This post opens a series about the factors motivating us to run the Marco Polo Project. Please join in the conversation, and tell us why you think the Marco Polo Project should exist.
To qualify as a respected intellectual in Continental Europe, you must know the core languages of the Great European Tradition: French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. You’re not expected to join in spontaneous conversations with no trace of accent, of course, but know enough of each language to read its literature in the text, or at least appreciate its original flavour when reading a translation. And reading them you must: Moliere, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Cervantes, Virigil and Homer are all part of a multilingual tradition in constant dialogue, and make full sense only through their complex relationship with each other.
Up until recently, reading these languages was enough – although respected intellectuals from smaller European countries might throw their own language into the mix, and add colour to the dialogue. Meanwhile, ‘Oriental’ languages were a niche specialty, only marginally more relevant to the conversations of the Great European Tradition than, say, Nahuatl or Quechua. Sanskrit and Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, as close neighbours, peaked a timid glance over the fence. Mandarin was far beyond the pale.
But things have changed. Under the combined effects of globalisation and the rise of Asia, it is likely that Mandarin will feature as part of the linguistic panoply for aspiring intellectuals in Europe and globally. Those ignorant of things Chinese will no longer find themselves in a position to speak with universal authority. This is radically new, this is probably positive, and this is surely challenging. The European traditions have conducted their dialogue for centuries – translation and multi-lingualism is at the core of the European Project. But will this project integrate a language and tradition so long distant and separate?
We believe in a world where cultural and intellectual leaders are multi-lingual, and their thinking is informed by a deep understanding of multiple traditions. We believe that today’s world involves a conversation between the Chinese and European traditions. And our goal for developing this project is to support the great learning effort necessary for this important conversation to take place, and become a matter-of-fact.