Between the Languages, Series 3 No. 4

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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The novelist and essayist Elias Canetti was born and lived the first six years of his life in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, on the Lower Danube. There – so he remembers in his autobiography Die gerettete Zunge (‘The tongue set free’) – you might hear seven or eight languages being spoken on the streets around you. In his own family three were current: Spanish in a form that had scarcely developed since the late fifteenth century when the Sephardic Jews were driven from their homes in the Iberian Peninsula; German, but only between the mother and father, especially when they wished to exclude the children from understanding; and Bulgarian, spoken by the half dozen young girls who were always in the household as servants. These girls told him horror stories – of vampires and werewolves – in Bulgarian, terrifying him and themselves in so doing. In 1911 the family emigrated to Manchester, Canetti learned English. Two years later he was in Vienna, and got the language he would be a writer in: German. He lost all his Bulgarian. The horror stories, by some mysterious movement of the psyche, as though they insisted on being remembered, translated themselves, in his memory, into German. They jumped ship, transferred to another carrier, in order to survive.

People with English as their mother tongue generally feel well-off, often smugly so. The advantages are indeed great; but they bring with them an almost equal risk of laziness, arrogance and insularity. And thinking about Canetti, and reading some of the contributions in this issue of MPT, even those native speakers of English who have acquired another tongue or two, may well feel rather humbled.

But a thorough ability in more than one language may itself be a troubled and problematic state. Often it is only achieved by force of circumstances, perhaps of a murderous kind: the driving and scattering abroad, the loss of a mother tongue among foreigners. One reason for the many suicides among writers in exile, German writers for example between 1933 and 1945, is the loss of speech and the loss of a readership of native speakers. Brecht, a survivor, in exile in America, noted in his journal that he was beginning to lose some German words – whilst wilfully, deliberately, not replacing them with English. Hölderlin was certain that all poets must, literally or figuratively, by travel or translation, go abroad; but warned against too long a stay there, for fear of losing the tongue and the self with it.

Language expresses and determines identity perhaps in equal measure. Anyone with any fluency in a foreign tongue knows the feeling of taking on another persona in the crossing over. That is not to suggest an insincerity. The bodily gestures of languages, their ways of being in the world, vary greatly; and the speakers, crossing over, shift more or less with their speech. This question of language and identity touches poetry closely. Thomas Hardy described his poems as ‘personative’ or ‘impersonative’; even – he implied – those that seemed most to be in the author’s own voice. There is nothing suspect or disreputable in assuming personae; each is a mask through which a possible human being speaks. The chief moral drive of poetry lies precisely in this sympathizing with ways of being human, with points of view and possiblities quite other than those inhabited by the writer in his or her own circumscribed biographical self. It is a waiving or subordinating of personal identity, the better to understand others.

At the same time, there has to be a centre, something that holds, a watchful place. Poems come about through an act of deliberate shaping, not through dissolution and letting go. A poet between or among the languages, already, as poet, entertaining the different identities that come with the poetic undertaking and compounding these with the identity adopted in the taking on of a new language, any such writer must be acutely attentive to the peculiar centre from which a poem issues. But the writers represented here do not need telling that.

English seems to prove the truth of the first half of Matthew 25:29 ‘Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have in abundance’; and the languages struggling for survival around English must often feel they exemplify the rest: ‘but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’. We must work for something better, a productive struggle and in it an assertion and strengthening of identities. But what benefits come to English when writers settle in it and begin to import what they love and honour from the language they were born in! Michael Hamburger has for many years conducted German poets into English; Kapka Kasabova and Choman Hardi, each with a book of poems in English to her name, are beginning to fetch in works from the mother tongue. Writers in languages less world-wide than English rightly want to be known in it. And English, for its own lively development, has an equal interest in knowing them. The whole ambition of this magazine is to further that humane exchange.

David and Helen Constantine, October 2005

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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A thorough ability in more than one language may itself be a troubled and problematic state. Often it is only achieved by force of circumstances, perhaps of a murderous kind: the driving and scattering abroad, the loss of a mother tongue among foreigners. David and Helen Constantine

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