“A bilingual mind is like a household that contains more than one person,” writes Sedivy. “Intimate living arrangements between two people have a way of changing their interpersonal dynamics, and perhaps even their personalities, and in the same way, cohabiting languages are bound to change each other.” One language inflects the other, which can sometimes mean you are never fully inhabiting either. Rather than a single busy household, it can feel like two that you continuously shuttle between.
Edward Said, who called English his “school language” and Arabic his “native language,” writes that he “felt fully at home in neither” language. “Every time I speak an English sentence, I find myself echoing it in Arabic, and vice versa.” I also don’t think I’ve ever been fully myself in either language. I like to get angry in Portuguese and analyze in English. I like to sing in Portuguese and joke in English. I like to soothe in Portuguese and ask questions in English. When I must stick to one, it’s like there are parts of me that I have to put aside.
The writer and translator Madhu H. Kaza moved from India to the United States as a child and while she “assimilated” and lost her accent, she says “a vital part of me got stopped at the border. My inner life remained untranslated, its contours beyond what the receiving culture wanted to or could comprehend.” She asks, “What does it mean to be a translated self . . . What does it mean to live with this untranslatability, this silence between languages within you?”
The author Jhumpa Lahiri experienced this “linguistic exile” growing up in the United States, where her mother tongue, Bengali, was “considered foreign.” Years later, when she chose to live in Italy—and wrote an entire book in Italian, In Other Words—she re-experienced this form of exile, even if from a more voluntary place. She expresses in Italian (here, in a translation of the book by Ann Golstein): “When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement . . . An absence that creates a distance within you.”
How do you fill the absence, the silence?
Translation itself can be a way to fill the silence. Immigrants who translate, or translators who grew up in bilingual homes, often have a particular approach to translating. They don’t want to erase the existence of the original language, to fool their readers into thinking their translations are not translations at all. They want to find ways to gesture at the other language, the other culture, to have it poke through the English, to have their translations exist in this in-between state that they also inhabit. (This is often the most exciting aspect of my class discussions with my students, who then realize that translations can actually open language, let other languages in—be rich and expansive and inclusive.)
But sometimes, the absence and silence takes you over. After years in the United States, my Portuguese was mostly suppressed, my mouth lost its shape within Portuguese words, and I stumbled when speaking (what is known as language attrition). When I first noticed this in college, I started calling my parents every day. I read books out loud in Portuguese to myself, read Brazilian poetry, and, eventually, I would translate it. Ever since “The Umbrella,” I’ve sent my translations to my parents first, not only because they make excellent editors, but because it’s become another way of bridging our own distance, as we haven’t lived in the same country for thirteen years.
The writer Norman Manea has compared translation to the experience of exile itself: “It’s a textual migration, a process of migrating from a place (a language) of departure to a place (a language) of destination.” Like a person who leaves a place, a translation also experiences a degree of loss, a degree of longing for what was left behind, but nonetheless carries what was lost with it. But also like a migrant, a translation never fully arrives. There are always opportunities to oscillate back and forth between places, between languages. Translators, much like immigrants, see things two ways, from both sides.
When I teach translation, the first exercise I give my students is to define “translation” in one to two sentences. The results are fascinating and varied and, by the end of our first hour-and-a-half together, the students’ opinions on what translation means have often changed. In my own definition, I return to a poem I translated by Ana Martins Marques called “Translation”:
This poem in another language would be another poem
a slow clock that tells the right time of some other place
a child who invents a language just to speak with another child
a house on the mountains reconstructed on a beach corroded bit by bit by the sea
what’s important is that at some determined point the poems become a pair
like in certain physics problems of old schoolbooks
In another language, a poem becomes another poem with its own personality. The two poems become “a pair,” existing side by side, but never wholly one. It’s a close definition of what it means to be a translated self.
Elisa Wouk Almino is a writer and literary translator based in Los Angeles. She is the deputy editor of Image magazine at the Los Angeles Times, and was formerly a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is the translator of This House by Ana Martins Marques (Scrambler Books) and the editor of Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction (Rizzoli). You can follow her at @ewoukalmino.