To speak multiple languages is to travel between universes. Few of us seriously ask why such travel evolved at all, why human beings speak multiple languages instead of just one. The story of Babel is a fable; how did hundreds of linguistic worlds actually come to co-exist in the space of one physical world? In After Babel, the critic George Steiner attempts to think through the multiplicity of human languages, writing:
If we postulate, as I think we must, that human speech matured principally through its hermetic and creative functions, that the evolution of the full genius of language is inseparable from the impulse to concealment and fiction, then we may at last have an approach to the Babel problem.
Steiner refers to the Biblical story, but his approach is less religious or mythical than it is historical and linguistic. He surmises that people developed different languages to pursue two simultaneous goals: to imagine a not-yet-true future that was more advantageous than the present, while hiding these strategically vital ideas from those outside the social group. Necessity and creativity combined to encourage the development of various languages, even among groups of people living in close proximity.
And within these languages grew a powerful vehicle for the exploration of human experience and the expansion of imagination: literature, art made out of language. Each language has its literature, its history of experience and imagination in that particular universe.
In this light, Steiner’s Babel problem is not simply a problem in the usual sense. As translators work to express parts of one universe in the words of another, they often find themselves laboring between the languages, in an uncharted space of linguistic surplus that is deeply uncertain but also full of possibility.
In her translator’s afterword at the end of Uljana Wolf’s i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where, Sophie Seita mentions Rosmarie Waldrop and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as exemplars of literary artists working inter-lingually, using multiple languages in a single text to draw maps of worlds between linguistic worlds. To these I would add such contemporary writer-translators as Christian Hawkey and Dagmara Kraus (whose poetry I have translated), as well as Birgit Kempker and Robert Kelly’s fabulous collaboration in German and English, Scham/Shame. In their work, these artists create spaces for languages to interplay and for readers to experience the thrill of simultaneous alienation and familiarity, disconnection and reconnection—in essence, spaces where being between languages is a source of enchanting uplift.
This willingness to create between languages is an approach to addressing the Babel problem and it is also the space that Wolf and Seita’s work occupies: the dizzying and transformative space the reader enters upon approaching this book. Although i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where is Seita’s English translation of Wolf’s German poetry, this simple binary does justice to neither side of what it describes. Both texts, the original and the translation, are inter-lingual. They rely on linguistic multiplicity: they work in it; they are made of it.
Wolf has been working in this territory for several years, notably in her text, Falsche Freunde (False Friends in Susan Bernofsky’s ingenious translation). False Friends presents English and German as sisters who are not quite twins but who can sometimes wear one another’s clothing—with discomfiting and humorous results. Each language remains a universe unto itself, but in False Friends Wolf demonstrates how words that appear in two languages can act uncannily as wormholes, letting us step quickly into and back out of another world.
In i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where Wolf returns to and expands upon this tendency to explore the space between languages. English and German seem to overflow their respective edges, oversaturating the text and giving it both buoyancy and depth. The linguistic overflow assumes several guises, linking them all as sublime moments in which people have access to a language that can overwhelm and supersede sense. One example is a child learning to understand and speak. Another is an aphasic slipping in and out of contact with language—a loss of control that can frustrate the speaker and her interlocutor in the same way that a secret would. There’s meaning underneath the static and the gaps but it remains simultaneously nearby and inaccessible. A third is a multilingual speaker flitting between languages, thereby at times obscuring her meaning, feigning to know more or less than she really does, or concealing truth and falsehood in the lockbox of unfamiliar language. These guises animate the book’s three sections, each of which explores the space between languages in a way related to politics, daily life, and creative work.
The first section, “i mean i dislike that fate that,” comprises two prose “Annalogues” which read as free-association soliloquies spoken in or near the voice of Freud and Breuer’s famous patient, “Anna O.” These solid blocks of text, mostly English transfused with German (and bits of French), are lyrical and digressive, as free-association language will be, and they careen through their blocky prose shape with fearless manic drive. Each is broken up (at the moment of page breaks) by a couple of very loose, sparse, interpretive poems, also quite inter-lingual, and so that the pattern of the pieces becomes a page of solid text followed by a loose scattering of lines, followed by a second wall of words, followed by another page of scattering. The reader is slotted into a rhythm, then jarred loose, then slotted back (the prose having continued unbroken from the first to the third page of the piece), then jarred again—all the while bouncing back and forth between English and German (often within the space of a single sentence).
The free-association pages of these pieces seem to skip along the surface of language, substituting one word (or language) for another, perhaps a slip-up born out of headlong momentum, or simply because the “wrong” word feels right in the rush of things. Things-in-the-world and the words that represent them seem to disassociate in a way we’ve come to align with insanity—and revelation. The momentum and musicality of the pieces pull the reader along at a whitewater pace, and readers who can read or recognize a little bit of German might feel a thrill as their brains auto-translate the German words and phrases in the course of their tumble down the page:
but when it is time for oranges, ist keine zeit, no time at all for thirst, für wasser.
let the tongue run free, looking for grounds between teeth, rejection, residence, waiting rooms. keeps me beschäftigt.
One effect of this is that the reader’s identification of truth, accuracy, and the rightness of finding the word wasser in the text (and the frisson of seeing it simultaneously as itself and as water) become linked to the inter-lingual moment and the space between languages. This moment is when things click, when the text that seemed slightly too mysterious suddenly fits its parts together in the reader’s mind. The music resolves, briefly, to harmony:
the other side of what. lemberg, tarnopol, stanislau. plant, and two years sans licht.
We have been driven to this moment of rightness, through eddies of incomprehension, past sense and then back into a small space of vindicating revelation in an “empty” spot between languages, a Babel place where no meaning should exist:
and they clear the room, disintegrated by my relentlessness. and yet i do not feel krank!
The inter-lingual space is revealed to be a stage of naiveté and guile, sincerity and play, control and freedom, obfuscation and revelation: excesses that can be balanced into beauty. This strange harmony offers a belated justification for Bertha Pappenheim, the real Anna O., who, like many other nineteenth-century women, was institutionalized when her doctors’ treatments failed.
The next section, “i was made to where,” is structured as three prose poems, collectively subtitled “three arches: böbrach,” which refer to a town in Bavaria near which asylum-seekers have been kept in conditions that precipitated protests and hunger strikes. Here, the book’s language politics expand. Where the Annalogues expose the sexist absurdity of demeaning female speech as nonsensical or hysterical, the three arches comment on contemporary diaspora, asylum, and the status of refugees as people caught between lands and between languages. The fear, the helplessness, the often powerless freedom of an in-between position are rendered in sentences that feel incomplete, perhaps purposely frustrated by administrative obfuscation, or perhaps set free of meaning by a gap between languages.
Between the nearly universal sounds and silences of nature, the spruces don’t break into silence, the bland blanketing dullness of German officialese, because Regen is county seat… ‘the location is not our fault,’ and the impotent language of the refugees (rapidly vanishing into the snowy blankness of rural Bavaria), a different kind of inter-lingual space is opened:
the words for this are white or gone like the last bus from the village. at night stillness lumbers in chills: the forest for the foreign
This space presents no revelation, instead swallowing the various languages into helplessness. Humanity endures in small moments of dark linguistic humor,
like you can’t see the would for the trees, they hand out no papers to you
but this space is ultimately as desolate and empty as the Annalogues were overstuffed with oranges, animals, and specifically-named places. In this section, here is nowhere, a place with no usable language and no sayable location, like Guantanamo or a Gulliverian nightmare. Sentences can start and end anywhere, can contain anything or (more likely) nothing, since there is no one to really hear them:
only the forest bureau forages duties is up to no good, he takes you in white quoted frogmarch.
Wolf published her book in 2013, the year of the hunger strike, and since then Germany has accepted thousands of refugees from Syria and neighboring countries amid heated domestic and international debate. Hundreds of thousands more desperately await resettlement. The wait can last months or even years, time spent suspended in uncertainty in isolated transit camps, and asylum-seekers in Böbrach protested with hunger to make knowledge of their impoverished living conditions public. Is it fair to say that asylum-seekers unable to advocate for themselves in German have been reduced by circumstance to child-like linguistic powerlessness? Is it safe to assume that the representatives of the state hide their intentions behind a language that the refugees don’t speak? Is it right to understand that immigrants exercise a measure of resistance by speaking to each other in their own language?
The final section, “babeltrack: notes on a lengevitch,” is organized around five more prose poems, and explicitly unites the three guises that structure the book. The section is partly a diary of Wolf’s reactions to reading the linguist Roman Jakobson on aphasia, which he links to childhood linguistic development. The idea in play is that an incompletely functioning sense of language might be the key to a certain porousness, a looseness of connection between word and idea and thing-in-the-world that unmoors the speaker (and reader) in ways both frightening and exhilarating. Wolf’s response provides the extension to living inter-lingually, and Seita quietly dramatizes the further extension of translating this passage when she performs for the reader the difficulty of finding a word for “the difficulty of finding a word.” She translates Wolf’s compound word, wortfindungsschwierigkeiten, as hard-word-finding. The subsequent passage describes the experience of living between languages as
little access problems in conversations, i mean timing, a kind of conversation-smudging, where you must prepare for the blur-print, so as to get a blur or berry in, right, but you’re just sitting there and others hevva juicy red chin.
With hevva, Wolf refers to the subtitle of the section, the lengevitch of the early twentieth-century American poet Kurt M. Stein. Stein wrote poetry in the dialect of German-American immigrants who never quite released themselves from the grip of their mother tongues into unencumbered American English. The speakers in Stein’s poems often find themselves incapable of communicating successfully in either German or English, mudding along in between with humorous results. They hevva problem with lengevitch, out of which Stein makes wonderful, fun poetry. Wolf is, similarly, creating poetry out of the disconnect she observes, slyly finding the words (with Seita) to deliver the experience of hard-word-finding:
all these words then pounce on each other, the different kind, wild and not child, they’re in cahoots inside my head, these failing trails, exultant foreign arrangement of folds, folds are falten, me falta, es fehlt mir, this word, which means miss, me falta, in the language of this island, in another fala is ‘i speak’— a spark, a faltering unresting sway; en-wringed
Wolf exercises beautiful control over these passages that detail the struggle to control two languages at once. She seems to help the languages themselves to share a secret, perhaps guiding them into the world by loosening her grip on both.
The book concludes with Seita’s afterword, which acknowledges the lineage of the writers mentioned above and which describes the book as a collaboration between the author, the translator, and many textual sources of inspiration, conversation, and “writing-with” that informed the composition and translation of the text. Seita’s insightful notes not only help the reader understand the collaborative nature of the work, they illuminate an approach to writing and translation that harmonizes beautifully with the text itself: i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where comes to us through the minds of Wolf and Seita, through the universes of English and German, and it invites us into a space that includes all this and the possibility of imagining even more.
Joshua Daniel Edwin is a poet and a translator who has received a PEN Translation Fund Grant for his translations of Dagmara Kraus's poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.