August 8, 2012

ARCHIVE POST: Foreigners and transplants: revisiting language, inspired by Ernest Hemingway

(originally published on August 6, 2012)

"All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time." - Ernest Hemingway, Letter dated April 9, 1945.

We tend to be multilingual here in Europe. We study abroad and follow our bellies when survival lies beyond our hometown. Our children are often born on opposite sides of borders than their grandparents were.

I am of a voraciously linguistic mind. The world is language, and language is the world as far as I am concerned. Hopscotching between six languages on top of my native one, I have been lovingly sand-papered with dictations, cozily drilled with irregular verbs and participles, fiberglassed with declensions and subjunctives and pluralia tantum, and I have rolled in the Great Vowel Shift like a dog. I have paid my dues to the Sapir-Whorfs of this world, read my Rousseau and his critique by Derrida, passed my exams in the difference between language learning and language acquisition, communicative competence and performance. And loved every second of it all.

I am a foreigner, in English. I blog in a language that is not mine. The fact-sheet of our love affair goes like this: I have written in this language since I was thirteen. I started learning it when I was seven. I have degrees in it, and have lived in countries of its provenance twice. But that is not all. Beyond the science of language, beyond translation and teaching, what does it mean to be living in a language that is not your own? I can only speak for myself, but here goes.

Like Poe’s Ligeia, there is ‘strangeness in my proportion,’ an anomaly in my speech. If you heard me speak, you might think I am an American expat, or not even notice the foreignness until I have had a few beers [always a popular choice], or notice it instantly but not be able to pin down the awkwardness. Either way, there is something off. An apparent authenticity that makes you do a double take and you don’t really know why.

I am a continual asymptote. My English, the English of me, is a permanent close, but no cigar. Not that anyone has ever gotten anywhere with language, because language is not a state or a reachable goal. You never really learn a language, not even your own. But think vectors, and forces pulling in different directions, and running into glass doors you did not know were there, when you least expect them. Sometimes you break right through. Other times you boing back, wondering what the hell happened.

A self-appointed court jester. Of course I am allowed to speak, everyone is. English is so deliciously malleable and forgiving and inclusive, both as a lingua franca and in its Paradise Lost, in its pidgins as much as its great while whales. But every time I open my mouth, I commit a sanctioned transgression. My privileges are at one and the same time richer and scantier than your native speaker’s. I am the misshapen little creature at the King’s feet, condemned to never be part of the official court, but authorized to projectile vomit things that others would hang for.

A most understated Polly-want-a-cracker. Beneath the seamlessness of my grammar and the apparent flawlessness of my speech lies an intricate mechanism of carefully pulled strings. Like a dancer who has rehearsed herself into a trance-like routine, I give dazzling performances at times but never forget the sprained ankles, swollen knees, aubergine-hued bruises and faceplants in front of the most critical audiences. All of my sentences were first observed somewhere else, made note of, archived, and then pulled out to be placed in new combinations as I make my utterance.

But beyond all this, beyond the obvious foreignness of functioning in a language you were not born into, there is that essential feeling of foreignness in any language, foreignness in language itself, the foreignness of language as such as it exists apart from and in parallel with our ‘real’ life, yet somehow influencing it, shaping it, giving it permission and denying it at times. Which brings me to why this Hemingway quote felt like a hornet’s sting when I read it, and why I wrote this blog post.

In a famous, often quoted and very much worn-out commentary, Marcel Proust said that “Great literature is written in a sort of foreign language. To each sentence we attach a meaning, or at any rate a mental image, which is often a mistranslation. But in great literature all our mistranslations result in beauty.”

It isn't really about any concrete language, native or foreign, but about attitude towards language. It is about the fact that the best writing is an out-of-body experience, a thief that picks us up by our boots and shakes us upside down, robbing us of stale beliefs we did not know were superfluous. It devours the world we live in and spits it back out at us in a form that is always a little, if not a lot, off, but we wonder how we could ever do without the off in the first place.

What if we allowed ourselves the joy of being foreigners in any language, including our own? Can we look at it as if for the first time, tossing functionality out the window and unlearning what we know? Relish the mistranslations and the Ligeias? Bring to the foreground what was long neglected, plot fresh meanders that branch out from the main canyon and lead into nothingness, if need be? This beautiful state of foreignness is available to anyone, in any language. Your Englishman in New York, your Algerian in Paris, your Kafka in Prague, Joseph Conrad in Marseille, and your T.S. Eliot in London are right there for the taking, the only condition being how far your mind is willing to go.

This post was inspired by the Studio30 Plus Ernest Hemingway-themed Weekly Writing Prompt. For the record, I have written about my personal experience with foreignness in English before. Oh who am I kidding: it's basically an underlying theme of this blog. Here are links to two posts:

Mad people across the water, part 2: having an affair with America

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