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Thinking about you, thinking about translation

You invited me to think about translation. It's something that's been on my mind for a while, probably since childhood. My father is Czech originally, but he moved to Switzerland as a young man and we did not speak the language at home. I heard it sometimes when he spoke to his family on the phone, a set of familiar sounds with no meaning. It has become a sort of ghost language to me—one I feel in my bones, but cannot articulate. I grew up speaking Swiss German with my father and English with my mother. In our household, we had language allegiances. My brother and I spoke only English to one another, and do to this day. We only speak Swiss German to our father, and English to our mother. My brother's children speak only French to their mother, and only German to my brother. They speak French to each other. My brother speaks better Swiss German than me, but he still dreams in English sometimes. My Swiss German is deteriorating, but I cling to it. It is now the language I speak with my two-year-old son, hoping to plant in him a piece of my history that will hopefully live on. I love to hear how my son plucks freely from both languages, sometimes beginning a sentence in English and finishing it in German. My brother and I used to do the same when we were children, crisscrossing linguistic boundaries with giddy abandon. Sometime a word just works better in one language, so the more languages you speak, the better grasp you have on the world.

When I came across the writings of Christine Brooke-Rose (through the artwork of artist Heather Phillipson), they really struck a chord. For a start, she had a Swiss mother and English father, so we were the same but in reverse. Translation ran through her life. She grew up trilingual, translated decryptions of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, and so much of her writing focused on the subject of translation. I read Xorandor (1986), a novel about Jip and Zab, two children (twins) who discover a talking rock, which is also a computer. Part of the book is written in their cryptophasia, an invented language the children use to converse with the rock, a sort of BASIC-like computer programming language. Their secret discourse reminded me very much of early English/German word plays and cryptolects my brother and I enjoyed. It’s not really readable, but that’s the point. In the sequel, Verbivore (1990), Jip and Zab have grown up and are fighting a crisis: computers have started to eat words, causing widespread havoc. In her novel Between (1968), her maverick use of multiple languages really gets to the marrow of it. The narrator (a translator) crisscrosses between English, German, and French without any attempt at translation. Unless one is trilingual, the experience of reading it will be one of loss and misunderstanding, but also one of tremendous linguistic release and also love. For after all, to reject a language (to forget a language, to be kept from speaking a language) is an act of violence. To hold on to a language otherwise lost is an act of love. As she states,

As if languages loved each other behind their own facades, despite alles was man denkt darüber davon dazu. As if words fraternized silently beneath the syntax, finding each other funny and delicious in a Misch-Masch of tender fornication.1

Thinking of you,

Dearest Frances,

I like to imagine memories in tongues I don’t know. I guess foreign (or hybridized) syntax can also be a point of encounter, no? Thinking about syntax, in a recent trip to Atlanta (GA), someone identify my French speaking heritage by the way I construct sentences while speaking. I keep making assertion by adding “no?” at this end of sentences. I think it works better this way, no? I thought the accent was the tell, apparently the syntax gave it away first.

Maybe a bit like you, when I hear my dad speaking Créole, I realized how familiar it is to me while being so foreign—either because I recognize bits of French but also, because it brings me closer to a version of him and myself that remains somewhat unknown. The origin story is also about intonation but also, the singular encounters of résistance within the language, no? I think the scholar Rey Chow says it best in Not like a Native Speaker (2014) when she introduces the concept of “xenophone,” which I thought I’d share with you,

what I call the “xenophone,” the foreign-sounding speech/tone, and argue for a revision of language practices in postcoloniality that can encompass quotidian and seemingly simple but in fact ideologically loaded phenomenon such as accents and intonations.

The open and unhealed wounds of language, if they may be so called, are often accompanied in contemporary theoretical writings by investments in affects associated with loss, such as mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia over irretrievable origins.2

Memory always strikes me as the double agent in processes of translation. It is a pernicious thing that seem to linger while pretending to be absent. I think it informs to such a powerful extent how we carry a mother tongue, no? I have watched The Farewell recently, an incredible film by Lulu Wang, that speaks to some these issues in such finely-tuned and poignant ways. It shook me to my core. In Wang’s opus and in reading you, both assert that language and memories are weaved as subtle and resonant reminders of the stories we share.

Until we meet again, take good care.

PS: I also think I'm funnier in French? Is this a thing?

D. xx


  1. Rainer Guldin, “I believe that my two tongues love each other cela ne m’étonnerait pas’: Self-Translation and the Construction of Sexual Identity,” Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction, 20, no. 1, (1er semestre 2007), 205.
  2. Rey Chow, Not a Native Speaker, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 11.


Frances Loeffler

is Curator at Oakville Galleries and is currently based in Toronto, Canada.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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