tradition of narrative," he said; the telling of the story is crucial. "European historians are more analytical then British professors, who write in an easy-to-follow manner. History is not science; it cannot be analysed in a laboratory; it cannot be objective."

Norman Davies concurred. "Anthony and I were brought up in the same tradition - I went to the same college as Edward Gibbon (Magdalen College, Oxford). There is no conflict between history as knowledge and literature. At Oxford we were taught two things: one - you have to know your subject, and two - you have to be able to convey that knowledge. If you know your stuff, but can't tell it - it's useless. If you can talk well but know little - też beznadziejnie!" (At this point I should add that Norman Davies did the entire event in Polish.)

This is so crucial! It applies not only to historians but also to lawyers and indeed to any group of specialists who have to communicate to a broader public. Having taught Polish lawyers to speak English for many years, I can see that Polish universities do not appreciate the importance of teaching their students how to make their point, how to write clearly.

A propos of which, Student SGH points out that yesterday was International Mother Language Day, and  that if anything threatens the Polish language, its bureaucratic gobbledegook. In the link he sent me, there's a quote from the Mazowsze province governor, Jacek Kozłowski "Why say 'Uzewnętrznienie decyzji w stosunku do strony stwarza nową sytuacje procesową', when you can equally well say 'Dopiero po otrzymaniu decyzji, może się Pan od niej odwołać'? (apologies to my non-Polish speaking readers!)

This time last year:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This two years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time four years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time five years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst


Sigismundo said...

Most Polish academics that I've worked with, even relatively young ones, seem to go out of their way to ensure that their language is as convoluted and opaque as possible. If it were too plain and readable they fear that their bloated egos would not be treated with the deference and respect they feel they deserve: "Surely academic language is the same everywhere in the world?" they say.

Ermm, no it isn't.

I tried to explain to one "Herr Doktor" about the campaign for plain English, which started in the 1970s and has transformed both business and academic English in the UK. I quoted Norman Davies as an example of good style in British/American academia. The 'Herr Doktor', who demanded to be addressed as such by me despite being more than a decade younger, just didn't believe me...

Poland desperately needs a Campaign for Plain Polish!

AndrzejK said...

Only in Poland could you have a major party proposing as the next Prime Minister a professor with absolutely no experience in managing anything. But I guess the ability to obfuscate and take an hour to convey absolutely nothing is a case in point. Even Professor Balcerowicz has fallen into the trap of assuming that his title is sufficient in itself to give him the right to insult Jacek Rostowski. Ahe well those who can't teach......

It's just so different in the UK.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Andrzej K:

Different - or better?

AndrzejK said...

Given that in the UK we had that Scot Gordon Brown single handed getting his own back on the English (and by default the Welsh) for Culloden I am not so sure. But at least in most cases academics don't make total prats of themselves.