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I am not the only person in the blogging community or on Medium who writes content in different languages. Many of us have at least a native language, and a vehicular language (quite often English) that they use for many different reasons. A good reason can be audience. International English is an easy and efficient way to broaden the landscape in which your words are travelling. But sometimes, there is a more personal, intimate, emotional reason.
I recently started to translate some of my articles from English to French, which is my Native language.
I did it reluctantly.
As I phrased it upon publishing my first “translated” article, self-translation is a difficult exercise for the author. It is, in fact, a bit frightening, because it changes the words that one has felt, thought, written. It makes them, literally, foreign. The point is, it doesn’t matter whether the target language is your native language. The words you’re translating were not born in that language. They are made of backpacker consonants and hobo vowels that have seen the world. They are part of a web that ties you to places, people, scents. Lights.
When I was a schoolgirl, and then later a student, English was a way for me to be “away”. All members of my family lived in one cultural area, in one country, and were all monolingual. I just remember paying a great deal of attention to my grandmother, who had lived in a multicultural society and kept mixing up words from French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic. Her words talked of a beshawled mujer praising her past’ e fazoul soup in some faraway souk.
I craved faraway.
My grandmother’s pidgin and later my English classes loaded a linguistic rucksack that I felt ready to grab and take with me to new horizons.
And then I did. For a whole period of my life (and up until today), my emotions tied intimate links with the languages I spoke — or was it the other way around? I spent six months on the US West Coast to study. When I left, I felt miserable. This had been my home! English became a sort of defense mechanism my brain had come up with to resist and say: “Bring me back home!”
Yes, English was my home. I had been dreaming, crying and laughing in English for so many glorious days! Experiencing such bouts of linguistic schizophrenia showed me how multilingualism is not just a language policy or a social fact; it can also be an emotional state.
English is not just my second language. It is not just a way that I use to broaden my audience. English is my first time driving an automatic in the streets of an Oregon town. It is my first time in front of an immigration officer. It is my first veggie burger, my first miserable and lonely and chilly July evening in the streets of San Francisco, my first barbaric yawp over the roofs of the Scottish highlands, my first plane ticket out of my family’s cultural area, my first jet-lagged cry in the alleys of a supermarket where I couldn’t find the familiar ingredients to make my favorite, comforting cake, my first hitchhike on the slopes of a Japanese volcano, my first looking through a one-dollar note against the sun, my first laugh and linguistic wonderment when I said “Tsk!” to someone and that person answered “Don’t tsk me!”.
English is my backpack. For some it’s Chinese, or Russian, or Swahili, or Wolof, or Quechua, or Tamil.
English made me a travel writer. It is not an insult to my French readers. It is not a lofty way to tell them: “You’re not good enough for me.” All of my travel journals are written in French; they were mostly written with sleepy eyes in a tent or in a van, under the light of a head lamp, in times where my native self was stronger than my exhausted backpacking self. But English is, quite simply, what takes a part of me away. It is a way to tell people, whether French or not: “I’m going back there. Catch me if you can.”