I wasn't born here. That helped. Every word of English I've learned has been learned consciously (and some with more effort than others). The grammar, the verbs, the adjectives (the many, many adjectives), the slang, the idioms, and, heaven forbid, the spelling (take colonel, for example), each and every facet was a step taken on purpose and with determination. With the definite goal to learn the English language.
There have been times (many) when I have wished for nothing more than to have been born here. Well, either here or in England, to have had English as my native tongue. These were times when I read or heard an eloquently employed turn of phrase that I realized with happy admiration said the exact thing, painted the exact picture intended. What a language. What riches. And I would look back at my old (native) tongue to see if there was a corresponding way to paint the concept. Sometimes I'd find it, surprisingly, other times I'd find a workaround, a clumsy way of describing the same thing in a long or involved sentence, and still other times I wouldn't reach any equivalence at all. And always, always, I would be amazed at the colors and nuances of this language, at the seemingly effortless ease with which the word painter can pick and choose from such a broad palette to describe his concept.
Not long ago I went through some early (teenage) writings. These were poems, hopes, dreams, and thoughts, all put down in my native tongue, and as I read them, the mental landscapes I had occupied and created at the time gently resurrected and soon flooded the present. I was in the grip of the power of language. And as I read on, I of course wondered how I would express this and that in English. The logical notion soon followed and I decided to translate all these notes into this, my adopted tongue. Both as a learning exercise, I told myself, and to see how they would fare in a different light.
Two things struck me soon after setting out on this adventure. The first was how well I had known Swedish at the time. I was reading, and translating, words I didn't have a clue I had known. In fact, had I not been the author of the original, I would have been unable to ascertain exactly what he meant. But I did know what he meant, and I saw that the words he used to describe the love or despair were the right ones. Looking them up in a Swedish to English dictionary I saw that the young boy had indeed known his language.
(Strange that, how you can absorb a language so completely seemingly without effort—subject for another musing).
The second thing that struck, almost stunned, me was that there always was the exact right translation for it. There was, in every instance of describing a notion, emotion or dream, the precise and exact translation, sometimes several, for that concept.
I felt as if I had entered a house of meaning. Inside, the concept would come alive and I would taste it, feel and live it, be permeated by it. Then looking out through the eastern windows I would see the Swedish language expressing this. Then, turning around, through the westward windows, there, in full view, its English sister. Almost frightening. Yet, my observation was that in the direction of English I saw more choices, I could fine-tune my pencil and draw an even clearer picture. Maybe not a better picture, but one more detailed, with greater nuances and with perhaps more emotional impact.
As an example of this process, let’s look at a short poem I wrote in 1968 about, or rather to the spirit of, Charles Baudelaire. The two renditions below are: first, a word for word translation from the Swedish to English of the short poem, and, secondly, a re-write of the same poem (to make it a poem) still capturing the same emotions.
(As an aside, can you actually translate a poem, if you did not write the original? Baudelaire didn't seem to think so; his conclusion was that you'll always only arrive at a shadow of the original).
Verbatim (prose) Translation of C.B.:
A look of fiery yellow,
a spear of dread,
concealed in dark currents,
flowed and swirled
out of the body's earthly dreams.
It slowly lowered itself
from the hidden halls of time,
as if to ask the soul to come
to where the voices of
past centuries are heard.
But the space of thought
froze to anguish
in the hypnosis of this death
as the soul still was too frail
to be torn from its stall.
Rewrite of C.B. as English poetry (an attempt):
A fiery look, a spear of dread,
in dark and hidden streams,
it flowed and swirled,
and rose and fled
the body's earthly dreams.
Then slowly sank towards my eyes
from past and hidden halls,
as if to bid the soul to rise
to hear the ancient calls.
But space of thought turned cold
frozen in this fall,
as my soul was yet too frail
to rise and leave its stall.
I love the English language. I'm a dictionary nut. Someone once said on a radio program that the way to tell whether a people or a culture employed this or that tool or principle or had discovered this or that, was to ascertain whether they had a word for it. People will always name things they know. They communicate, they live to communicate. If they had a word for it, they had the thing.
Now, maybe I'm taking this to extremes, but does this not make the dictionary the most valuable and complete historical document ever assembled? The complete collection of human experience. And each experience neatly packaged according to usage and grammar, and with an historical vignette in the etymology, to boot. Can you ask for more?
So, I love dictionaries. Sometimes I wish that someone would ask me what one book I would bring to a desert island, just so that I could answer, “a dictionary,” and then get into an argument as to why.
I have many dictionaries, as you can imagine. My path up the rungs of English comprehension has led through their entire gamut. I set out with a Swedish/English one. Wasn't very useful though, as it didn’t teach me anything. Rather, it just set up a table of translation, and erected it between me and the understanding of the new language, preventing true comprehension. Then came the Junior dictionaries, onto grade school ones, through high school, and now, after twenty years, I live with the college editions.
And I use them constantly. I enjoy looking up words as I read. I revel in the discovery of new words, their meaning and history. And, the highest thrill of all, to read, and really understand, someone who knows how to use this wonderful tool. Dickens, Brian Aldiss, Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams and Gene Wolfe are the ones springing most prominently to mind right now. As well as John Banville, and the master of them all: Mavis Gallant.
I think I can see the top part of the ladder from the rung I'm currently on. I've been learning English for the last fifty years, and it's been my adopted tongue for the last forty. I've looked up every word I've learned, and I've had to fight for many of them, and at times I think that maybe I am lucky to not have been born here. To have had to fight for comprehension, to not have taken anything for granted (which I did Swedish, of course). Maybe I'm lucky in that this path has led to real and conscious appreciation of English as a fantastic thing, as an incredible tool of communication, and as the most complete, rich and encompassing language on earth today (a point only the French would argue).
And it is against this backdrop that I observe and truly lament the wake of intellectual ruin that trails the onslaught of Television. I share the view of Laureate Dr. Arno Penzias of AT&T Bell Laboratories when he exclaims that the only way Americans will regain the competitive edge in education and schooling is to throw out every television set in the country. I dare say that TV is the real culprit in today's falling grades and dropout rate. But that is easily the subject of a dozen other musings.
My urge here is to tell anyone who would listen to stop for a while and reflect on his language. To realize what a jewel of thing it is. To appreciate that what he or she has always taken for granted is a fantastic treasure that should be kept alive and expanded and tended with care.
I wasn't born here. That helped.