Linguistic Cross-Dressing

«If I cannot love the typical modern German, I can at least pity and understand him. His worst fault is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.»

—George Bernhard Shaw, in: The Perfect Wagnerite (1883)

For more than 10 years I have been regularly tormenting myself with the question whether I am better off writing in my mother tongue, German, than in English, which is a language I acquired in passing as it were but which is not mine by birthright.

I suppose this torment might appear to others as a privilege, and complaining about the choice will seem a luxury to them. But the world created by one’s intellect to understand and perhaps to describe the world not created by one’s intellect is made valuable mainly by privileged choices. Choices which are rooted in complex concepts like morality and loyalty, which must be opened up by reflection rather than closed by action. Therefore I cannot feel too sorry for myself for having the problem though I do feel and have felt very sorry for not finding a solution.

So much so that lately I was fed up and I decided that perhaps the problem itself was the solution I needed. That oscillating between both languages, using them as it were to cast a different image of the same idea, struggling with them in very different ways, was the very core of my being a writer.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

No process encapsulates this solution as well as the process of translation. Which is why I have hitherto enjoyed translating my original English texts into German and vice versa, sometimes going back and forth between the two until, in many cases, I am no longer sure which version really was the original. I think this is quite telling for the degree to which the languages must have merged in my mind, or if you prefer the negative, for the degree to which I have freed myself, at least on the plane on practical writing, from either idiom. It is also disturbing at times. It’s not really supposed to be that way. Language corresponds to mother and father, it incorporates and transports feelings of loyalty. One can only gain one language at the price of losing another — neither gain nor loss are complete, of course.

The fate of true bi-linguality (which is my daughter’s fate, not mine, I’m merely a linguistic cross-dresser) is severe, the burden imposed on the individual is solemn. It places the self between two cultures, removing it from either one without freeing it entirely. The new path, the new place is not exactly overpopulated. In literature, the number of near-bilingual writers of note is small. In the 20th century the likes of Nabokov, Brodsky, Conrad and Beckett belong to this nation. There must be others due to the history of colonialism—India especially comes to mind, but I’m not well-versed enough to drop names. South America has produced a peculiar type of expatriate writer who sees his cultural capital abroad—like Cortazar, for whom it was Paris, not Buenos Aires.

In the course of two world wars and a great number of smaller wars, thousands of writers have been displaced only to lose their language, sometimes irretrievably. In Germany, the loss of the rich literate culture of the 1920s is especially felt as a ludicrous loss of core energy. Nowadays, the speed with which language culture becomes increasingly global leads to more displacement and more confusion. One of the side effects of globalization is the growth of the new nation populated by language-crossers.

But I have strayed from my original subject and I wish to get back to it: the meaning, for me, of having two fully developed, operational languages in my head; and I have strayed from my goal: to relate my recent experience of having been translated by a native speaker (who also happens to be my wife). This is what happened: I wrote the story (or rather, I dictated it, which is how I write these days) and put it through two drafts before presenting it to the translator. The first translation led to a substantially altered third draft, because my wife didn’t just transpose my words from German to English, but she edited me at the same time (I wish I could say that she had done that subtly, but as an editor she is an old hand and knows that the author only succumbs to pressure and direct attack). From that moment on, the story really existed in two different versions: the German and the English version. Clearly, the German version could make the prior claim of existence, but the story as it stood, wouldn’t have existed without its translated version.

If both stories have been given voices, the English story would’ve kept an ironic, well bred distance from this whole unpleasant question of originality. While the German story, feeling slighted by the need to be translated in the first place (rather than tickled by the opportunity for greater exposure and additional audiences), would very likely have sulked.

The process I’ve sketched for you is only too similar to the process that I have held in my head between my German speaking and my English-speaking self. Having a translator means that I could see it much more clearly from the outside. The product, the finished story has, I believe, greatly benefited from the interplay between writer and translator. I’m aware that this kind of co-creation and editing of the first story version in the light of the second must be rather rare, but perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to be.

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

Last night I returned to the German version of the story after sending the English version off to the magazine. The English story was out of the way now and I could have a quiet word with the German. It was a good chat: it resulted in a few more changes and made the German story better than it had been. Some of these changes were shadows of the translation, but a number of them were completely new (without, I hasten to add, turning it into a different story). One lesson may be: if you set out to refine a German, make sure there’s no stranger in the room. Even a close relative may get in the way.


Published in: Yareah Magazine — please check there for the ongoing conversation (in the comments section), you won’t regret it! Notes: The translator mentioned here is: Carlye Birkenkrahe. The story mentioned is: “The Cricket In The Wall” (“Die Grille in der Wand”). My collection of short fiction, “Thank You For Your Sperm” will be published by MadHat Press this May. — As ever there’s so much more to be said about the subject: the (to me) lamentable state of German literature, its skidding into irrelevancy while avoiding those topics that would best come from Germans; on a technical level, the incompatibility of the languages (fascinating: Pei Ying-Lin’s infographic showing “The Many Emotions For Which English Has No Word“, discussed in The Atlantic earlier this year); and so on. Stuff for many more posts.

3 thoughts on “Linguistic Cross-Dressing

  1. Thank you for a fascinating article, in which my particular favorite musing is: “While the German story, feeling slighted by the need to be translated in the first place (rather than tickled by the opportunity for greater exposure and additional audiences), would very likely have sulked.”

    • Dear Maggie, I’m flattered and delighted by your comment; in fact, I was expecting more pushback from my fellow countrymen on the opinion hidden in that sentence; alas, despite an overall increase in openness, it seems to me that the ruling view in Germany is that it is better to hide one’s light under a bushel. I can only speculate as to the reasons for this…shyness, but it does reflect upon our artists (with literature as the most outspoken one perhaps being more affected than other arts). Sometimes I wonder how much of it is still due to Germany’s 20th century history. I’ve been itching for a while to try my hand on this subject actually.

  2. Pingback: Negotiating Babel | MARCUS SPEH | BERLIN

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