In this first instalment of her self-conceived series, Life in Languages, Elodie Rose Barnes considers how texts in translation have made an impact on her life and writing, especially during lockdown, and sees the art of translation as a bridge in the era of physical distancing.
I’ve just finished the last page of a book. This is not usually the best time for me to be writing anything: someone else’s words are still alive in my mind, not yet settled, not yet distinct enough from possible words of my own. This book in particular has crept delicately under my skin. It’s called Translation as Transhumance. The author, Mireille Gansel, takes her work of translation and drops it, piece by piece, into the context of her life until the two become inseparable, until it becomes clear that her whole being is suffused with language. Ultimately, in her hands and in the hands of her translator Ros Schwartz, language becomes a view to the soul.
It resonated, but I felt as if it shouldn’t. A book being a guilty pleasure was a strange sensation: in the chiming of what she wrote with what I wanted to say, I felt as if I was appropriating something that wasn’t mine. I’m not, and probably never will be a translator. I cannot elegantly spin words and meanings and subtleties from one language to another. I also struggled to reconcile my childhood experience of language with what Gansel calls “the language of the soul”: the words that “take root” in us from our very first days and form the basis of us as writers, as readers, as human beings. My “language land of the soul” was a waste land. It took me until the end of the book to recognise that often the heart leads a very different life to the body.
I grew up in a household where language was superficial. It was used for the business of living, for fitting in and doing what was expected, for surviving. There were no words for emotions – for beauty, for joy, for love. Those things existed, but they were never exclaimed over. They were never even talked about. Neither were there any words for the sometimes crippling depression my mother suffered, or for my father’s premature death from alcohol, for the eating disorder that coloured my teenage years. Yet those things existed too. The language of my childhood was hidden language. It was, I later realised, subtly violent language. It was language as silence, in which reading was not a matter of learning words but of recognising the signs. I could spot a slap further down the page, but didn’t know how to say it hurt.
I escaped most of my childhood by reading. Every Saturday morning from the time I could hold a book by myself, I was taken to the local library and left there for an hour, maybe two. It was the one freedom I had away from watchful adult eyes – the freedom to pick any book I wanted – but even if I could have found them, I wasn’t looking for words to help explain the reality around me. I was looking for words to escape into. I went sleuthing with Nancy Drew, ran away with Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wandered the Sahara with the Little Prince. My childhood language – my language of the soul, the words that took root in me – was any language that could carry me far away.
I still hold those words in me. Unable to do the conventional thing and settle down (whatever that means), I’ve taken that language and wandered with it, knowing that it isn’t quite my own but not having anything to put in its place. Not that it really mattered. When you travel, you’re always “the other” anyway. Lands aren’t foreign; the traveller in them is, and it turns things upside down. The person you thought you were becomes a total stranger. This is the “transhumance” of Gansel, the gentle movement of shepherds with their flocks to new pastures, rhythmic, regular, moving with the seasons into a different state of being. And perhaps you have to become a stranger to yourself in order to begin again. I’m sorry, we got off to a bad start. All kinds of debris is washed away in the tide, and in this constant shifting, language – true soul language made of words and silences and different tongues, and the spaces where all three overlap – emerges as the building block of something new.
My travels were uncanny. I felt like I belonged in France and in Spain, long before I knew that my great-grandfathers were French and Spanish. I journeyed to Israel and the West Bank before I knew that any of my family were Jewish. I often wonder what words of theirs would have been handed down to me if they hadn’t been lost along the way, casualties of family history and two world wars, but the few fragments of each language that I know flow through me like blood. This is found language, still covered with time’s dust. I feel guilty thinking of it as reclaimed language – what right have I got to it? – and yet it’s there, driftwood washed up on the same shore, offering a hint of an alternative. I often don’t know the literal meaning of the words. I can spend hours with a dictionary translating a single short paragraph, while the soul meaning – the meaning that comes on the breath of hundreds of years of history – often comes easier. It’s comforting. Not all the boats have been burned.
Now, as I’m writing, I’m also thinking that “translation” is not simply the art of moving words from one language to another, but a way of interpreting life. Everything we read, we translate. We filter words, both familiar and unfamiliar, through our own experiences, our own prejudices, our own judgments, our own desires. We shift sentences into things that we can understand at a particular moment in time; and we focus on language that resonates, that we believe has some special meaning for us, because without that it’s just shapes on the page. Today, in this moment, we can no longer use the languages of touch or of the body. Zoom doesn’t give us the nuances we crave. And so translation of words and translation of experiences becomes even more important – in times of enforced physical solitude, it’s the only form of human connection we have left. We’ve all found ourselves in the position of being “the other”, looking to understand a language that feels foreign, and Gansel’s words, written years before Covid-19, seem extraordinarily prescient: “In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge”.
Translation As Transhumance by Mireille Gansel is translated by Ros Schwartz and published by Les Fugitives and is available to purchase online and in all good book shops now.
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leila Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes