Here’s my self-translation of my previous blog post:
Living between Two Languages
Do I bring a language to life? Or do I inhabit it? Can the same be said for a learned language? The term ‘Mother tongue’ is outdated, that we already know. I did, however, grow up with one language until I chose my second. I’m not sure whether this fact makes my relationship to German more or less meaningful. Before Year 9, I had absolutely no connection to German. But I chose it anyway. An artificial decision, yes. Meaningful all the same.
As I wrote those first two questions, it became painfully obvious to me how difficult they would be to translate. Maybe even impossible. No matter what I choose, the English words will only ever be a pale shadow of what I wrote first. I’ve shot myself in the foot there. I’m a translator, a teacher, obsessed with words. How languages overlap one another, reflect one another, but never line up exactly. Because that never works. Because it’s always a fantasy. Translation is the endless acquisition of all the possibilities of how to put similar thoughts into words in two or more languages. Similar but never the same. A translation is an echo, a subjective re-writing.
How much space can two languages take up? Is it endless, could I add more and more languages, like sailing until I reach the horizon? Or is there a limit? Would something eventually slip out the other side as I shove more and more in? I’ve found it difficult to commit myself to a third language. I’ve tried Russian, as well as French and Norwegian. But nothing sticks. Nothing has left the same indelible, intangible imprint as German.
My second language is learned. My existence split in two, the other half of me is learned. I’ve often been asked why I chose it. Why German, of all languages? Germans can all speak English, can’t they? (no). Do you have German relatives? German roots? (no). It was a simple choice between German and French at school, I say. But I know it’s probably not the whole truth. The truth is always much more complicated than you think. I’ve never been sure what my truth is in this respect. Yes, why German?
We belong to the same family. The further you go back in the past, the more similar the two languages become, German and English, English and German. The same extraction, the same roots. You just don’t see it these days waiting at the pedestrian crossing; the man is lit a steady red, and the British walk, unhurried, out into the road in front of an accelerating taxi.
Maybe it was, for me, rather an exercise in vanity. I didn’t want to be like ‘all’ other Brits. I didn’t just want to live in one language, that felt too blinkered. The word is full of endless possibility for self-expression. Had I only been able to express myself in one language, I would always have wondered to myself: what am I missing? Still, as a bilingual, I’m far removed from the world’s most proficient linguists.
German still doesn’t come as easily to me as English. I speak and write like no German. Some would call it a deficiency, a failure— my not-quite-mastery. But I like to keep my flaws. Is there not room for an endless variety of Germans in the word, just as there’s an endless variety of Englishes? The English brought their language on slave and pilgrim ships and thought they could master the world as you ‘master’ a language. But now English belongs to everybody who learns or grows up with English. It doesn’t just belong to the English anymore.
When I started writing today, I was intending to send it to my German friend, so that he could check it for flaws and mistakes. But now I’ve decided against it. The flaws can stay. They’re signposts along a long trail behind me, breadcrumbs of the years of patience and frustration, like the rings in a tree, layers built up over layers. My German was rootless, but now it’s laid down roots.
It’s strange to think about how this square, angular, spiked language is rejecting me. After Brexit, while COVID marches forwards, in this new, dystopian era: I’m not allowed in. Absolute travel ban to contain the Delta variant. In the last six months, there was a window of six days in which I could legally have travelled to Germany. I missed this window, of course.
I had the naive, childish hope that everything would progressively get better, and that I’d be able to see my partner this summer. But my German half is still in its extended winter hibernation. Re-book those flights, just once more, and again. We can make it one more month, then another, and another. I can’t hear the Odenwald dialect anymore, melodic, half-swallowed, rising and falling in my ears, the words falling over each other whilst I strain to catch his grandpa’s gist. He doesn’t understand me either, although I try to say my German as German as possible.
So what does German mean to me? I’ve already spent two years of my adulthood there. I’m young, but I see my future there. Lower rents, Freiluftlust, muesli with yoghurt. German means building a firepit on the terrace, breakfast on wooden boards, breadbasket in the middle of the table. German means warm evenings in the beer garden on rough benches. Just don’t lose your balance. It means sunsets over the trees behind the house, watching how the colours bleach and blend and the pines turn to shadow, black teeth against the night sky. It means pulling Bollerwagen through festival puddles as Hurricane proves its name. My partner smiling as I stick a jumble of words together, as I test the limits of this Lego-language, trying to express the intricacies of my feelings in exactly this moment. Today I called him unmitbestreitbar. Un-arguable-with.
I have to keep asking what a pine cone is called in Odenwäldisch. Or maybe it’s just called something different in his village, I forget that too. Hussmouge. I find it funny every time, before I forget it again. Why funny? Maybe because it’s so antithetical to the standard German Tannenzapfle. Maybe because it’s so specific to have a completely different word for something that so often lies unnoticed on the forest floor, trampled, or is ripped apart by village kids so they can get at the sweet-bitter nuts inside. I’ve almost forgotten the smell of moss under pines, how the ferns slowly unroll over the spring months, and how you develop your mushroom vision if you look long and hard enough. Endless degrees of brown and green.
Separation is an endless exercise in waiting, hesitation, deferral, refresh the website, book then re-book and cancel, read the restrictions, mandatory quarantine or not? Vaccination passport, proof of test, green-amber-red list. I spend my days at my desk and translate from German, but I haven’t ever felt further away from it.