Truth be told:

Yvan Saint-Aubin in the CMS Notes, on behalf of the new bilingualism committee:

Truth be told, writing an elegant, masterful scientific article is possible only when we do so in our mother tongue.

Right. You could tell that to Hoory, Linial and Wigderson, the winners of the 2008 Levi Conant prize for the best expository article in the AMS Bulletin or Notices. Or you could read up on Joseph Conrad, who grew up in Ukraine, Russia and Poland and only became fluent in English in his twenties. Of course, Conrad was only writing fiction, which must be way easier than writing a “masterful” scientific article.

Don’t judge too quickly what others might or might not be capable of.

Update: Emmanuel Kowalski points out in comments that a more accurate translation of the original French would be:

Writing scientific texts elegantly is something that can probably only be done in one’s native language.

Which I still disagree with, but it doesn’t grate like the English version does. I have also removed the sentence that used to be at the top of this post, because I don’t think I would have made good on it.


Filed under mathematics: general

7 responses to “Truth be told:

  1. estraven

    You are of course right, but the rest of the article wasn’t so bad: Canada is a bilingual country, so it seems reasonable to expect that events for students, particularly beginners, include a part in French. Also in many fields of mathematics you really, really need to at least read French anyway, so it seems to me a win-win situation (plus, I really like French; it’s my first foreign language and the one I prefer).
    OT: my compliments for the blog and especially for blogging under your own name.

  2. I’m all in favour of learning languages. My native language is Polish, I like to think that I’ve learned some English over the years, and I speak some French and Russian. I’d be glad to have more opportunities to practice my French. But encouraging bilingualism while telling people at the same time that their second language will never really be good enough? That doesn’t fly.

  3. The original French has a different flavor:

    “L’écriture de textes scientifiques dans une langue élégante ne
    peut sans doute se faire que dans sa langue maternelle.”

    is something I would translate more literally as

    “Writing scientific texts elegantly is something that can probably only be done in one’s native language.”

  4. That does sound better, but does “sans doute” mean “probably”? I thought that it means “surely”, “without a doubt”.

  5. Literally, “sans doute” means “without doubt”; however, in France at least — despite my name, I am a French native — , this is always interpreted in a fairly weak sense, for which “probably” seems a good equivalent (this represents a move of semantic meaning from the origin of the expression). It may be, of course, that in French-speaking Canada, the expression has retained a stronger sense, reflected in the English translation.

    (E.g. “il est sans doute vrai que …” would not, for French mathematicians, be a way of stating a strong opinion that a mathematical statement is true, like “There is no doubt that…”; one would rather say “Il n’y a aucun doute que …”, or “Il est certain que…”).

  6. That’s very interesting – thanks for the explanation!

    And the French version does not include that annoying “truth be told” phrase, either.

    As the article in question points out, good translation is no piece of cake…

  7. Great post! Thanks for the encouragement!