Because I Have a Voice (but What Language is it Speaking?)

It seems to me that by now everybody even remotely interested has got around to watching the King’s Speech. That low-budget, high acting, Oscar-showered British film really hit it home with its audience.

One of the pivotal moments of the film is when the King and his self-certified speech-therapist, Lionel Logue, come to a brutal confrontation in Westminster Abbey. Lionel finally asks King George why he should listen to anything he says, and the king (in Colin Firth’s marvellous rendering) bellows out “Because I have  a voice”.


I used to write.

Writing in a blog that I used to write seems redundant even to myself. Of course I used to write, that’s usually why people start a blog. Blogging is writing, or at least it attempts to be. (Though in some cases it’s more like collaging magazine-clippings).

What I want to say is something else: I used to write with a different kind of ambition. I had a dream of expressing something profound through research into the language I used, deconstructing and reconstructing the words I used to penetrate situations, and end up with new understanding. Sometimes, in certain serendipitous moments. I used to believe in language as a primary tool for understanding the world around me.

There was a time in my life when I wrote almost without interruption, trying to tap into feelings so intense I just had to let them out. I too wanted to have a voice. At the time there was a complete overlap of the matter I wanted to write about, and the linguistic tools I used to shape that matter.

I stopped writing with that kind of intention when I started travelling. Ironically, I started travelling around the world and kept at it for almost 2 years; all the time trying to find a moment and a place where I could really write, only to find that when I was completely immersed in a mixed linguistic environment, I could not write.

I came back, disillusioned, and started working on my sociology thesis instead. Certainly there was writing involved, but not much self-expression in the end.

Since then I’ve lived in Italy for a very long time, and now here in Canada for an almost equally long time (which makes me a very mature person, I fear). And for each linguistic shift, writing about my life, or even stories about other people’s lives, has become more difficult. How can one write about a life happening using several languages at the same time, in one language alone?

Vanina Marsot has encountered some of the same dilemmas when writing her novel Foreign Tongue

In order to write a novel about the differences between French and (American) English, and by extension, between French culture and American culture, I chose to make my heroine an accidental translator, a bilingual woman who runs away to Paris (the advantages of dual nationality), and happens into an under-the-table freelance job translating a mysterious erotic novel.

Marsot comments: it turns out my novel seems to be untranslatable, at least into the other language it is about, French.
There’s a lot of French in my book.  I think and hope it’s written so that even if you never studied the language, you can still understand what’s going on in the French passages, which are commented upon in English by my narrator.  But here’s the crux of the matter: the French phrases and expressions in the book are dissected in English; that is, understood and parsed through English.  So, though the novel is in English (the protagonist), there’s a necessary tension with French, the antagonist.  If you translate everything into French, the tension is gone.  You’d have to convey that the French-language voice is that of a bilingual American, who is commenting on the French language; so, you’d read a French voice puzzling over odd French phrases — in French! Perhaps a really good literary translator could do this, but I’m not sure how.

Trying to put my daily life down in writing, challenges me much in the same way. How do I describe a dinner table conversation that’s conducted in three languages? Of course I can translate all the single sentences and exclamations into one of the three languages, but then I’d miss all the little cues that make us change language for specific subjects; I’d lose all the exhortations from my husband to “speak as you eat” (ma parla come mangi) when our daughters slide into English; I’d lose all the references to childhood or popular culture specific to one language culture.

In the end, any writing where I minutiously recount episodes from my daily life, will either be untranslatable or they’ll lose a lot of the layers that they are made up of.

Another challenge, when attampting to write, is the fact that the realities I’ve been living in for most of the past 20 years don’t match the language I once wrote in. Frequently I’d find myself at loss for words to describe the thoughts I had in my current life, in a language that seemed far away from them.

Part of my difficulties have to do the with the specifics of Norwegian language. The fact that I wrestle with two linguistic standards for writing the language and an oral language that doesn’t conform to either, doesn’t make it any easier. If an idea comes wrapped in a specific language, it will frequently be in my spoken linguistic variation, it will use words that never appear in any authorized dictionary. And I feel unable to write my dialect any longer, I have moved too many times to have the immediacy I may once have felt when writing it.

So does this leave me without a voice?

Fortunately not.

I’ve struggled for many years with finding ways to release this voice; with finding  a language for it. Writing in a different language than my first tongue seemed like treason. How could I even attempt to get to the core of a story with a different linguistic tool set than the one I was born with?

When I finally, after years of struggling, sat down to write in English. I felt liberated. Somehow writing in my second tongue set me free from a lot of the hang-ups I had with authenticity, honesty and being me. I could see language more as a tool and less as a container of memories and relations.

Other writers have resorted to the same solution:

Joseph Conrad didn’t speak English fluently until he was in his twenties. Somehow his native Polish language was not the tool he felt more apt to write his accounts of anti-heroes battling with the world.

Conrad was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature

Arthur Koestler wrote all his novels in his third language, after first changing from Hungarian to German at 17, and then from German to English at 34.

Samuel Beckett chose to write all his plays in French.

There are others I should have mentioned, but I’ll stop here.


Without comparing myself in any way to the above authors, I too am finally rediscovering that I have a voice, and right now that voice is English.


~ by Hege on March 15, 2011.

5 Responses to “Because I Have a Voice (but What Language is it Speaking?)”

  1. I completely relate to your dilemmas – and possibly to your solution. This is another beautiful post Hege, thank you.
    ps. Although I’m not a fan of white on black layouts, I love the new look of your blog!

  2. Interesting!

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