MPT FEATURE

Polyglot Peregrinations

Series 3 No. 4 - Between the Languages

There was no place in the world where I wanted to be - because without language there is no self, and without self there is no perception, and therefore no place for you in the world. In other words, I wanted to die... By the end of the year, I was recovering: not just because Sylvia Plath could write about the way I felt in my psycho-linguistic bell-jar, but because I had started actually reading English literature. I had been given entry into the literary culture into which I so desperately wanted to read and write myself, so that I could exist once again.

A foreign language is a paradoxical escape: it takes you out of yourself, but also back into yourself to places you didn’t know existed. To translate is to travel this unpredictable landscape. To live between languages, as in my case, is to be constantly moving over untrodden territory, negotiating internal and external boundaries of identity and meaning. I was born an escapist and a traveller, which is why I was gripped from the moment my Russian teacher wrote on the blackboard a funny-looking sentence in Cyrillic, then turned her bespectacled face to the class and said: ‘Today, we are going to learn Russian.’

I was eight. The year was 1981, the place Sofia. Leonid Brezhnev, the last serious Soviet dictator, died soon after. My Russian teacher wept into her black shawl while we stood freezing in the school courtyard, listening to records of Soviet army songs. By then, I understood the songs. I also understood, with a child’s instinct, that something was wrong with us, with these songs blaring out of megaphones, with the way we had to understand them. So, as an unconscious act of protest, I tried to be bad at Russian. I gave idiotic answers in class, infuriating the poor teacher. Being an idiot was unrewarding, but I persevered. But it wasn’t to be. One day I found myself entertaining my little sister with a slide-show of Russian stories. I had to translate as well as I could for her benefit. My mother came in at one point, and praised me for my translation. I was secretly chuffed. I kept up my slide-shows, ostensibly for my sister. I started looking up Russian words in the dictionary, and that is how I stopped wanting to be bad at Russian – being good at it was much more fun. Around that time, I started writing poetry in Bulgarian – about railway stations and going away. I also read Evgeni Onegin in a bilingual edition, and was transfixed by the miracle of sustained rhyming translation. Gradually, books became the centre of my world. I stopped showing my sister slide-shows because I was too busy reading. It was a way of forgetting what was wrong with us, and travelling to other worlds in the only possible way. 

When it was time to choose a secondary school, I applied for the English school. But my entrance exam results weren’t good enough, and I only just made it into the French school. Bulgaria has a tradition of bilingual schools where subjects like chemistry, biology and history are taught by bilingual teachers. The first day at the Lycée Français, our teacher Madame Lambreva warned us in Bulgarian that from now on only French was to be spoken. When we feebly protested that we didn’t speak any yet, she said: ‘That’s exactly why’ and continued in French for the rest of the day. We were petrified. It was too much for the girl sitting next to me – first she started sobbing quietly, then crapped herself. Her mother had to come and take her away. 

We were given one hundred new words per day. I went home and wrote down each word a hundred times, with the religious fervour of a convert. It almost didn’t matter what language I was learning – it was foreign, it wasn’t Russian, and that was enough. French took me out of my familiar self, and that surely meant it would also take me out of all that was wrong with us. We sang songs like ‘La Normandie’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ whose geography was a mystery – Normandy, Marseille, those were mythical places, like the Underworld. We had marathon dictations in class packed with tricky-to-spell words like inouïes, ‘unheard of’: negative, feminine, plural, and triple vowel. Our French teachers, Mme Musaud and Monsieur Neuilly, were relaxed and surprisingly caring. Once, I drew the Eiffel Tower in a drawing class. Mme Musaud said ‘That’s a nice drawing. Have you been there?’ I was mortified. Some of the kids’ parents were diplomats and they had lived in countries like Algeria, Libya, or even France. But not me. When Monsieur Neuilly left, he gave me his address in France and I wretchedly copied it in my address book. He was as good as dead to me now. France was an idea, not a real place. Only its language was real, and I clung to it as if to a secret money-belt. 

By the end of the first year, I spoke fluent French and read Sartre and Camus. In my second year, I translated Baudelaire into Bulgarian while stuck in hospital with an auto-immune disease. I could discuss in French the phosphate resources of the Balkan region, molecules with triple valence, and existentialism. Somehow, this was going to save me. I already knew, implicitly, that when you are a second-class nation, learning the language of first-class nations is the closest you can get to a ticket. The Iron Curtain was like the Styx. Poor as we were, perhaps we could pay our way with language units. Now my class-mates talked about studying medicine or law in France after school. Medicine and law scared me witless, but maybe that’s what it took to get to France? Then, one day, the Berlin Wall fell. Bulgaria had a coup. The world as we knew it collapsed and anything was possible. I was sixteen. 

My father went to Essex, England, as a research fellow for two years. The family followed. I found myself at Colchester Sixth Form College with a late 80s East European hair-style, the usual torments of adolescence, and rudimentary English. You see, I never thought I might need English. I had prepared for France. In class, my English teacher Joe Sheerin talked about Waiting for Godot. I had seen it three times, in Bulgarian.

‘It’s a funny play, isn’t it,’ he tried to involve the class. They chewed gum and couldn’t give a shit. 

‘It’s not funny,’ I ventured for the first time, blushing deeply, ‘it’s sad, very sad.’ Some kids sniggered. Joe Sheerin turned to me with blue eyes full of wonder, and said:  ‘Thank you. You’ve obviously seen the play. You see, in English, funny has two  meanings. It also means strange. It’s a funny language, English.’ 

And he smiled with all the kindness I needed to rescue me from disappearing into the black hole of English. When I wrote my first essay, full of grammatical mistakes, inventive spelling and semantic horrors, Joe Sheerin asked me if I wrote poetry. He suggested I translate some poems and show them to him. He was a poet himself; only a poet could have thrown me the life-belt of encouragement I needed in order to swim in the deep, cold currents of my new language. I was almost ready to try writing in English, when our UK visas expired and we had to go back to Sofia to wait for new ones. I was accepted by Leeds University, my father was offered a permanent job in England - but we needed the visas. 

Those were dark times in Sofia: poverty, unemployment, power cuts, water cuts, shortages, mass immigration, and disillusion. My mother was diagnosed with a tumour and had to have hysterectomy. In the hospital, they had no sheets – only newspapers. I had a bladder infection, then stopped eating as an act of protest – against what, I didn’t know. My father went grey overnight. My sister was re-learning to be Bulgarian after two years in English schools. My boyfriend from England came to visit in the darkest winter of our family, and heroically fought through blizzards to buy Christmas cards for England. We waited ten interminable months for word from the Home Office. Bored and depressed, I enrolled in an intensive Spanish course. One more language couldn’t hurt, besides I had always liked the husky sounds of Spanish.  

For a month, I sat in a classroom and conjugated Spanish verbs in a sort of incantatory trance. Yo me voy, tu te vas, el se va, nosotros nos vamos, nosotros nos vamos, nosotros nos vamos…The world was out there, and I wanted to go and practise my languages. All I needed was a stamp in my passport. 

The Home Office sent us three visas – minus mine. I had turned 18, no longer a ‘dependent family member’. Fortunately, my parents had decided to have a back-up option and my father had applied for a lectureship in New Zealand. We became New Zealand residents before we even arrived in Dunedin some months later, thin and pallid from stress and passport complications. On our first supermarket trip, my father bought twenty five cartons of juice – every available variety in the supermarket - and arranged them in neat rows in the kitchen with a madman’s grin. 

But supermarket thrills aside, Dunedin at the time struck me as Calvinist, provincial, and distinctly untropical. They worshipped someone called Robbie Burns who was apparently Scottish, and had a strange way of speaking: instead of saying pen, they said pin; they said bid for bed, and fush and chups for fish and chips. There were no other Bulgarians in town, definitely no French, and few Europeans. It was Colchester all over again, except this time my boyfriend was far away, and worst of all - my English had lapsed. I made no difference between long and short vowels, so that when I said ‘shits’, I really meant ‘sheets’. Fortunately, the people of Dunedin were more polite than the kids in Joe Sheerin’s class. I wanted to study English literature but couldn’t muster the confidence, so I enrolled with French, Russian, and linguistics - my comfort zone. 

I was a published poet in Bulgaria by now, and still thought, dreamt and wrote in Bulgarian. But as links with Bulgaria and England began to fade, it dawned on me that this was permanent, that my life from now on was the life of a migrant in an English-speaking country at the end of the world. France looked more out of reach than ever. I had to stop writing in Bulgarian. I had to start writing in English, translating wasn’t good enough anymore, it was like second-hand writing, and I was as ever sensitive to notions of second hand and second class. If someone else (Joseph Conrad) had done it at the age of 19, so could I. But I wanted it to happen overnight. I wanted to start writing in a literary tradition that I didn’t know, with a fluency I didn’t even have in speech yet. In my haste, I became stuck between two languages. In my writing, I had let go of Bulgarian, but I couldn’t go anywhere in English. I became speechless. 

I entered the transitional muteness of the immigrant Eva Hoffman conjures in Lost in Translation: a muteness of the mind. If you can’t formulate complex thoughts and images in some language, you become emptied of complex thoughts and images. You stop being yourself and enter a state of non-being, of invisibility. I was used to writing in Bulgarian like living in a well-appointed house: padding on soft carpets, muting the lights, glimpsing fantastical landscapes from the windows, conversing with the portraits of my ancestors on the walls, browsing the endless library. I was used to bringing the furniture of foreign languages into that house too – there was always room for more. But I had never tried writing poetry or fiction in another language – a completely different business from speaking well or simply conveying meaning, or even translating. Now that I tried, I found myself stranded in a mental no man’s land, with no shelter in sight and no familiar landmarks. Who were my ancestors? Who were my contemporaries? All I knew of English literature were the novels of Jack London, Ray Bradbury, and Hariett Beecher Stowe, and some Hamlet – all in Bulgarian translation. Where did I begin? Whom did I ask? I was studying French literature, after all – Sartre and Camus, my old friends. But they couldn’t help me now that I was in the thick of being and nothingness. 

Instead of being yet another foreign language for me, English became my first non-language. And because my sense of self came from my articulateness, I lost my very sense of self. I underwent an identity meltdown. Of course at the time I blamed it on Dunedin. But while I was miserable in New Zealand, I hated Bulgaria and detested Britain for what it had done to us. There was no place in the world where I wanted to be - because without language there is no self, and without self there is no perception, and therefore no place for you in the world. In other words, I wanted to die. 

I became a professional anorexic, scratched my wrists, wrote emotionally hysterical poems in English with lots of blood, and thought about quick ways to die, since self-starvation was clearly going to take time. But my parents had wrestled the monster of bureaucracy and the spectre of ill fortune to bring us here, and were now saving every penny to educate us and give us nice bedrooms and twenty-five varieties of fruit juice. I couldn’t. Then one day, in the swimming pool where I went to burn off the fat I didn’t have, I met a psychiatrist. He was clearly experienced because as we parted, he told me where to look for him if I needed to. He became my Joe Sheerin and my first friend: for a year, he gave me Prosac, his own wild poems, and books to read, among which were Sylvia Plath’s poetry and The Bell Jar. By the end of the year, I was recovering: not just because Sylvia Plath could write about the way I felt in my psycho-linguistic bell-jar, but because I had started actually reading English literature. I had been given entry into the literary culture into which I so desperately wanted to read and write myself, so that I could exist once again. I was also meeting local writers, and even some French people to practise my French with. New Zealand stopped being a wasteland for me around the same time I found a tongue to be myself in – or at least to be someone. 

In the meantime, I travelled to Tahiti on a one-month scholarship. There, I discovered that I was French. The Tahitians simply didn’t believe that I was Bulgarian and had never been to France – I had the accent of ‘métropole’. I was confused. I didn’t want to be French – after all, I was writing in English now, and I had a Kiwi passport. France had never given me anything. But language has its own agenda. It is a giver and taker of identity sometimes on its own terms. Even now, when I fully inhabit English, and couldn’t write in any other language, I cannot control my inflection which is a collection of accents. My poetry gets reviewed together with East European poets in translation. Yet when I met East European poets at the Dublin Writers’ Festival last year and tried to find common ground, I couldn’t - we didn’t share a language or even a culture. To them I was an English-language writer. In Britain, people think I am French, but never a New Zealander or a Bulgarian. When I meet travelling Kiwis, they are perplexed when I insist I too am from New Zealand – I never learnt to say fush and chups. The only language in which I can pass off as a local is Bulgarian. But when I tried writing in Bulgarian once, I found myself regressing to the level of my sixteen-year-old self. When I go to Bulgaria now, exactly half a lifetime after I left, I feel like a foreigner. When I go to France, I queue up with my two passports and rusty French in the ‘other’ queue, still somehow second class, vaguely unclean.  

Even now, with six published books in English (and the occasional translation into Bulgarian), my yearning for the language house I used to inhabit persists. Not for the Bulgarian language itself, but for the comfort of that residence. I have to accept that no matter how much I read, how many rare English words I know, and how many books I write in English, I will never live in such comfort again. The leather-bound volumes of Wordsworth and Tennyson will never be mine. They are borrowed, along with the writing desk, the UK visa, and the New Zealand passport. Walter Benjamin said that childhood is the source of all sorrow. It is also the source of all other profound experience, which is why inhabiting the ancestral house of language begins with childhood, with first memories and first picture books, with learning nursery rhymes and songs, and absorbing the moods of language while you are still a semi-conscious sponge. You cannot ‘learn’ nursery rhymes as an adult any more than you can learn memories, even though you can learn Shakespeare – and a writer’s adventure with words starts not with Shakespeare, but with doggerel and lullabies, with slide-shows of fairy tales, with the deepest, pre-language memory of a certain smell of damp leaves. I write in English, but my memory of those damp autumn leaves is in Bulgarian. This is why I could only ever be a tenant in the English language house. This is also why I am geographically restless, searching for some kind of surrogate home that clearly doesn’t exist. 

This year, I found myself at a festival of Latin-American poetry in Vienna. I recited my poems in Spanish translation, with the Argentine accent I’d acquired on my travels to Buenos Aires. A German poet read my poems in German translation. The original English poems didn’t get an airing. After the reading, an Austrian poet came up to chat in French. A Bulgarian expat introduced herself in Bulgarian. The Latin American community shouted in their various accents. An Argentine poet congratulated me on my Argentine pronunciation, and swore she had heard my poem at a festival in Colombia last year. An American expat spoke English with an English expat. Splinters of Austrian German flew around us. For a moment, caught up in this Babylonian cacophony, tuning in and out of meanings, I couldn’t remember which language was supposed to be ‘mine’. And yet, I wasn’t confused by this. It was a happy moment of escape from the tyranny of a ‘master’ language. For once, I didn’t have to prove myself, I didn’t have to worry about being a native speaker, a foreigner, or a thing in between, about not remembering how to pronounce a certain word and betraying myself as being a tenant rather than a home-owner. It was a moment of polyphonic peace, like listening to the chanting of Gregorian monks.

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