MPT FEATURE

Switching Languages: a Hindrance or an Opportunity?

Series 3 No. 4 - Between the Languages

At times I feel sad when I think I may never write in Kurdish again. Other times I think that as much as English can claim me, I can claim it to tell my truth and give my community a voice. In the end, language is music and as long as this music becomes part of us, we can be creative through it.

‘What language do you dream in?’ people keep asking me. This is meant to be an important indicator of my natural language, the language of my thoughts and feelings. The simple answer is, I never remember the language of my dreams. Does this mean that I dream in Kurdish? Maybe, but should this imply I cannot write in English or that I am constantly translating my thoughts when I speak and laugh and make love in English? It is possible but unlikely. I go through ups and downs with my languages. On certain days I feel fluent in four languages, I can hear them all clearly and sing them. Other days I keep slipping over words even in my native tongue, and finding the right word is a big struggle.

When I came to England twelve years ago all I wanted was to be able to speak and understand English. I wanted to be able to study philosophy and read poetry without having to use the big Oxford dictionary. I never thought I would write poetry in English one day. In fact I was a very young writer when I came and my poetry was developing while I was living in London. A few years on, when the majority of my friends were English speaking, I thought about translating some of my poetry simply to share it with them. I was at university then and my friends looked at my poetry book and said: ‘It looks beautiful!’ I then translated a few poems which came out really badly. Despite the fact that my poems were simpler and more down-to-earth than most Kurdish poetry, it was nearly impossible to get it right. At least, this is what I thought at the time. ‘Yekek bereda teparee, chawekani pir boon le noor’,  so one of my poems goes: ‘Somebody passed from here, his eyes were full of light.’ The word ‘noor’, which is an Arabic word, literally means ‘light’ and has led to the creation of another word in Kurdish, ‘noorani’, which means someone with the aura of holiness. So the literal translation ‘someone whose eyes were full of light’ does not have the implication that he is holy in a super-human kind of way, and this is an important part of the poem. My translations of my own work seemed bland so I decided not to try.

Over the years, through my education, friendships and readings, my English became stronger, more natural and spontaneous. Through reading contemporary English literature, my style of writing gradually changed, my language became simplified and my images more pinned down (I am still not sure if this is a good thing). On the other hand, the longer I lived in England the more I realised there was little understanding of the Kurdish situation in the Middle East and therefore no real sympathy. This realisation made me angry for a while but soon I became conscious of my position as a Kurdish writer in the UK and the responsibilities that came with that. I realised that instead of being angry, I could write in English about the truths that are so important to me and are unknown to others. In this sense switching to English happened on two levels, linguistically and politically. On one level I can say that writing in English was by choice, on the other, it was just a necessity. When I started toying with the idea of writing in English, there was a period when I wrote in both Kurdish and English. Most of the time the poem itself decided what language it wanted to be written in. ‘Jamek aw ba dwaya birjin, beshkum zoo bigeretewe,’ I wrote: ‘Spill some water behind him, hope that he comes back soon.’ This may seem meaningless in English but in the Middle East when someone goes away you spill water behind them so that they go and come back safe, like water. Such thoughts, words and idioms determined what language the poem would choose. Unfortunately, I now only write in English. Languages which are used more intensly have the tendency to take over like that. At times I feel sad when I think I may never write in Kurdish again. Other times I think that as much as English can claim me, I can claim it to tell my truth and give my community a voice. In he end, language is music and as long as this music becomes part of us, we can be creative through it. Also, we can recreate our identities in any language and writing in English may not be as big a betrayal as it sometimes seems.

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