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Famous Reporter # 32


from the blog Endpapers

Blog entry: 11th November, 2005

Some thoughts on language

For two weeks, I have been taking Spanish lessons for an hour each day with a private tutor. My vocabulary is mushrooming, aided, no doubt, by the presence of glaring advertisements on the streets, watching television and overhearing conversations that are slowly beginning to sound less like water bubbling up from a fountain. I am especially grateful for those fruit and vegetable shops that label their produce with thick black texta on coloured card: cebolla (onion), zanahoria (carrot), repollo (cabbage), manzana (apple). The signs make clear what it is that I am looking for.

The vegetable shop on the corner, right near my apartment, is run by a round, crinkly faced old lady who laughs every time I ask for something and then repeats the word in an accent that I am guessing is provincial (there are many different variations of Latin American Spanish and many differing ideas about which is clearer, most elegant, etc). Recently she has been getting me to select what I would like - yet she still hovers about, laughing and saying things that only she understands, while I marvel at the complexities of performing such a simple task in a foreign city, a foreign language, with a foreign self.

To cast an utterance in this new language is a hit-and-miss experience. Yesterday it was difficult, today, a little easier. Sometimes on a good day there are bad moments. And so on.

It has been many years since I first began to learn French - I had forgotten how difficult it can be to memorise verb conjugations, to listen and understand the different ways different people pronounce words, to struggle to even find the most simple words to stand in place for the more difficult words that you have not yet acquired. (Last week, when M went to pick up the washing at the laundromat and was charged doubly, he found himself being able to only say 'thanks'. He lacked the words to complain.) I had forgotten how difficult it is when the words you have are shiny, squeaky and too, too new. You can only utter them as single units, tenously connected, rather than run them together, intimately knowing what does and doesn't sound right.

The struggle to speak in this new language has been an explicit reminder of the symbology of the word. Words stand in place for that which is not there, for that which the hand cannot hold. For a couple of weeks, my Spanish self has been suspended in the present, lacking the words to speak of the past and lacking the words to speculate on the future. But I am perfectionistic, and greatly aided by my knowledge of French, which is a similar language to Spanish (particularly the rules of grammar), I am finding myself rapidly becoming in this new tongue. Gaining the ability to articulate new selves, more selves. Banging impatiently on the door, wanting to be admitted into the system.

All words are symbols, but some words are talismans. If you catch them in your hand for awhile, they permit you to access new networks of language and meaning.

In Spanish, unlike in French or English, there are two verbs that mean 'to be': ser and estar. Ser is used to refer to essential or inherent characteristics of a thing or person, while estar is used to refer to more temporary conditions or states of being. For example, soy escritora (I am a writer - ser) and estoy cansada (I am tired - estar). Simply being myself has become more complicated than ever before. While there are some easy rules to follow that dictate which verb is appropriate to use in a particular context, I find myself constantly assessing whether the descriptive I intend to use is permanent or fleeting. Sometimes I feel that by merely expressing something about myself, I am evaluating what to be this self means.

Of course, to be is never static - it is always means occupying shifting, changing, flowing, uncertain, muliple positions. But ser and estar are talismans. Words I can grasp, words that latch onto other words which have colour, weight and movement.

Whether it is feeling that precedes language or language that precedes feeling is a question that is very vexed. Sometimes I feel as though I am constrained by the boundaries of English, my language, as if the sprawling, anarchic whole of it is circumscribed by invisible electric fences; at other times I feel as though my thoughts and desires are extended by language. Certainly codified by language. Some days words seem to fall across my path and it is as though I have found a long-lost pair of glasses. I become a little less myopic. Able to see and speak and know with perhaps a little more clarity than usual.

Translation is a process that I find endlessly fascinating, namely because translators are only able to search for equivalents: the properties that any one system is based on cannot be replicated in another system. A couple of months ago, I translated an interview with a French theatre director into English. It was difficult to capture the spirit with which she was speaking, the timbre of her words, in English. At times I felt as though her words were heavier in French and even though her manner of speech was not complicated - with clear and simple syntax - it was very sophisticated. My English translation could only circle around the French. It became a separate text, a text of different dimensions.

This same problematic process happens with the self, only we human beings are far more complicated than the texts that we write. I am yet to really uncover who my Spanish-speaking self is. I'll post more as I find out.


Jasmine Chan's blog Endpapers is at http://jtchan.blogspot.com/


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