I am fifteen, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom with a book of poems in my hands. Because I am fifteen, I don’t talk to anyone. I spend much of my time alone in this room, but then again, I am not really there either. Instead, I am traveling between the two languages printed on either side of the fold, gathering an enchanted vocabulary that might just conjure a threshold into another life.
In the meantime, what I find there reshapes the world I already know. Late at night unable to sleep, listening to the house tick and settle, I whisper lines from Borges into the dark. I think of his interpretation of Schopenhauer and Berkeley, how reality might be little more than a dream, and a fragile one at that, tenuously anchored by the shared magic of all the souls within it. I think of how these small hours are a perilous time, when only a few restless “trasnochadores” hold the world in place with our wakefulness. I think about how someday I will no longer be fifteen, talking to no one, shut away in my room. “No habrá una sola cosa que no sea / una nube.” There will never be a single thing that is not / a cloud. I think of how someday a threshold will appear, whether conjured or not. “La puerta es la que elige, no el hombre.” The door is the one who chooses, not the man.
Back then, it wasn’t just Borges’ philosophies that altered my reality, but the language itself. There was the way it was impossible to forget something in Spanish, only for that something to have become forgotten from you—a blameless oblivion. There was the rhyming symmetry of gendered nouns and adjectives, the uncertain, fantastical realm of the subjunctive. I was beginning to experience what poet Ilya Kaminsky describes in an interview as the “beauty in falling in love with a language—the strangeness of its sounds, the awe of watching the sea-surf of a new syntax beating again and again the cement of your unknowing.” To become bilingual meant reimagining how to be.
Years later, I move across the Atlantic, following my partner’s scientific career to a small city in Germany. I begin studying German, first in the “Integration Course” for new emigrants, then in B2 and C1 levels. There is a privilege here, especially as a white, non-refugee learning this language in its native country. In some ways, I have entered that other life I hoped for when I was fifteen, but in many ways, I am also untethered from any world at all.
In former East Germany, where Russian is often more likely to be spoken as a second language than English, German is a survival skill. Fluency determines access—to visas, doctors, contracts—and even the smallest tasks are burdened with linguistic difficulty. Meanwhile, under the pressure of unrelenting immersion, of more and still more words crushed into every last space in my mind, the English I’ve always taken for granted begins to buckle as well. Sentences crumble when I try to speak or write. Adrift, unable to gain purchase in any language, I become unfamiliar to myself, insubstantial, unreal. Language becomes something that can estrange a person from reality, from their own being. I am learning how bilingualism can displace.
Around this time, I come across the essay “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria,” by Lina Mounzer. Reading it, I recognize the stories of my Syrian classmates, the distances they have traveled through trauma and loss and hope, the braiding of roots in Arabic. And for the first time, I find a metaphor that encompasses bilingualism’s conflicting potential for vitality and destruction in Mounzer’s idea of translation as a “transplanting.” She describes how we transplant “[a] seedling from soil to soil. But also an organ from body to body. The procedure must be as delicate, as cognizant of the original conditions of creation in order to nurture and ensure a continuation of life.” As the essay brilliantly blurs the boundary between translator and translated voices, Mounzer observes that there is “a violence in undoing someone’s words and reconstituting them in a vocabulary foreign to them, a vocabulary of your own choosing. There is a violence, too, in the way you are—for long moments—annihilated by the other; undone in return.” Was it any wonder then, that attempting to integrate one’s own self into another culture, into another language, might cause disintegration instead?
The German word for vocabulary is a precious one—“Wortschatz,” which, literally translated, means word treasure. The verb to translate—“übersetzen”—contains the same original meaning as in English: to carry or cross over. When separated and emphasized differently, “übersetzen” still encompasses a physical crossing from place to place. A ferrying from one shore to another, or from world to world. Towards the end of my German classes, our teacher offers us a landscape. He tells us how learning a language starts with accumulating words and rules of grammar, like adding coin after coin to one’s treasure chest, or passing trail markers on a mountain climb. But then, he says, when you reach the top of the mountain, you understand that the language you have been learning is not a mountain after all. Instead, that language is everything you can see from the summit, an expanse unfurling in all directions, too vast for any one person to traverse in a lifetime, and yet, if you are willing to feel this lost and small and lucky, still possible to behold.
These days, in a relatively new life in New York City, I still encounter traces of this landscape. I find an echo in the essay “Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart” by Inger Christensen (trans. Susanna Nied), who envisions language and reality shaping each other as a “threshold condition […], where language and the world express themselves with the help of each other.” According to Christensen, writing is then an attempt “to produce something that we ourselves are already a product of.” Reading this, I can’t help but be reminded of Carl Sagan’s famous idea that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and I wonder then if language and writing are perhaps a way for us to know ourselves, to reconnect with our origins, with the raw materials we are made of, even as we transform and create anew. Which leads me back again to Borges: “Eres nube, eres mar, eres olvido. / Eres también aquello que has perdido.” You are cloud, you are sea, you are forgottenness. / You are also the long-lost one that you have missed.
This last translation into English is my own, and though it feels displaced and incomplete, the rhyme also feels important. I mean this not just in relation to form—the final couplet of a sonnet—but because of the rhetorical impact of rhyming, the catch in the ear and in memory, the way the sounds ring together, and so, at least on the surface, ring true. And though bilingualism has rendered my own writing process more fragmentary and piecemeal, more prone to what Ilya Kaminsky has called “little thefts between languages, […] the music of oddities,” I am also more aware of how language itself guides what I write.
When composing short essays for German class, the arguments I made often diverged from those I would make in English, not just due to limited vocabulary, but because the distinct architecture of each language supported a different emphasis, coalesced into a different nexus of meaning. These days when I’m writing a story, I try to notice where those channels of syntax, grammar, and sound begin to merge; sometimes I follow them to a confluence, but other times I resist the current, remapping structure versus sense, imagining how another language might chart a different watershed. Sometimes, the language suggests where to seed repetition or contradiction, where to speed up or slow down, where to allow space or density, but all the while, the language and the story create and are created by each other.
More than that, bilingualism remind me how, even when the words come from me, I am never the only one speaking. Through translation and disintegration, through the struggle of knowing and being known across different languages and within our own, we are never alone. Because language, like the world, is a shared magic as well. All of our languages have been used by countless others before, they have evolved and grown like any landscape, and they are kept alive by being written, spoken, signed, or otherwise embodied not by any single individual but collectively, plurally, across lifetimes. And I can’t be sure if language is a world we make and unmake, or a world that makes and unmakes us. Perhaps it is all of these things. And perhaps, in the present tense of these words where she still exists, where she still whispers poems against the annihilating dark, I’d like to talk to a certain long-lost girl. I’d like to tell her that even now, she isn’t alone. And I’d like to tell her that language is a door—perhaps an infinite number of doors—some that we can choose, and some that will choose us in turn.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Amanecer/Break of Day,” and “Nubes (1)/Clouds (1).” Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman, Penguin Books, 2000, pp. 22–25 and pp. 476–477.
Christensen, Inger. “Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart.” Translated by Susanna Nied. Poetry, 31 Aug. 2018, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/147738/silk-the-universe-language-the-heart
Clifford, Edward. “(Not Quite) 10 Questions for Ilya Kaminsky.” The Massachusetts Review, 21 May 2018, https://www.massreview.org/node/6577
Mounzer, Lina. “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women in Syria.” Lit Hub, 6 Oct. 2016, https://lithub.com/war-in-translation-giving-voice-to-the-women-of-syria/
“The Shores of a Cosmic Ocean,” Cosmos: A Personal Journey, co-written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, episode 1, PBS, 1980.
Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and has since lived in Magdeburg, Germany and New York City. She studied audio storytelling at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and is a co-founding editor at Empty House Press, which publishes writing about home, place, and memory. In her spare time, she likes to learn tunes by ear on the piano, fiddle, and tin whistle, or else visit the birds in her neighborhood park. You can read more of her work in Little Fiction, Milk Candy Review, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, and other places.