Translation

It's always dangerous to make absolute statements (such as those that include "always"), but I will venture: Everyone loves secret code. That's what's so magical about speaking a foreign language.

I went to a French-language gathering last week. It was at La Creperie, and when I arrived there were about 20 people sitting outside at a long table. I went to sit down in an empty chair and a man gestured toward me and said he liked "l'ecran." My screen? What was he talking about? O, "le crane," my cranium, my scalp, meaning the message on my head: US out of Iraq. I'd thought it was too light to read. I told him I had the tattoo because I'd lost my hair. He didn't ask where it had gone. He was a very good and quick speaker of French, thanks to a French ex-wife. I realized I hadn't spoken French since December. I spoke rather rustily to him and to another guy who arrived, looking like a lawyer in a yellow tie and suit. And he was--a lawyer. I say I'm a writer and people say what do you write and I tell them I'm writing about cancer. What kind? asks the lawyer. Breast, sein, I say, and to make sure he's understanding me, he touches his chest. I am telling this stranger about my breast cancer and my recordings on WBEZ, and I'm feeling I wouldn't be telling him all this in English, so easily. Of course it's not easily tripping off my tongue. The gears are creaky. I read a William Maxwell story in which he talks about a man and his wife who want a child, and the wife is unhappy as a 1950s housewife without career or children, and they take a French class and say to one another what they can't say in English. Then their life goes on, after that brief opening up. I'm amazed at what one reveals in French, but at the same time on this very blog I've said many an intimate thing to--anyone--n'importe ou (anywhere)--who can find this square of zero-dimensional cyberspace. But it's different in person, isn't it? But in French in person it's not real; it's not English, doesn't matter what you say, and everything is interesting if it's said in French, because it's French, you have to struggle a little, to comprend. Pay that extra attention. French not real the way that travelers unfold the bills from their wallets and say, How much is this in real money?

The waitress came to collect money and the lawyer was asking her for change (in French) and she couldn't understand him. We were in a haze of French, speaking French, speaking in a familiar but foreign language to strangers. And we thought the world could understand us, because these people we'd never ever seen before could.

Makes you believe in the believers in Esperanto, who would craft a universal language and we would all be able to speak to one another, to speak the same language, as it were, and there would be no more strife.

But there were civil wars. Still are.

But the Jew who started Esperanto already had a universal language at hand: Yiddish.
Don't be afraid of Yiddish, Kafka told an audience once. You will understand it more than you thought you would, because it is like German. (Don't be afraid that you'll turn into your grandparents because of it.)

Old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American.

3 comments:

Claudia said...

Have you noticed that people's personalities can change when they switch languages? My mother is a different person when she speaks German, the language she grew up with. Do you have a French persona?

Writer said...

I've wondered about that. I think I'm the same in French, I just have different gestures and I do this French bof! thing with my mouth.
--le bitch du cancer

Gail said...

Alistair Reid said of Borges that he was a much funnier person in Spanish than in English. (Borges' grandmother spoke to him in English as a child, so he learned it early and well, but was more formal in English).


I am taking French now for the first time in 30 years. I feel like a child, repeating after the teacher. It's comforting.