Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

I am often asked, by well-meaning friends, “Are you going to teach your daughter how to speak [Hindi, Urdu]?” My answer, invariably, is “I’ll try.” So I’m trying.  My efforts at teaching my daughter Hindi-Urdu consist primarily of speaking to her in it, with occasional lapses into English.

These lapses have become more frequent. I feel my resolve faltering. This is perhaps ludicrous. My daughter is only eighteen months, and is only now learning her first words. Among them, she has learned one in Hindi–a slightly colloquial, baby-talk term for milk. This surely, is the time to dig in, and press on.

But the challenges are daunting. Hindi-Urdu isn’t my first language; English is. I don’t read books in Hindi–though I have grand plans to read three novels, patiently waiting for me on my shelves; the frequency of my Hindi-movie watching is far outstripped by that of English–and other languages, subtitled in, naturally, English. Very few of my daughter’s local uncles and aunts–who do not live in New York City in any case–speak Hindi-Urdu (though some of them comprehend it well enough to converse with their immigrant parents.) Her grandparents–my wife’s parents–only occasionally speak to her in Hindi-Urdu. I have few Indian friends, and their children only speak English as well. Her linguistic community for Hindi-Urdu–that is, me–looks remarkably scant and impoverished.

Besides, I’m conflicted about this project. While I’m well aware of the virtues of bilingualism, I wonder about the choice of the second language. Wouldn’t Spanish be better for a child growing up in the modern United States? My English vocabulary is much richer than my Hindi-Urdu one; wouldn’t I be aiding her cognitive development more by speaking to her in a language in which I would be more expressive, more fluent, more able to express a broader range of concepts and ideas? Why should she learn Hindi-Urdu? I doubt she’ll become a South Asian studies scholar. And if she does, perhaps she can learn this language later in life? Many area studies scholars do just that, after all.  To ‘learn about her roots’ and ‘where she came from’? But her roots are in Brooklyn and New York City. This is where her father has lived for the last two decades; this is where she was born.  My trips to India look like becoming less, not more, frequent in the years to come. And lastly, I have neither the desire nor the ability to impose a specific Indian identity on her. Mine is confused enough; I doubt I should attempt to ‘bring her up Indian’, to ‘make her aware of her culture’. Perhaps she can sample the bits of Indianness that exist in my life along with all the other flavors of this Brooklyn life of ours and make of them what she will.

Perhaps I’m just lazy, unwilling to put in the hard yards to bring up a bilingual child–like watching movies with her or teaching her the alphabet. Perhaps; it won’t be the first time a dimly desirable project of mine has run aground for lack of drive.

For the time being, I’ll press on, talking as much as I can in my ‘mother-tongues’, trusting that my daughter will find some traction in our conversations. Perhaps she’ll let me know, by her facility, what she’d like to do.

Note: As might be surmised, I do feel some guilt about being so conflicted and insufficiently committed to this project. This emotion has only been exacerbated by a niece of mine–raised in Los Angeles–who has told me she would have much preferred it if her parents had taught her Hindi-Urdu.

On First and Second Languages – III

In the first post of this series, I described my relationship with English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani; in the second, that with German. The story in today’s post–that of Spanish in my life–is similar to the German tale: partial fluency, a long-standing, constantly procastinated commitment to formal study. The distinctive contrast lies in the nature of the fluency: in German, I possess some grammatical foundation coupled with a poor vocabulary; in Spanish, my vocabulary outstrips my grammatical foundation.

But back to the beginning. After I moved to the US in 1987, I lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey and attended graduate school in Newark. Elizabeth had a sizable Colombian and Cuban population (they were prominent members of its local Hispanic demographic). Newark’s Hispanic population was also considerable. There were, therefore, ample opportunities to pick up some Spanish. So I did; I read a lot of store signs, browsed Spanish-language newspapers, and acquired a small smattering of sentences and words to use in interactions with Spanish speakers (something as trivial as ‘tiene cambio para un dollar?’ was very useful when catching the bus in the mornings).  But I never learned how to conjugate verbs.

My opportunities to learn Spanish only increased after I moved to New York City in 1993, but I continued to make one crucial mistake: I did not take a class in Spanish to bolster the vocabulary, context, immersion and daily practice that was available to me. I prided myself on reading subway advertisements; I received praise for my pronunciation from native Spanish speakers (some consonant sounds in Spanish are similar to those in Hindi/Urdu, as are the rolled ‘r’ and the soft ‘d’); I sometimes helped tourists and immigrants who could not speak English with a Spanish sentence or two after they had sought help from me (assuming that I was Hispanic because of my appearance).   But verb conjugation remained a mystery.

I traveled to Spanish-speaking countries: Spain, Ecuador, Peru (twice), Puerto Rico. My wife, whose Spanish is more advanced than mine–yes, because of those damned verb conjugations–and who had used it during her work as a community organizer in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem, El Barrio) was our primary interface with the ‘natives.’ My Spanish improved during these trips; I picked up more words, more sentences, and used it more extensively in a variety of interactions.  I even attempted to learn a bit of Spanish formally; I browsed some guidebooks; attempted some drills; and even took a short afternoon class in Quito, Ecuador. But it wasn’t enough, and wait for it, my conjugation of verbs was still non-existent.

The problem with not being able to conjugate verbs is that you cannot form sentences; you can have a great vocabulary at your disposal, but you cannot employ it if you cannot conjugate verbs. It’s really as simple as that.

As in the case of German, I have made many plans to learn Spanish formally, but something or the other has pushed it off. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I have taken a closer look at and finished one level of practice; perhaps this time, I’ll stick to my guns and get the damn conjugations right.

Desearme suerte!

On First and Second Languages – II

In my first post in this series, I wrote of my relationship with English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani – my first and second languages. I claimed partial fluency in three other languages: German, Spanish and Punjabi.  I aspire to mastery of all three and have varying levels of optimism about the plausibility of my success in this endeavor.

Of those three languages listed above, I’ve only been educated formally in German: a semester’s worth of instruction through the Indian version of the Goethe Institute – the Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi. I was then in my final year of undergraduate studies and had dimly entertained thoughts of studying in a German university for a post-graduate program. A quick look at the admission requirements made it clear three semesters of German language proficiency was required. The grundstufe eins was the first installment of the program; I enrolled for a class that met three times a week for two hours at a time.

My education in German was excellent; the teachers for the course–both postgraduate Indian students of German literature–were dedicated, enthusiastic, hard-working, thorough and personable; my fellow students were mostly highly motivated; we faithfully followed our teachers’ demands that we use German exclusively as the language of conversation with each other. I enjoyed my classes, scored well in the tests and was encouraged to continue with the program.

But I didn’t.  I had applied to the US for graduate school as well; an alternative destination now presented itself; a student visa had been procured; and I was off. My progress in German came to a halt.

Over the years, I would practice my German on the odd tourist, a German friend or two, or at the movies, all the while checking subtitles to gauge my facility in the spoken version of German. I planned endlessly to register for a formal course and resume my language studies, but never did.  I remembered most of my verb conjugations and my articles; the drills had been extensive and I retained their details easily.

When I began graduate work in philosophy, I intended to take the German language proficiency exam–a simple translation task of a passage in Nietzsche or Schopenhauer into English–but that  requirement was waived for my cohort. A friend of mine read Wittgenstein in a facing-page translation; I envied his talent but still made no effort study German formally. A German friend taught Nietzsche in the original German (at Regensburg) and talked glowingly of the thrill of reading his literary, flowing prose. My envy knew no bounds.

On trips to Germany and Switzerland, I practiced my German, sometimes receiving compliments for it. Each appreciative remark inspired further resolve to seek out the nearest Goethe Institute but I never, ever acted on it. My endless procastination, thus, has been a source of some bafflement to me;  I have always managed to find some excuse or the other to not bite the bullet and take on the grundstufe zwei. Mostly, I don’t seem to have the time; a rather lame evasion at best.

Hopefully, sometime next year, I’ll end this twenty-seven year long procastination and finally sign up at the nearest Goethe Institute/

Reflections on Translations – IV: Embedded, Untranslated Text, and Tintin

Louis Mackay has an interesting article at the London Review of Books Blog (‘Tintin in China’, 11 June 2012) , which continues an examination–commenced by Christopher Taylor (LRB, 7 June 2012)–of the Chinese artist Zhang Congren’s influence on Tintin‘s creator Hergé. (In particular his influence on one of Hergé’s earliest Tintin adventures, The Blue Lotus.)

Zhang influenced Hergé in a couple of ways. First, he helped Hergé develop an attitude in The Blue Lotus that is ‘consciously satirical towards European notions of cultural superiority’ [Mackay citing Taylor] and as such is

credited with bringing about this change in Hergé’s attitudes, as well as with helping him develop a sense of pictorial composition that owes something to Chinese aesthetics.

But Zhang also helped enhance the realism of Herge’s work by providing ‘Chinese writing in signs, wall-hangings, posters, graffiti, and occasionally speech bubbles.’ As Mackay notes, this text is all intelligible, and would have made perfect sense to a Chinese reader.  They most certainly were not ‘merely random characters included for atmospheric effect’, noise to pad out the background. They were meant to make sense, whether observed by Chinese eyes or not.

This ‘intelligible’ Chinese text richly informs the backdrop for Tintin’s adventures:

One prevalent poster is an advertisement for Siemens (西門子, ‘Xi-men-zi’), which had run factories in China since 1899. Indoors there are proverbs andshanshui poems. Political slogans are daubed on outside walls. Some are incomplete but all would have been instantly understood by a Chinese reader. A truncated line of graffiti refers to 三民主義, the ‘Three Principles of the People’ adopted by the Chinese Republic under Sun Yat-sen (national self-determination, democracy and the welfare of the people). A torn poster reads: 取消不平等… (‘Abrogate the unequal…’). Any Chinese reader would know that the final missing characters were 條約, ‘treaties’. The ‘agreements’ imposed by force after the Opium Wars, which established Western and Japanese commercial dominance in the treaty ports, with extraterritorial rights giving foreigners immunity from Chinese law, were deeply resented.

This nod to fidelity to locale in Hergé’s work was demonstrated vividly to me in the course of reading the second Tintin-Chang adventure, Tintin in Tibet. At the beginning of the tale, Tintin, having dreamed about Chang being in trouble, flies to Kathmandu with Captain Haddock to commence an expedition into the Himalayas. To this end they arrange for a Sherpa guide and some porters. While walking through the streets of Kathmandu, Haddock bumps into a porter, and as is his wont, lets loose with a volley of colorful invective. But on this occasion, Haddock’s outburst is not met with the usual stunned silence. Rather, in response, the porter flies off the handle, loudly delivering a lungful of indignation to  Haddock’s flabbergasted face.

The porter’s  Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani outburst was written in the Devanagari script; I read it and chuckled. The line was perfect in its tone and archness; the long-suffering, hard-working porter finally driven to the end of his tether by always-bumbling overlords.  In perfect Hindustani, in the middle of  a Tintin book. Till then, Hergé had placed his familiar characters on the background of a foreign, mute, land that paid silent witness to the adventuring of others. Then suddenly, it intruded and spoke. A little Easter Egg for those in the know; a reassurance of attention to detail for the rest.

Reflections on Translation – I: Accepting and Assessing Translations

Like any reader with a sufficiently long career, I have read many works in translation. In doing so, I have been aware of the distance between the author and myself, of being subject to the same constraints as any other reader of translated works is. Still, I have never ceased to be surprised when I hear someone tell me that they have read a work–known only to me in English–in translation, in a language I would not associate with the author. The most dramatic instance of this astonishment came while talking to an Austrian graduate student who told me he had read Orwell in German; I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could read Orwell in German. I had the tables turned on me when I told a Russian friend I was  reading Dostoevsky, and was greeted with the perplexed inquiry, “You’re reading him in English? How can you do that?” Indeed. How could I do that? But my incompetence in Russian meant it was the only option available to me, and so, I’ve had only one window into that entire body of literature, one that has enriched me in more ways than one, an interaction with which has been subject to limitations I’ve acutely been aware of. I have come to reconcile myself to this shortchanging with my awareness that my engagement with those works is still unique because of my particularities as a reader. It’s a minor blessing, but it will do for now. (I find my relationship to Russian literature especially poignant in its limitations because I’m aware that as a young man my father read many Russian novels  in English translations and then later, went on to learn Russian well enough to speak it–or so I am told–reasonably fluently; I often wonder whether he went back  to reread those same works in Russian.)

I grew up bilingual, so I’ve had a chance to bridge this sort of gap. In high school in India, we read the short stories of the Indian novelist Premchand in Hindi. Later, after moving to the US, and during a trip back to India, I picked up a collection of Premchand’s short stories–translated into English. The temporal distance between my first exposure to Premchand’s shorts and this one was too great; when I read them in English, I was aware of a difference, but it was not one I could adequately describe or articulate. I was merely cognizant of the fact that I was reading distinct works and was unable to make any sort of critical assessment of the quality of the translation.

I have a chance to conduct this experiment again; I own three of Premchand’s novels in the original Hindi, and plan to pick up translations in English on my next trip to India. I have often found myself groaning at the quality of the subtitled translations of Indian cinema; if  more than one established translation of Premchand into English can be found, I intend to make those rough expressions of discontent more formal, to finally be the kind of snob that is able to say “I prefer X’s translation to Y’s.” I say this with all due humility: my fluency in Hindi is debatable; I am aware of the indeterminacy of translation; but still, it’ll be nice to be able to turn the tables, to go from being the one on the outside, being told of my separation from the translated work, to being the one on the inside, informing others of theirs.