< Read >


First, a Feeling: On Translation Without Language

Tomoé Hill


have no aptitude for languages. To be kind, I might, but not in the standard manner. My vocabulary is luxuriant but mostly with nouns as they pertain to perfume, food, or drink: Framboise, pino, ménta, rōzu. Breaking my way through sentences as if they were winter’s frozen-over waters, shards clinging to my lips, I remain a monoglot. It is not for lack of trying. Throughout my life there were sometimes years-long attempts at acquiring everything from Japanese to Latin. My brain cannot make the complex connections that result in mastered languages, an issue I also experience with structured learning. What I have is like pebbles gathered on a beach, fragments of a tongue. I have partially hidden this, reading and writing as I do: over the years I have encountered disdain by others who read and write with voracity. Someone without this aptitude is considered less intellectual, unable to truly understand knowledge or beauty. If I am this, so be it. There is still beauty enough for me.

Foreign-language movies have helped. There is something more natural in following a vocal rhythm than subtitles—though they too, are useful. It explains why I cannot speak Japanese, but understand my mother perfectly. Like a muscle, memory remembers the rhythm of language as much as its words. What does the cocooned unborn child understand and communicate to but the rhythms of those who speak the yet-unknown? It is neither speech nor noise in the way we know it, but it nevertheless wakes the gestation-memory, its first intuition. Recently I found myself watching Alain Corneau’s Série noire, which had no English subtitles. But it was based on Jim Thompson’s noir novel A Hell of a Woman, and I found the rhythm of the dialogue, though reflecting particular French mannerisms, maintained the unmistakable rhythm of the genre. While necessary to sometimes look up certain words or phrases, the overall story with its nuances of pitch-black humour and pathos was clear.

Afterwards, I knew to someone fluent, they might have argued there was no way I could truly grasp the movie, with my gaps and guessing. I would not disagree; in a way, I fully agree—I cannot understand the way they do. But as I do not believe in understanding as necessarily homogenous in language or elsewhere, this hardly seemed an issue. Yes, sometimes I translated correctly, at others what could only be called the gist, my brain somehow connecting over or through the undecipherable. With books, each subsequent translation of a classic is slightly different: each translator’s choices and perspective in reading the original change while retaining what we could call, alongside the specifics of plot and character, the general feeling, or again, rhythm. It is feeling that most interests me in language or whatever it is I cannot grasp in learning, but nevertheless find fragments of in my attempts.

The understanding in hindsight that there is some issue, without knowing precisely what that might be, renders the process of learning an island. Addressing learning difficulties or disabilities was much less common when I was a child. Children deemed to have them were literally removed from ‘normal’ class to a small room for more individual tuition: a place I briefly found myself later, though there was nothing more special about the teaching bar an exceptionally patient teacher minding children of various unspecified needs (behavioural needs were yet another room). I would expect there to be some pushback against the idea that I did or do have issues; after all, I was placed ahead not just once or twice, but three times in my younger schooling life due to a much more advanced reading comprehension. Looking back again, there was much emphasis placed on my ability to process and comprehend as a whole based on that alone, and to address an ever-present elephant, I was a part-Asian child. The assumption was having skill x at a young age meant I would have skills y and z as well. It seemed unthinkable in the early-mid 1980s that an Asian child would have academic difficulties, something that only served to further compound my issues. In a 2016 article titled ‘The Road to Higher Education With an ‘Invisible Disability’’ in The Atlantic, Laura Castañeda writes: ‘Despite what many may believe, learning differences do not correlate to lower intelligence or an intellectual disability.’ This is wonderful to know now, but my dilemma remained. How does one navigate learning of any kind knowing they face a structural void—a silence—which others do not?

In Jacques Derrida’s essay What is a “Relevant” Translation (tr. Lawrence Venuti), he says, ‘What is most often called “relevant”? Well, whatever feels right . . . coming at the moment when you expect it’. This seems vague, but he says earlier, ‘there is no such thing as a word in nature’. Now this vagueness assumes a mantle of naturalism. The word may not be natural, but to feel—one may even extend this to be an instinct of the communicative animal—is necessary. The requirement of the intangible in translation suddenly renders fractured understanding important. Later, he cites Cicero as someone early in championing this method, saying ‘the operation that consists of converting, turning . . . doesn’t have to take a text at its word or to take the word literally. It suffices to transmit the idea, the figure, the force.’ There is an inherent guesswork in this method. Call it risk or intuition. They are both true, and point to the necessity of the individuality of thought. Translation and learning lives—thrives—on its possibilities.

Derrida’s words immediately validated something in how I read certain texts: not even from the viewpoint of translated language, but more intellectual writing and learning generally. As someone who only studied basic classical philosophers and a handful of contemporary ones at university, I had no idea of the vast number of theorists and thinkers: Barthes, Cixous, Benjamin, Stewart, to name a few. It was not until years later and rather organically in my literary wanderings that I encountered them. Not knowing anything of theory or more importantly, the social groupings around them which would become clear via social media, I came to them naively. I was fascinated, awed, charmed, and even angry at times by the writing I was discovering. Naïveté and feeling, as it turned out, became the base upon which to create a structure of my own.

Upon joining social media, it was clear that I did not understand these texts in the way long-time scholars (with or without accreditation) of such works declared one should. I attributed this first to a lack of more advanced education, or a lack of knowing the right kind of people, whatever ‘right’ meant. The same feelings of learning inadequacy that haunted me through my school and university years reappeared. It became a growing source of worry. Maybe I really could not understand a thing I was reading; after all, it seemed so different to what I was being told I should understand. This is the peculiar and poisonous thinking of cliques, intellectual or otherwise. Perhaps contradictorily, from a sense of intimidation—I did not want to admit I came to these thinkers so late—I continued to read, ignored the should and should nots that dictate so much in a digital age. Sometimes the fear of what you are not becomes the driver of what you become. Still, it occurs to me that the act of referencing Derrida in such a piece as this is both audacious and laughable: the former because I dare to use something that unlike the more studied, I can only understand in fragments, the latter because I simply dare to dare: punching above my intellectual weight in the stubborn belief there is something there for me, too.

I found in these admittedly lonely readings something I called ‘emotional translation’. Left out of whatever I could not grasp in discussions of the text, I was left only to trust feeling (and the space to fail without judgement). Where the complexity of terms as a whole eluded me despite knowing individual meanings, I learned to comprehend and contextualise with intuition. Almost always finding something instinctually reminding me of an experience or prior knowledge, I used it tentatively as a cipher’s key, which would result in a kind of reverse-engineered understanding. Because of that feeling and trust between myself and the text, not only did I come to be able to ‘translate’ and learn from them, but in the process discover perspectives I would not have realised had I gone no further than accepting the standard readings as the only ones.

In John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, during the debriefing of the spy Ricki Tarr, he says to George Smiley in regard to the translating of a diary: ‘He looked up from his labours and his grin widened. ‘“To possess another language is to possess another soul.”’ The joke in the book is that Tarr does not know Russian. The diary, never translated, only copied, was written in English by Irina, a Russian spy. If I have no languages, am I left with fragments of souls? What flight is left to those with only stray feathers? The silence-language is one of dreams, or perhaps nightmares, for it allows nothing except feeling. But to know other languages is the closest I imagine we get to the true feeling of flight, without materiality. More so, as it moves the whole being in a way the mere physical act of motion could never do. I feel glimpses of this soaring in these fragments, but I have felt it completely in another language altogether, one with no voice at all.

The word is air: everywhere but seemingly nowhere. But it was never the beginning.

Alain Tanner’s movie Dans la ville blanche, aside from being another without English subtitles, features very little dialogue. What is scattered throughout is divided between French, German, Portuguese, a mere few of English, and I would add to that list, silence. Silence takes the form of the in-between for most of us. Our encounters with it are pauses between words on a page or preceding and following speech. Silence is also finality: those who cannot or choose not to speak. But given space to do so, it becomes its own language, one that requires translating and understanding in the same way other languages or knowledge does. In Silence by John Biguenet, he asks, ‘is a white page, rather than a dark leaf, better for silence? Or will we allow both unsullied whiteness and unrelieved darkness to serve as contradictory images of silence?’

In Tanner’s movie, white and dark linguistic silences dazzle and depress. Its characters exchange the majority of their dialogue sparely, even without, but still vocal within intimacies that no speech could better articulate. The few words they offer act as punctuation to this secret language: confirmations of freedom and emptiness, pleasure and loss. There is the chaos of everyday noise, but set at an existential distance from Paul, its protagonist. Moving from the dark of a ship’s engine room to the unreal light of Lisbon, the logic of sound and language are as backwards as the clock he notices in a bar which counts time the wrong way. In a strange city, he gets by with language fragments, communicating his longings and ecstasies mainly through silence. It becomes the structure upon which he creates a new life. The shards upon Paul’s lips, as he attempts to translate himself to others and others to himself, are my own.

The letters and home movies he sends to Élisa, his girlfriend back home, are not unlike Derrida’s postcards to the unknown receiver. But with every letter and set of images, she is erased from part of his memory. Paul’s scrawled and silent translations of the city where he believes lies his newfound freedom, are replaced by new memories, that of Rosa, his lover. With Rosa there is no writing, no trapped images. They translate as they live, in fragments of silence and pleasure and sometimes spoken language, looking out onto the great expanse of blank water and sunlight. The word is artificial and unnatural, so feeling replaces it in its all-consuming desire for understanding, rewriting and retranslating the same sentences on skin. What is worth deciphering, sending, or receiving but each other in this blank city? Derrida: ‘Geschick is destiny, of course, and therefore everything that touches on the destination as well as on destiny . . . schicken is to send, envoyer to “expedite,” to cause to leave or arrive . . . ’ Translations and their lack become a form of destiny, individual divinations marking the arrival or departure of words and people, knowledge and meaning.

In the end, we are left with silence and rhythm, nothings that are not quite an absence, nor yet a full presence—anti-noise and anti-language which are as vocal as their twins, speech and melody. If this sounds clichéd to those with full and unfettered understanding of languages, it is no less an important truth for those of us without—it is what allows us hope in gleaning our knowledge where we may. It is the language of postcards and letters whose words were never uttered, the word as flesh, moving images paradoxically still, broken translations, insurmountable structures, gaps and erasures, the communication of the womb. They all wait for a beginning, as I do, for the feeling of possibility and the possibility of feeling, that will make them whole in their own ways.


Tomoé Hill