Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bi-lingual Word Play

A few things that are too good not to share.  First up is a site called Wordsmith which offers an English Word a Day message that shoots straight to my email..  Every morning in my inbox I get a new whimsical word with all the trimmings:  definition, pronunciation, etymology and usage.  I am enchanted..

This week they are offering a special treat:  French words that have become English words.  These are terms from the language of Molière that are now standard in the language of Shakespeare.  Here are the ones I've received so far this week:

politesse
laissez-faire
de rigueur
soi-disant

But perhaps you would prefer to expand your vocabulary in French.  If so, check out Kristin's French Word a Day.  Same principle as the Wordsmith list but Kirstin adds her own flair to the service and it's always fun to savour her musings.  This week features an English word that is now used by the French:  Le Memorial Day.  Not sure that one is good usage in France but, hey, she found it on a French language Wikipedia site. Whenever I see this kind of appropriation from English, my burning question is always:  how do they determine if a borrowed word is masculine or feminine?  Is it arbitrary or are there rules?

If that weren't enough richesse (also a perfectly good English word used by both Chaucer and Spenser) for a lazy Friday morning reading email over coffee on the 14th floor of my apartment in Osaka, a note came in from the website of one of my favorite authors, Ilona Andrews.  This is actually the pen name for a couple who write drop dead wonderful Urban Fantasy.   The husband, Andrew Gordon, is American and the wife, Ilona Gordon, is originally from Russia.  Their "Magic" series is very popular and with good reason - I have dived into it at least three times;  they are rollicking good reads and I recommend them with no reservations whatsoever.  Last night, I decided to read them again and stayed up very late reading the first couple of volumes.

So sweet serendipity was definitely at work here when I saw their email this morning.  Today's offering is a post about characters, change, and the creative process.  She writes:
"Despite being logical, I operate mostly on emotion when I engage with books, our own and others’. My emotions change from day to day, sometimes drastically from hour to hour. Every day when you sit down to write, you run the risk that you mind will become fascinated by a different aspect of the story and sometimes, when you are struggling with the narrative, and suddenly your brain presents a different route to get where you are going, it feels like true, genuine inspiration."
And that reminded me of the way I sometimes use my French and English:  to force my brain to find another pathway in order to solve problems and to get unstuck when I write.  Feeling frustrated because the words won't come and the sentences are stiff?  Switch to French. 

Why does this work?  I don't know but it feels like switching gears and tapping an alternate persona to take the wheel and steer for awhile.  I don't feel like I'm the same person in French;  I don't think the same way and I don't feel the same things.  The world is simply a very different place depending on the language I use to frame and view it.  And with the switch I can be a very different person without ever having to step out of my own head.  

Proof that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct?  I think there is something to it - though I am well aware that their theory does not enjoy the respectability today that it once did.  But that's just me overthinking things once again.  It doesn't matter if it's true;  what matters is that I believe it and it works for me.  I am surely not the only bilingual who does it either, although I have never had a direct conversation with any writer about the connection between switching languages and creativity. 

The topic makes me edgy and uncomfortable because I've never been able to describe it to my saisfaction.  It always comes out sounding like a share in a 12-step meeting:  "Hello my name is Victoria and my personality splits along linguistic lines..."  But here is part of a poem by Diana Anhalt which comes close to what I would like to say.  It is, as all poems are, an indirect and illuminating conversation that uses words and word play to transcend the limits of all language.. 

Spanish curdled my tongue,
turned me wordy, oblique, insincere.
With its treacherous Rs, languorous vowels,
devious music, each sound colliding
with the next, it yielded one unwieldy run-on word,
too big for my child-sized mouth.
Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)

2 comments:

Maria said...

To me translating a word doesn't always translate the essence contained within the word. Festa en Galician and festival in English mean practically the same, but the same scene doesn't spring to mind. When I say festa, into my mind jumps a small town or village with a band playing at one end of a plaza, people of all ages standing in front, watching, talking, or dancing. Small kids run around and teenagers group together before wandering off. At another end a temporary bar has been set up by the neighbors who run the festival commission, to make money for next year's festa. It's night and there are colored lights above the plaza and down the side lanes and streets, so everyone knows where the music is playing. When I say festival in English, what pops to mind is a music festival like the one at Coachella or Benidorm. Two words that mean the same, but the cultures make them different.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

That's exactly it, Maria. That's exactly what I look for when I switch. Not a direct translation but a different view - all the cultural stuff that is packed into a word or phrase . The images they evoke and the feelings. They are not the same and for creative stuff that's exactly what you want. Roll with it for awhile, try out some dialogue, imagine how this plot line work in the other language with very different people, go over the logic/argument in an essay and see how it works (IF it still works) and then switch back. I find that whatever came up in the other language sticks - not as direct translation but as a source of new ideas.