Posts tagged “language

I think in a a tongue entirely unfamiliar to me

Perhaps I ought to get serious about reading Hofmannsthal (otherwise famous for being the librettist of Frau Ohne Schatten).  Here is a line from his first publication ever, an imagined Letter of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon ca. 1603:

I shall never write another book again, neither in English, nor in Latin, because the language in which I have been fated to write and think is neither Latin, nor English, nor Italian, nor Spanish; it is a tongue entirely unfamiliar to me, of which I understand not a word, a language in which mute objects speak to me, and in which, in my tomb, I will perhaps one day have to answer an unknown judge.

That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all

I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.

As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.


The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.

If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.

In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.

And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic.  (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).

Joseph Conrad: A case of love foretold

My Polish friends, by and large, don’t like Conrad.

Partly, the reason is translation.  Although Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer) 1; and I have not checked whether these specific passages read well in Polish translation; I am pretty sure they do not.  I am pretty sure because I remember clearly having had great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish, and switching, in frustration, to read him in my then very poor English, because that went better, however slowly. Why, some passages in the Polish translation of The Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible — yet, once I switched to the English, they proved clarity itself.

(Thus, it could be said, perhaps, that I owe my English fluency to the poverty of the existing Polish translations of Conrad).

I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will sail more smoothly up the Vistula.

A more serious problem is Conrad’s… Englishness. Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all (Laconically) elevated to the status of virtues. Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever: in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word: he says “I jumped”. He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely must.

This is emphatically not the Polish way.  Indeed, I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian. My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable; I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”.  And, perhaps constitutionally not unlike Jim (was he not “one of us”?) I, too, refuse to explain.

But mainly, perhaps, it is because of Conrad’s topics. Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for Chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything? In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) old de la Grieve makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it yob) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase): “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig. Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”. In other words, the connoisseur of men’s hearts that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by fancy feelings like loyalty. Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel about shame.

And what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line? It has no romantic interest. They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away. There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs. On its surface, it is a novel about a man’s first… independent job.

In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood.  Why?  Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it (by and large they did not:  invariably, Conrad sold poorly); so he went out and did something no man’s man ever should: he explained.  Predictably, it didn’t work:  critics still insist it is a novel about ghosts.

It didn’t work because, being one of us, he explained badly: The Shadow Line is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.

Sell that in a (historically) land-locked country.


To me Conrad is –destiny:  he went to sea inspired by books; I went to Asia inspired by Conrad.  He lived a life of action before he ever entertained the idea of writing; I dropped the idea of letters and took up life of adventure instead.  He wrote with profound respect and sympathy for Asians — particularly Malays — whom he saw as noble and proud;  a lot of who I am has come about precisely because I too have adopted his attitude.  On the other side of the ledger:  Conrad evolved a peculiar ethos, one which combined chimeric romanticism and proud stoicism; unhappily, perhaps, it is an ethos I understand — and find easy to embrace.

But above all, Conrad is for me a case of a love foretold:  long before I ever laid my eyes upon them, I knew, from reading him, that I would love intensely and madly the stifling heat of the jungle, the massive muddy fast flowing rivers, the screeching birds and howling monkeys, the intensely colored flowers and the madly scented fruit, the deliciously powerful trade-wind blowing onshore, the flavor of the foods, the patterns of the skirts, the curvature of the weapons, the otherworldly clang of the gamelan.

Conrad the writer interests me less:  the sedentary life of struggling with writer’s block, agents, and publishers seems so much less than his life as a sailor.  How can experimentation in new forms of narrative match the excitement of a good storm at sea?  It is hard to believe that it was for this that he’d left the Otago.


1 The beauty of Conrad’s prose seems surprising in a man who, reportedly, spoke English with a heavy accent until his dying day. It isn’t English, wrote a critic, meaning that no Englishman could have ever written anything like it and that, to his mind, the greatness of the prose lay precisely in this fact: perhaps, he meant to suggest, it took a foreigner to realize the full potential of English prose, lying hidden, as it were in the native’s blind spots. Unlike Nabokov’s prose, which to my ears sounds like Englished Russian, Conrad’s prose is not Englished Polish — indeed, it translates badly into Polish. It is entirely — Conradian; entirely his own.

In which he reveals that he speaks six and a half languages

Monolinguals ask frequently how many languages I speak and, when I say, “Six and a half”, they marvel which is the half. But languages aren’t like pregnancies – one’s either pregnant or she isn’t – but like dollars: it is possible to own various fractions of one. Just as one can have two dozens coins in his pocket and yet all those coins may all add up to but $3.25, so it is possible to command umpteen languages which yet may only add up to six and a half whole languages between them.

I speak four languages well: one English and one Polish; seven eights Chinese and three quarters Japanese. At the other extreme is my French, which I do not speak at all, though I read it fast without dictionary and can even make sense of it when it is spoken at conferences, especially by Italians. Somewhere in between these extremes lie the languages I speak badly: Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. Then there are languages like Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, and Indonesian of which, due to my interest in certain art-forms, I command large vocabulary without being able to as much as make a single sentence.

Of all these languages I like speaking Polish and Chinese most: they are extrovert languages and they require their speaker to be, above all, funny. Inter-personal contact in these languages is much easier, much less burdened with formalities and tabus than in others. I miss speaking them, and I delight in the rare opportunities I have to speak them. All Poles living abroad miss the experience of speaking Polish: there is a pleasure to just wielding the language which, I suppose, must be comparable to the pleasure of wielding the tennis racket.

To my ears, the prettiest of my languages is Japanese, though is not the most beautiful spoken language I have ever heard. That honor goes to Turkish – a language to which Japanese is related – which I heard for the first time in my life spoken by two beautiful women, in candlelight. It sounded to me like a crystal stream. My God, I exclaimed, what language are you two speaking? I am not sure how I have managed so far without having studied it at all. (Chinese spoken with Beijing accent can have this effect on me sometimes).

My spoken Japanese is often disorienting to my interlocutors: Japanese is gender-specific, meaning that men and women speak differently; my work experience in Japan was in a sales division of a media company, where I acquired a rough, masculine foundation, to which I then added the influence of the people I like speaking to most – women. When I speak in Japanese, I tend to mutate, like a shape-changer, before my interlocutors’ ears (so to speak) from male to female and back.

I speak Chinese with a strong Taiwanese accent; when I was traveling in Mainland China and calling ahead to reserve a room, I sometimes heard the clerks speaking to each other: “some Taiwanese guy’s on the line”. You should not mistake this for a sign of my great expertise in Chinese: Taiwanese, like most Chinese, speak Chinese badly.

My two Germanic languages give me the greatest sense of order: I find something immensely satisfying about the German sentence structure, with all its genders and cases, and its rigid sentence order. English, which has a similarly orderly sentence structure, I find to be the best medium in which to organize my thoughts; but I might perhaps be using German, if I only commanded it better. That I do not, no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that I find practically everything Germans say uncongenial. Not wishing to hear their nonsense, I have limited my exposure to German, and hence, any prospect of real fluency in their language. It never ceases to amaze me that it is possible to use such a perfect language to express such stupid thoughts. On the other hand, it only amuses me to think that I use as my principal working and thinking medium the language of a people whom I find, as a rule, immensely dull – the Anglo-Saxons.

The hardest language I have ever studied was Thai. This must not be my finding alone: the number of westerners who speak Thai fluently can still be counted on the fingers of two hands; the reverse – Thais speaking good idiomatic English – is somewhat more common, but still none the less very rare. It isn’t so much a matter of grammar – I found much Thai grammar intuitively similar to Chinese – but phonetics: the combination of 18 vowels – 9 long and 9 short – and 5 tones creates a phonetic nightmare almost impossible to penetrate for a virgin adult mind. It didn’t help that I made an attempt to study Thai at the age of 43: our brains begin to cannibalize our language-acquisition apparatus around the time of puberty and the process leaves us with precious little by the time we’re in our forties. Which shows you that those who say that aging is all in the mind are right, only not in the way in which they imagine.

The two languages I would like to study, but know will never master in this lifetime, are Persian and Arabic. Persian, I think, is indisputably beautiful; listening to it gives me – almost – the same pleasure that listening to Turkish does. Many people might object to my characterization of Arabic as pretty, though I find its sound pleasing; but the main attraction of it for me is its fascinating grammar; there is also an autobiographical element to the pleasure: when I was 23, I resolved to learn a non-Indo-European language perfectly and, knowing that, given my age, and the time it takes to learn a language, I only had time for one, I hesitated between two languages with ancient literary traditions – Arabic and Chinese. At length, I chose Chinese, realizing fully that this meant giving up any hope of ever acquiring native-like fluency in Arabic. Though having learned Chinese has enriched me immensely, I often think wistfully of the language I had to sacrifice for its sake.

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, which cost me a lot of work to acquire, both my Italian and Portuguese came to me practically by osmosis: I arrived and started speaking. What I was speaking was at first, of course, Spanish, but as I went on I acquired vocabulary and, somehow, the Italian became Italian-like and the Portuguese Portuguese-like, all within a few months. Don’t tell the Portuguese this, but to my ears the European Portuguese is the least pleasing of my languages: I find its sound positively nasty and am always surprised how beautiful Portuguese can be whenever I overhear some Brazilians practically singing it.

Incidentally, I never planned to learn Portuguese. Having quickly figured out that I would never make any friends there, I have decided on the B strategy for the country: to be a respected (and respectful) guest, a tolerated stranger, without attachments or obligations there. Good morning, may I have a cup of coffee, what a nice day, eh, thank you very much, see you tomorrow is a safe conversation: it never leads to a debate; nor does not encourage anyone to borrow money. The language rubbed on me unawares; and I now find myself having to lie. Fala Portugues? They ask me. “No”, I say firmly, in English and — smile.

One of the more striking things one learns as one acquires languages – and therefore spends inordinate amount of time communicating in one or another language one has not yet acquired – is how much of the language is really not necessary at all. So much of what is spoken can be understood from the context, the gesture, the grimace, the eyes, the tone of voice: there really are just a limited number of possible inquiries individuals can address to each other – and an even more limited number of possible responses. In such situations, words are little more than a pretty soundtrack. Think also of all the words which would have been better left unspoken both in your own life – and throughout history, beginning with the 66 books of the Bible; and all the books which really did not need to be written; and all the blog entries – including this one.