On Being Yourself in Another Language

The first day of language class our instructor asked us to say, in German, one positive and one negative thing about ourselves. There were about ten people in the class, and we went around in a circle answering the question. I was nervous. When it got to be my turn, I said, as a positive thing, that I am “kreativ” (which is basically English, let’s be honest) and, because the only negative adjective in German that I could think of in that moment was “faul,” which means lazy, I said that.

At that point onward, I felt my classmates had misconstrued some basic part of myself. From the three beautiful Swedes in the corner to our teacher, the ex-feminist ex-hippy from Berlin, they all looked at me like I was suddenly an artistic layabout: as anti-German as one could get, given the state of the EU’s economy at the moment.

So let’s be clear: I am not lazy. I am so far from being lazy, that I de-skin tomatoes before making pasta sauce. That I whip whipped-cream by hand. So not lazy, in fact, that I have been known to bicycle to Switzerland to buy cheese. But there it was. Faced with a dearth of vocabulary for the first time in my life, I’d created this negative space, which I felt destined to inhabit for the rest of the language class.

I’ve since worked it out. Now I have a much larger German vocabulary to draw upon and, more importantly, now I am much calmer in German-speaking scenarios. This means the words come to mind without the heart-pounding effort I experienced in that first classroom. I can try and think around the problem of self-expression and find a way to say what I mean, even if it sounds awkward and more complex than it needs to be. It’s a struggle and also kind of freeing. Ich traue mich zu probieren. (I dare myself to try). The result of this kind of work is that I am beginning to know just how hard it is and must be, really, to get at the heart of something in translation.

For one chapter of my dissertation, I am reading Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems and fragments; I think Hölderlin’s complicated, brittle elegies are fascinating. At the University of Konstanz, where I am currently on exchange, I have been meeting about every second Monday morning with Ulrich Gaier, Professor Emeritus and President of the Hölderlin Society.

Here is a synopsis of our relationship: I send him my ideas (which are largely based on translations and heavily influenced by English-language scholarship which may or may not also be in translation) and then we talk about the extent to which my resulting conclusions are mediated by the word choices of translators, are misconstrued derivations of certain words that I take to mean one thing but that, in German, have totally different connotations, or are unmoored from Hölderlin’s poetic tempo because I’ve missed the implied caesura between accented syllables in the German original (that was yesterday).

Professor Gaier’s immense generosity and insight are unmatched. I am so thankful that he is willing to spend time with me thinking about these issues; his big-heartedness has made this time in Germany so valuable and generative. And incredibly, I have found that from this discourse about what is lost in translation there has arisen one the most incredible things: an experience of being more completely myself. When you are truly out of your element, the impulse to take risks is not undermined by expectations of what you “should” be doing. The question you want to ask is the question you do ask, silly or no. Being yourself in another language: ich traue mich zu probieren.