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One might say that living a bilingual life offers enriched experience, but I say it also brings confusion and struggle during the first years of learning, especially when the second language enters someone’s life in the second or third decade. I am not sure if there is a moment when two different languages can merge and become “one” or if they always exist as separate platforms of experience and expression.

Translating my novel, Zabić Innego, originally written in Polish, into To Kill the Other, taught me the value of time and persistent repetition, something that’s hard to admit and even harder to accept in today’s fast-paced world.

For those of us who are born into single-language families — meaning the mother and the father speak the same language — the world becomes entrenched in the sound of the language in a singular if not monotonous way. In this case language becomes unequivocal with objects, actions, feelings, and emotions. I can’t decide if the context of life imposes itself on language or if the language underlines the context.  Perhaps the two options are intertwined and impossible to separate.

Either way my experience tells me that when I say “zając,” meaning “hare” in Polish, I not only see the animal in my mind but I can also see its movement. When I say, “z-a-jąc”, the animal jumps with the “a” becoming the highest point of its jump. The rear legs of the animal are the space between the “a” and the “j.” I can hear the jump or “feel” the essence or the nature of “zając” in the very word. This connection happened because the word was used repeatedly, its connection to the object was reinforced to the point of becoming one with what it described. This is how language and life become one.

The interesting question revolves around the second language. What happens when we learn another language, the so-called “second language,” later in our lives?

My experience tells me that the second language becomes an exotic realm of existence: appealing, promising, and — against all hope — unattainable.

I have just learned, learning my second language, that “hare” means “zając.” Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that this is a new word for me.  Let’s say I have just memorized it. Now, I know “hare” means “zając.” But when I think “hare,” the hare doesn’t jump. If fact, the “hare” doesn’t even exist because it is brand new and it doesn’t carry any context of life except the letters that it is made of on the page of my text book. The word “hare” is empty of a picture, empty of movement, empty of life.

On a rational, intellectual level I know that a “hare” is a living animal and this knowing poses  a very basic conflict that needs to be resolved. I know that to learn the second language successfully I must give my “hare” a life and the only way to do it is to attache it to something that is alive already. And in this process the “hare” becomes an attachment to “zając.” For a while — a couple of years perhaps — the “hare” will jump on the back of “zając” and as it jumps many times, over and over again, one day it will be ready to jump off and jump along.

This is the moment when we learn that the “hare” earned its living status. All it took is time and repetition.

This is what happened to me when I decided, forced by various circumstances, to translate Zabić Innego into To Kill the Other.

I still see myself on the day when I decided that I must translate the manuscript. It was summer 2006.  I am sitting at my desk (different than the one I have today) and I stare out the window. I am numb. I think of the task I am facing for the first time in my life, and I am on the verge of crying. I have three hundred pages, about 80 thousand words, to go.

I have translated many official documents working as a freelance interpreter for the Polish embassy in Washington, D.C. I have translated and edited the Polish Language program for the famous  Rosetta Stone. Yet, I understand that translating a novel might become as challenging as so called (in Polish), orka na ugorze, “plowing the fallow ground.”

Translating prose is impossible.  Translating is impossible.  Period.

These are the words that went through my mind as I looked at my manuscript.

How can I make the hare jump?  What do I have to do to see him alive?  How do I have to write to make my world alive?

To my astonishment the only thing I needed to do was to do it.  The only thing that I needed to succeed was to persist.  The only thing I needed was time.

As I was plowing through page after page of my manuscript, I realized that I do have a literary voice in English.  I have also learned that I can make the world alive as long as I take time and entrench myself in the new language.  To be in it was to discover it; to discover it was to take time in doing it.  It took me two and a half years to translate the manuscript.

Have I always had this ability within me or have I developed it while working?  I don’t know.  I am not sure the question can be answered by excluding one of the options.  Perhaps these two are intertwined and impossible to separate the same way as language and life are?  After all, as I have learned, the second language becomes alive and becomes life through persistent repetition and time.

 

Image in this post:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/perrisca/5269399601/sizes/l/in/photostream/

One Response to “Plowing the Polish-English fallow ground”

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