Between the cracks of two worlds — Montague Kobbé

In what language do you dream? someone asked me the other day after a small presentation I’d been asked to give to some English students in Italy. For some reason there’s this widely held belief that dreams are indicative of your proficiency in any given language. A belief, I call it, because in my experience nothing could be farther from the truth: I hardly ever dream at all, but if I can maintain anything with some degree of certainty then I can safely say that I speak every day of my life in more languages than one. Moreover, when I was younger and I used to dream more regularly I would sometimes speak Italian in my dreams, sometimes I’d be fluent in German, though in real life I couldn’t string two sentences together in either of them without making a litany of errors.

The errors have endured to this day, at least in that pair of languages, but the reason why I was asked the question above was because I was talking about Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges / Historias de camas y aeropuertos, my book of micro fiction, a bilingual collection of fifty narrative capsules written in English and Spanish — two languages I consider to be equally my own in the way only a native speaker claims a language: my mother tongue, and its respective partner.

One of the things I have most enjoyed about showcasing this work over the past year has been displacing the expectations of an audience by reading from the “wrong” language, only to follow my lapse with precisely the sort of thing people were expecting in the first place. On second thought, “precisely the sort of thing” is probably misleading, so let’s just say I tend to go back to the audience’s native language straight away. Though trust is a precious brittle thing — like an egg, once broken it cannot be unscrambled — in my experience a crowd listens more attentively once it’s slightly unsettled.

This, however, is the most trivial reason why I read in both languages when I read from Bed Sheets…, just a felicitous by-product of a far more significant issue. Because at the core of this proposal lies a setting against — not quite a comparison, and here we go again because the word I actually want to use, contraposición, doesn’t belong to this paradigm — of English and Spanish language. On one level, this confrontation— quite literally (type)face-to-(type)face — is visual, aesthetic and capricious: every piece in the book bar three is short enough to fit inside a page and the layout is such that all of them are mirrored by their respective English or Spanish versions.

More fundamental, though, is the musical level: this is a collection to be read out loud, and it’s a collection to be read out loud in both languages consecutively. This is a collection that aims to illustrate how disparate the same message can be, how delivery is a central part of communication, how the measured tones of English language are mapped by the jangle of Spanish sounds. Thus, when I read in Spanish to an anglophone audience I’m actually being truer to the spirit of the work than when I select purely the English versions of the stories. Only in the timing of my Spanish reading — usually right at the start of the session — does a little gimmickry come to play.

Here, at the musical level, is truly where the concept on the page meets the experience of (my) daily life. Because I dream (when I dream) both in English and in Spanish (not only consecutively but at times also simultaneously) yet much more importantly I exist constantly, inexorably, in both languages. This dual existence has confronted me with a whole series of phenomena — some of them small details, really, so minute you’re often tempted to let them pass unobserved (but you can’t); others more weighty, more defining — which ultimately have shaped my life. One of them, a small one, is partly behind the inspiration to write a bilingual collection meant to be read out loud: the tone of your voice, your pitch, as it were, varies from one language to another. The variation is subtle — though clearly audible — and most definitely unconscious, but it’s there. Fully bilingual persons not only speak two different languages, they actually use two different registers.

From a theoretical perspective this is, of course, both easily explainable and plain to see: languages flow at different rhythms, vary in their cadence, feature characteristic intonations of their own, and consequently anyone capable of applying the individual principles of two languages will necessarily sound slightly dissimilar when they speak one or the other. Which is all very good and well, but when you suddenly catch yourself speaking in an altered tone of voice, or when someone close to you actually points out how differently you sound in another language, that’s when you gain (self)consciousness of a twin strain in your character — and that’s simply weird.

Language isn’t restricted to the tone of voice. Indeed, language isn’t even restricted to the words used. Language is firmly determined by the speaker’s demeanour, by mannerisms, by gesticulation.

Naturally, language isn’t restricted to the tone of voice. Indeed, language isn’t even restricted to the words used. Language is firmly determined by the speaker’s demeanour, by mannerisms, by gesticulation. As a general rule I gesticulate a fair amount — just how much, though, lies in the eye of the beholder (and in the language they speak). Self-conscious as I’ve become, I make a concerted — though by no means extreme — effort to tone down my gesticulation when I speak to an anglophone interlocutor. Even then I’m often told my hands give away my foreign upbringing long before my accent (which is still relentlessly mocked by my friends). And yet, when I speak to a Spanish or an Italian person I’m always amazed at the intemperate rate with which they can fire words and gestures (simultaneously) at you.

I’m not an English speaker, I’m not a Spanish speaker — I’m an English-and-Spanish speaker, which encompasses both of the above and yet goes beyond the combination of the two.

Which brings me to the kernel of this piece, to the key symptom of my linguistic condition. Though I’m perfectly comfortable speaking English and Spanish, though I consider myself to be a native speaker of both languages, though I know the intricacies, the humour, the subtle inflections that condition signification in each of them, neither feels necessarily intrinsic to me, neither seems to adequately fit the needs of my self-expression. In other words, I’m not an English speaker, I’m not a Spanish speaker — I’m an English-and-Spanish speaker, which encompasses both of the above and yet goes beyond the combination of the two.

What this means is that I spend my days immersed in an endless game of linguistic hide-and-seek, running behind an elusive word that never seems to want to materialise. For a writer, this might seem like both a total nightmare and an unimaginative commonplace but the fact is that I grapple with this condition just about every moment of my life, not only when facing the proverbial white page. To me, every conversation with a monolingual friend involves an exercise of cultural transliteration that eventually leads to silently feeling for a word inside my head. The problem, of course, will become immediately clear to anyone who’s ever tried to translate a joke or an adage from a different language: even though the concept might be perfectly familiar, the wording is bound to make it non-sensical. For instance, in Venezuela there is this saying, cachicamo diciéndole a morrocoy conchúo, which in English would loosely translate as “an armadillo mocking a tortoise’s massive shell”. Evidently there’s a perfect English equivalent to this saying: the pot calling the kettle black. Should you ever find yourself in the pub, though, saying something along the lines of “armadillo, tortoise, shell” — and, trust me, I’ve done it many a-time, not always for the purposes of a linguistic experiment — the response you’ll get will vary from utter bafflement to a boisterous guffaw — but your point won’t actually come across.

As an English-and-Spanish speaker I’m hopelessly attracted to this sort of situations, I’m fascinated by the outer boundaries of language and meaning, I love to look into equivalents, carbon copies and red herrings. I also have a vested interest, as professionally I’m often engaged in long translations from one language to the other. But my attachment to the grey areas between English and Spanish isn’t just casual or academic: I inhabit the crevices where the two languages fail to meet, partaking of both and abiding by neither. This is the environment that gestated Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges, a collection that among many other things explores the limitations of translation by being deliberately unfaithful at times, by purposely putting forward unnatural turns of phrase at others.

But there is more, because the picture I’m painting of myself is far too much in control of a process that is well beyond my reach, and the truth is that half of the time — the bigger half — I’m consumed by anxiety and self-doubt. The sort of self-doubt most writers feel at one point or another, no question — the sort of self-doubt that makes me cringe every time I read an old piece, that keeps me from looking too deeply into my past translations for fear of finding what in the end I’m almost bound to find. Yet I still read, and I still look, and inevitably I embark on a process of revision and rediscovery that takes me from one (Spanish) world to another (English) world, from place to place, from situation to situation, chasing the formulation — that one, impossibly slippery, perfectly appropriate word — that will encapsulate precisely the meaning that I intend to convey, that will right the balance in my dual universe. It’s patently a race I cannot win, but it’s also a race I can’t keep myself from entering. I’m forever caught in the cracks of these two languages, and I’m thankful for it.

Montague Kobbé is a German citizen with a Shakespearean name, born in Caracas, in a country that no longer exists, in a millennium that is long gone. He is the author of the novel The Night of the Rambler and the bilingual collection of flash fiction Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges. He has kept a column in Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald since 2008 and has translated over twenty photography books with Spanish publisher La Fábrica. His new novel, On the Way Back is due out in February 2016. @MontagueKobbe

Image: CracksGina, Creative Commons.