I wish English was my native language. Then, my speech would be rescued from imperfect accent, painful doubts and shadows of past.
I wouldn’t think twice before starting a sentence, finally producing one without a grammar mistake, a typo, a wrong stylistic preference — taken as a sign of creativity and intelligence in my mother tongue, but totally unacceptable in English — in the realm of other words and sounds, with a tune yet to be learnt.
It’s been 12 years since I left Moscow for good, moving from one country to another — English-speaking, English-thinking, English-feeling. From US to Canada to Australia… Argh… will I ever belong?
I wish English was my native language. It would simplify everything, stoping my nostalgic cravings for the time gone and vanished, for friendships once dear and non-existent any longer, for missed experiences, shattered dreams, goodbyes too late to say, hugs and kisses melting away each time I wake up… All I can is wish.
Immigration — as any trauma — splits your life into ‘before and after’ phases, numbing your ability to see the bigger picture and affixing your mind on cherishing memories like never before. Is it caused by unbelonging in the new environment? Lack of security? Crooked communication?
It’s probably even worse for writers, whose sensitivity for words is paramount to their existence. After all, it takes time, sweat and humility to shape yourself into a wordsmith from scratch. And it might never happen again. I am so used to thanking people for their linguistic corrections; I almost forgot what’s it like to be an A+ English student I once was in Russia.
… In Russia, where our home was filled with books – from floor to ceiling — where Mum wrote poetry late into the night or discussed literary trends with her friends – other writers who rocked up at our doors for a cuppa… Where I played rhyming words on crispy snowy mornings on the way to school… Where I shared my first observations with a spiral-bound diary that spoke only Russian.
Last week I attended the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival where I met people crazy about words just like me. I inhaled their creativity ideas, literary struggles, inspirations and thoughts.
The Festival theme, It started with a word, made total sense to English-speaking participants. They knew the word each time it was pronounced. I didn’t.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one with an accent — in the audience or on stage. There were others puzzled by their identity quest, finding strength through their writing, answering their own questions — and my questions, too. Maria Tumarkin, Arnold Zable, Gabrielle Gouch… The list of names goes on, and so does the list of answers.
I left the Found in Translation festival session in bittersweet feelings. I finally understood why I hate translating my own writing to English. It’s not the lack of words… After all, I have two English degrees to choose from. What I lack is the tune.
When I write in Russian, I ‘swim’ in the sea of alliterations, choosing the most delicious sounds, halftones, after-thought effects, glimpses of allusions, enabling me to weave a rich tapestry of my own.
When I write in English, I am only capable of sewing a simple fabric, good enough for a school uniform at its best.
Transforming my favourite tapestries into modest fabrics through translation is painful and humiliating. And terribly slow.
Nevertheless, I am neither the first nor the last author struggling to preserve passion for writing in a different language.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov… It took time to fill their blank pages, but they made it, ultimately, refining their minds and souls to create world’s literature classics.
Accepting another language and mentality improves self-realisation of who you really are — as a writer, observer, and a well-rounded person.
I only wish I knew more languages to master.