The impassable barrier of language

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:

Book cover has a thick white border with the title in black all-caps at the top and the author's name at the bottom. Between them is a large photo of a conch shell stuck in a sandy beach, pointy bit down and its open side facing the viewer. The sand is pale brown, and the sea is light blue and blurry in the background. The shell is cream-coloured with brown bands and a deep pink interior.She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately,  impassable.

Some of this rings true for me, especially in the early days of learning other languages that I eventually became conversational in: Irish, French, German, all thoroughly rusty now. There is the difficulty of being funny in it (and the satisfaction at any success); the sense of being stripped down to essentials; the tantalising inconstancy of personality.

And of course there is the privilege of having learned English as a first language, and the unhappy awareness of its cost.


11 Responses to The impassable barrier of language

  1. John Cowan says:

    As far as I know, all of Beckett’s major works except a few of the early ones were written in French and then rewritten from scratch in English, often coming out quite different. Languagehat discussion.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, John – that’s a predictably interesting discussion. I’ve not read Beckett in French (or German for that matter), and at this point it would be a painstaking struggle I’m unlikely to aim at. So I appreciate the insights of LH and readers.

  2. Franc Bell says:

    Another case in point is Faery Nights/Oicheanta Si by Micheal Mac Liammoir The two versions quite often tend to be quite different from each other, not only that, the text isn’t ‘parallel’ ie the chapters or stories alternate between the two languages instead of being on opposite pages, so you are obliged to read them separately. But of course he did write both versions himself, so that was his choice. On the other hand, when I used to teach English to young French children, I used to put various children’s books down in front of them, that are bestsellers in the UK together with the supposedly corresponding French éditions. The French translations more often than not are absolutely appalling and I had to stop doing it. I’m very angry about it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s interesting to reflect on the different factors at play when the translator of a text is also the original author, especially if some time has passed between the writing and the translating, or if the writer consciously aims to do something a little different with the translation.

  3. maceochi says:

    “So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation.” This is interesting on a lexical level. When people switch between languages we often, in common parlance, talk of them “translating”, but it’s not translation. The big example here is of stuff being – urgh – “lost in translation”. How I hate that phrase! Translation is professional work by someone who is adept in two langauges and who has the time to think about his or her choices in the target language. Whereas when you’re thrown into a language bath, as the character in this novel, you’re operating only in one, and speaking, rather than writing.

    I like the discussion of the “purity” of being forced to use a second language you don’t speak well. I tend towards thinking it’s false. When you speak in a language that you’re less proficient in than your native one, you’re not “purifying” what you’re saying by dint of having fewer options with every utterance. You’re just struggling. And that’s fine. That’s what learning a language is about. However, I do kind of get the idea here: you don’t know that many words, so you plump for the one that is closest to the idea you have in your head. You often do this under pressure.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t know if it’s unfortunate or inevitable that translation can refer to the professional practice and also to less specific processes of interlinguistic conversion. In any case I softened somewhat to the cliché ‘lost in translation’ after reading Eva Hoffman’s wonderful memoir of the same name, which helped it by association in my mind.

      The reference to purity struck me too, and in ways similar to what you describe. Instinctively I figure it’s easier to dissimulate in one’s original language, if only because one has had more practice and generally feels less self-conscious using it.

  4. ShiraDest says:

    Awareness… very nicely put. I must agree that I often worry, and have even been told by a Mexican friend, that I seem an entirely different person when I am immersed in Spanish, which is my favorite language. But I’ve never stopped to consider the implications. Thank you for drawing them out for us. Best,

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting observation by your friend, Shira, and probably one echoed daily around the world. I would not worry – it’s a very natural phenomenon, probably a matter of different languages (and their cultures and contexts) drawing out different aspects of our personalities that might be aired less in our primary language. This post on Anaïs Nin (plus comments) looks further at the idea of personality changing with language.

  5. Franc Bell says:

    Knowing whether you change your personality when you change languages is probably a process too subtle to notice and of course it would depend on the differing geographical and social contexts that you find yourself in. About the subject of translating humour from one language to another – for those of you who understand Italian, I suggest that you have a look at the introduction to Bestiario Immaginario by Roger McGough and translated by Franco Nasi and in German – Tigerträume – Gedichte- Zweisprachig that also has an interesting introduction. They have even managed to translate John Lennon in His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works into French.

  6. Hamid Ouyachi says:

    Another thing to add to this “wire act” (which is how I see “living”, not just reading or writing, in multiple languages), as one balances between idioms, is “code switching”: using more than one language in the same sentence: why the need to throw in another idiom, sometimes two? Technical, academic and disciplinary domains aside, just looking at a mundane conversation between a group of people who all speak the same 2 or 3 languages. It raises questions of the relationship between language, more precisely “words” and affect.
    We often say humor does not translate, so it is not surprising that it is harder to be funny in a foreign language, ditto being a poet. The things that go beyond practical fluency. Also, we always cross over (translate ourselves) into another language through a language we already know; somehow it continues to structure from within the added language.
    The last thing I’ll add is the question of accent: the manifestation of the body in the language, in addition to its cultural dimension.

    • Stan Carey says:

      All interesting points, Hamid, thank you. I’m sure there’s been research done on code-switching styles and motivations, but I haven’t looked into it.

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