Deprived of Voltaire and Goethe

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Three cheers for Philip Pullman's thought-provoking article on literature from other languages ("Still lost in translation", TES, September 23).

He is certainly not alone in remembering translated children's books. There were also charmingly atmospheric television programmes in the excellent Tales from Europe series.

Mr Pullman makes the practical point that "it costs money to translate books, because it's a demanding intellectual activity and there aren't many people who can do it well". Anyone who cares about languages as an intellectual discipline, as opposed simply to a means of ordering sausages when on holiday in Germany, will understand why: no translation at GCSE, either into English or into foreign languages; extremely short passages (not of a literary nature) at a relatively undemanding level even at A-level; no compulsory literature either.

Indeed, of the fewer and fewer people who choose French and German at A-level and go on to study them at university, there are many who have never read a whole book in a foreign language, or even encountered foreign books in translation.

In a characteristically perverse demonstration of what the Prime Minister used to call "joined-up thinking" the Government's response to this lamentable situation is to remove compulsory languages from the 14-19 curriculum and, in an impressive feat of legerdemain, to demand them in primary schools, taught by an inevitably dwindling group of language graduates.

Until teachers begin to regain their faith in the virtue of studying languages for their enormous intellectual and cultural merit, there is little chance that the people required to provide the books which embellished Philip Pullman's childhood and helped form his imagination will ever be available again. When are we going to wake up?

Simon Corns Second master St Albans schoolHerts

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