So, I write poetry and prose in English, which isn’t my mother tongue and people often ask me “Why the hell would you choose to write in another language?”. Well, early on, I think it started with the vain reason of wanting to reach a wider audience and spending a lot of my time on the Internet blurting out grammatically incorrect ramblings, but during my journey over the past years, I discovered the beauty of not writing in your mother tongue, the safety and solace which lay in the distanced space between languages.
I didn’t grow up bilingual, but instead decided to study English (and its literature) full-time in university to come somewhat close to bilingualism. I often had to present good reasoning for doing so –“You don’t want to be a teacher?”– and in my home country Germany, many people are afraid of ‘corrupting and contaminating’ the language with English words, the oh-so-feared anglicisation. While I do like to distinguish German and English and agree that you don’t have to adopt every single word from English when there is an equivalent in your mother tongue, I am trying to make a case for that creative space in-between languages, the space where I pick and collect from English and German and find inspiration to create art. I love both of my primarily used languages for different reasons, and in my head, they are like spiralling magnets, attracting and repelling each other. Sometimes, the two skirmish as they decide which on leaves via the vocal chords; or they race to the back of my mind and bury the correct vocabulary in either language so that I remain confused and speechless, with an “ummm” or “ähhm”, depends.
The first thing they taught in university is that language is always in flux. People were never able to prevent languages from mixing. It fluctuates and develops; and I learned over time that the space between translations is a magnificent prism of connotations and distinctions, reconstructions and recreations of words, and translating is a hula-hoop on the spectrum of meanings.
As a poet writing in a language which is not my mother tongue, I do of course struggle sometimes. I don’t know every single fancy word of the English language, and I still make mistakes, but I think this is what makes me pay attention; it’s the advantage of carefully crafting sentences and lines in a language that is not your own. A lot of my writing happens as I discover and dissect new words – reading helps a lot with that– and when I experiment with their meaning, rearrange, play with various interpretations. It is a different realm of creativity, the awkward, beautiful, enlightening one between intention and cultures.
While your mother language is comfort, always at the tip of your tongue, your tool of expression for emotions and sentiments, platitudes and arbitrarily strung together sounds, it is simultaneously vulnerable as you extract ideas and structures from it and connect them to another language. The whole process of writing a poem becomes as arbitrary as language itself, and I find myself caught between and untangling signifier and signified. Stuck or uncaged between two (or more) languages, you can mix and match idioms, pick and collect phrases, overdo or rework nursery rhymes and old sayings and create something new. From that space pulchritudinous images arise. As I look for synonyms or wander through the endless suggestions of a thesaurus, as I stumble over long forgotten ambiguousness, a completely new level of language connection is established in my head, syllables colliding and crashing into each other. Sentences unveil fresh ideas, and in every different language the world is shaped differently. I jump around syntax structures, interweave vocabulary, tiptoe between cultural spaces and hypotheticals until some meaning trails from letter to letter. Languages borrow, repeat, overlap and I limbo somewhere in between, borrow my own versions of zeitgeist, doppelgänger and weltschmerz.
I would probably never invest much time reading a dictionary of my mother tongue but exploring a different language via a dictionary is utterly inspiring; I highly recommend it. The realm in-between translations gives you the opportunity to play around, and I lose myself on purpose, let them confuse me, I let them disrupt each other, and I put it all down, the gibberish – which then naturally needs a lot of editing to make any sense at all. But as imagination and arbitrary attribution of letters, perceptions and dimensions turn into proper words or poetry, it’s worth all the confusion.