We were so young back then.
Maybe that's why the lack of a common language never seemed to slow us down much.
When I met him, he did not speak a syllable of English. And having just arrived in Japan, I spoke absolutely no Japanese. In the days before smart phones and the internet --and being way too poor to buy a good electronic one— we brought two print student's dictionaries with us everywhere. With fake red leather jackets, one was Japanese to English and the other English to Japanese. At dinners, we would place them smack in the middle of the table between us, almost as if marking off the two worlds: English here and Japanese there.
We were always hurriedly looking things up. Too hard to read the foreign words out loud, one would point to a definition, the other would nod happily reading the translation— understanding at last.
This romance with the red dictionaries lasted for many years; despite the fact that we had quickly within a few weeks already come up with our own means for communicating; speaking without verbs or grammar; he avoiding all pronouns, in the style of the Japanese, and me (having Italian blood) doing a lot of wild arm gesturing and pantomiming. Somehow, we made do and despite being bogged down in two dictionaries, it was rare that one of us would feel frustrated at the inability to communicate something. Onlookers would laugh and shake their head—perhaps attributing our ability to communicate without a shared language to young love.
In later years, after we were married and spoke exclusively in Japanese with one another, I always thought back on the early days fondly. Our early conversations reminding me of one of my favorite stories by Calvino; the one in which Marco Polo and the Great Kublai Khan would engage in similar mutually unintelligible conversations; whiling away their days together; one would imagine asking a question that the other would imagine answering. In this way, without a language, we too imagined ourselves talking of ancient empires or the color of the sky after a monsoon shower. Sometimes we would even talk of death.
It’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge, said Iris Murdoch about speaking a foreign language.
It's true. And, it's not just the mental somersaults that made learning Japanese so stimulating. Living with verbs at the end of the sentences was interesting and opened up many possibilities for playing around or for being ambiguous--but what was really mind expanding was to see myself over time transformed by the language itself; to discover that my mind has so many other chambers in it, and that I am capable of being so different --and yet remain the same person.
The LA Review of Books published an essay by Ilan Stavans in which the writer and translator reminisces about his Memoir of Language: On Borrowed Words. I highly recommend this book especially to those who move back and forth between multiple languages (and also to all translators). Born in Mexico to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Stavans begins life with two native languages: Yiddish and Spanish. He then jumps ship, leaving Mexico for Israel and then New York. Reflecting on his lives in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English---the translator engages in a bit of self- translation:
I firmly believe that how one perceives the world in any given moment depends on the language in which that moment is experienced. Take Yiddish, which is, at its root, a Germanic language, but is strongly influenced by Hebrew. It also features Slavic inclusions. These distinct elements give the language a taste, an idiosyncrasy. The life I lived in Yiddish was defined by the rhyme, the cadence of the sentences I used to process and describe it. But this wasn’t my only life. I was born in 1961 in Mexico City into an immigrant enclave of Eastern European Jews, and so began speaking Spanish right alongside Yiddish. I have two mother tongues — di mame loshn and la lengua materna. Both shape my viewpoint. Eating in Spanish — dreaming, loving, and deriving meaning from life in that language — all these actions differ from their counterparts in Yiddish. The taste of things is determined by the words used to express it.
In Spanish, he feels free. He waves his arms more but the lyrical quality of the language grates on him. Because of that English, being much more rigid, is preferably to think in, he says. But, he always prefers joking in Yiddish. Hebrew is the language for being serious. Liturgical and metaphysical.
I had a similarly talented polyglot friend who once announced that he was switching his mental language to French because he preferred himself in that language. He said, people simply think different thoughts in different languages. Conrad famously wrote about the way that certain languages just click for certain people. For Conrad, it was English, which he declared speaking was the most natural thing in the world for him, as something he had inherited rather than chosen.
After my marriage fell apart and I finally returned to the US, I was not just returning to my country but was returning back to thinking and living life in my native language again after two decades. At first, I thought I would be so much more efficient in English. Linguistically finally back ahead of the power curve (without always having to worry if I was being polite or using female forms of Japanese, this latter being one of my biggest fears in Japanese since I heard so much male Japanese at home and if I wasn't very careful, I was liable to stun people by using the verbs or vocabulary not associated with women. Without needing to constantly worry about being polite or sounding like a woman, I had high hopes for all the mental gymnastics I would be capable of performing and how much easier it would be to communicate with my new lover.
It makes sense, right? Speaking one's native language should be an advantage. And surely being married to a man who speaks the same native language ought to make life easier, right?
As the years pass, I find that I miss myself in Japanese. I even prefer myself in Japanese. Talking about the weather and other shared details of the community and calendar, not only did I find conversations more considerate but I think life was more poetic as well. I miss how much less volatile I was in Japanese and how much more fun I had joking around. It's true, you just think different things in different languages. That is why my astronomer valiantly committed to taking Japanese classes with my son.
And someday when things calm down, I want to try one more language.
Friends here worry about my losing Japanese. But frankly, I don't really care so much. I hope I can always read poetry, of course, because being able to read poetry and literature in Japanese is a game changer for me. Japanese poetry is an experience that is lost without the Japanese characters and seasonal vocabulary with their associated imagery. Being able to access that is very pleasurable and mind expanding for me. But the world is so wide and there are so many things to learn and explore. And I wonder how I would be in a different language. I already know myself in English and Japanese--but I sometimes like to imagine the new possibilities that might be open in thinking in a different language. Given where I find myself now, Chinese would be the obvious choice-- but surprisingly I find myself drawn to Latin.
I would learn a dead language so that I could time travel. The worldview that is embedded in the language is long past-- the metaphysics of Sanskrit or the way Ann Patty describes reading ancient Roman poetry with its concepts of empire and paganism in her memoir, Living with a Dead Language, is very appealing to me. Like learning a stringed instrument, the older one gets the more impossible language learning becomes. But the allure of this idea (evoked so beautifully by Stavans in his memoir) of the existence, in various languages, of different versions of ourselves, remains strong.
Translator Michael Hofmann recently wrote an article in the Guardian called, To Speak Another Language Isn't Just Cultured but its a Blow Against Stupidity.
Don't you love that title?
He says this:
Endlessly dark and gloomy in her assessment of human nature, Iris Murdoch was my favorite novelist when I was a teenager. I had forgotten this about her until I recently recalled that she was also a struggling student of Russian. Believing that left to our own devices, human beings become selfish and "all too willing to draw the whole world into the narrow confines of our egotism," she took up Russian as a way of turning her attention outward rather than inward. Murdoch was interested in the disorienting quality of learning a foreign language. Presumably travel and reading could have a similar effect, but nothing is quite so humbling or disorienting as trying to express yourself in a foreign tongue. Murdoch called this an "unselfing" activity.
Guy Davenport tells this brilliant (and most probably totally made-up) story of how Spinoza, living in exile in Holland, complains about the bland taste of the onions. He figures it is just part of the trials of being away from home--until he realizes, he is not eating onions but tulip bulbs! To be disoriented is to be open to the fact that there are many ways of doing things; that there are many truths and many versions of oneself. And that sometimes these truths and these ways of being in the world are the polar opposite of what you had desired or had ever presumed. That is to discover that those bland onions you were eating were all along nothing other than tulip bulbs...