The Genius of Language ed. by Wendy Lesser

By Shayesteh Zarrabi

Being bilingual and living in two cultures shapes the identity of many people in today’s world of easy relocation and communications. The Genius of Language, edited by the Bay Area’s own Wendy Lesser, is a wonderful collection of articles by 15 contemporary bilingual writers, reflecting on their journeys of learning and writing in a second language or culture, or of being born bilingual and bicultural.

The Genius of Language goes far beyond simple comparisons between two languages or cultural mindsets, however. It is a treasure of human feelings and cognitive capacities. The writers share stories of their childhoods and the memories that construct the genius of their literary works, both in English and their other language; in other words, their “Language,” as a faculty of expressions. As Ms. Lesser says in her introduction, “What mattered most to me … was to uncover the sources of writing … behind the acquired layers and get at the inherent nature … the genius of work.”

There are many factors involved as to why a bilingual feels a certain way about the two languages he or she speaks. The essays in The Genius of Language offer a rich account of the events that make a language memorable or a challenge to explore. Certain authors related the biographies of their parents as immigrants, and the impressions they handed down of the languages and cultures in which they spoke and lived. Other early influences—school, books, community, traveling, and settling down in the new environment—are the recurring elements that have combined to cultivate a sense of identity in the writers, and to suggest the subjects of the literary works that eventually followed. In the end, it is revealing to see how the authors “feel” in their different languages, and which language they choose to write in to express those feelings.

As a translator, one finds much to recommend in The Genius of Language. During the course of reading through the stories, a translator will keep asking how the worlds of two languages and cultures are bridged in translation. Am I, as the translator, standing in the middle of the bridge or am I pulling or pushing the other world into or away from the one I am standing on? And really, are they two different worlds or just universal human feelings better expressed in one of the two languages? Isn’t it wonderful to know that bilingual writers wonder the same thing? Wendy Lesser has given us a thought-provoking start in undertaking this exploration.