Knowledge of several languages can often lead our minds to unexpected turns as we negotiate between them: experiences in the day of a multi-lingual translator. BY SUSAN BASSNETT (REPRINTED BY PERMISSION FROM THE ITI BULLETIN, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2011, PP26-7.)

Some months ago I wrote in an article about how languages I had thought were forgotten were somehow creeping back into my consciousness. I speculated on whether this might be linked to the ageing process: just as one’s short-term memory declines while the long-term memory increases, so perhaps the same thing happens to languages spoken in childhood.

My early language learning was complicated by the fact that although one language stayed constant, the second language changed three times, each incoming language pushed the previous ones further away. Then, in secondary school in Italy, I started to study other languages, French and Latin in the first instance. The method was the old grammar-based one, sound in that what I learned I never forgot. The basis was thus laid for the acquisition of other languages.

All translation exercises were done in and out of Italian, and although I spoke English at home, Italian was the central language of inter-lingual communication. What I find bizarre is that this has never changed, and 30 years since settling in England, I still find Italian is my ‘bridge’ language.

Linguistic oddities
German is one of my later learned languages, and I don’t consider myself proficient by any means. I had been invited to give the opening lecture at a conference, and all the shorter papers were in German. At first I found myself having to concentrate very hard indeed, and needed the help of a young German scholar, who kindly provided me with quick and skilful paraphrase whenever I found myself getting lost, but by the end of the third day I was following both papers and discussion comfortably, though still having trouble with dialect speakers. Yet I could not switch from German back into English, and whenever I found myself in linguistic deep water, the only words that would come were Italian. At the airport, when I thought my suitcase was disappearing without a label I let out a shriek, and what I heard was the phrase ‘O Dio!’

Even more confusingly, I went to a museum one afternoon, and found myself in a room with a voiceover, and images projected onto walls as I then walked through a series of rooms. It was not until the third room, some ten minutes after going in, that I suddenly became aware that the language I was following was French. I am puzzled and fascinated by these linguistic oddities, and I know that I am not alone by any means in not understanding my own mental processes at all when it comes to language shifting. I don’t understand why it is that when I am using a language in which I do not feel particularly comfortable, when I have to concentrate very hard to follow an argument and to join in a discussion, that I find my English receding, Italian acting as a bridge or, as the experience in the museum shows, an inability to distinguish between languages I know quite well.

The migrant experience
Language confusion is something that millions of people all over the world experience to some degree. Bi- or multilingual families are far more frequent today. Not long ago I sat next to a young couple on a plane with a small child. Dad was Danish, Mum was French, and they were speaking to the little boy in English because, as the young man explained, they wanted him to have a consistent central language. They were also familiarizing him with their own languages so that he could communicate with his grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Unsurprisingly, there are many novels being written about the kind of language confusion that comes with cultural translocation, some of which make best-seller lists in many countries. Writers such as Kiran Desai, Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan and Gish Jen write from the perspective of first- or second-generation immigrants, well aware of the complex layers of linguistic adjustment that they have either experienced first hand or observed in their own families. The migrant experience, which is pre-eminently linguistic, provides rich material for writers who know what it feels like to meet with communication blocks, to be considered stupid for not understanding someone else’s language, or to be unable to say precisely what one wants to say because another language does not allow for it to be said.

Translation’s paradox
One such book focuses on how translation affects two individuals. In John Crowley’s award-winning novel, simply entitled The Translator, an exiled Russian poet, Falin, teaching at an American college meets an aspiring student writer, Christa, and a relationship develops between the two of them. The relationship centers on poetry and language: Falin is cut off from his own world, while Christa tries to learn Russian in order to read his poetry, but neither can master the other’s language. As she struggles to translate his work, he recognizes the impossibility of the task:

‘A language,’ he said. ‘It is a world. My poems are written for the people of a world I have lost. To read them I think you must have lived in my world – my language – since childhood, and grown up in it.’ (John Crowley, The Translator. New York: HarperCollins, 2002: p163)

The novel is set in the Cold War period, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fears of a nuclear war started by the Russians were very real in the United States. Love blossoms between the exiled poet and the student, but we as readers share her inability to understand exactly who he is, why he came to the United States in the first place, and what happens to him when he disappears, supposedly killed in a car crash. The novel is framed by another narrative, 40 years on, when Christa, now a famous poet herself, is welcomed to Russia for a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Falin’s birth. She has been invited because her collection contains 15 of his poems, which they had worked on together:

‘Translations without originals’ she had called them: poems neither his nor hers, or both his and hers; poems written in a language that she couldn’t read, and surviving only in a language he couldn’t write. (p8)

The novel beautifully captures the paradox at the heart of translation: the intention behind translation is to bring a text not available to those who do not understand the language in which it is written into their world, to make it meaningful, to give it new life in a new language. Yet the very act of translating means that so much is left behind, so much is simply not transferable. Christa cannot ever enter fully into Falin’s linguistic universe, nor can he ever realize his creativity in her language. The compromise is a text that is neither his, nor hers, that in some way belongs to both of them while belonging to neither.

I suppose, though, that what I call my linguistic confusion is, in a way, also a compromise. When we translate, or when we live with more than one language in our head, we are moving around in a state of ‘in-betweenness,’ not quite a hundred percent anywhere, always more aware of how language challenges us than the fortunate people who live contentedly in one language only.

Though on reflection, the state of in-betweenness, compromising or not, is never a dull place to be. SB