The Space between Languages

Herta Müller

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

Nobel laureate Herta Müller gave this speech in Prague in April, 2012 to honour her fellow writer, Radka Denemarková, whose Czech translation of Atemschaukel (Rozhoupaný dech) received a major literary award, the Magnesia Litera Prize, in 2011, making her the only Czech author to receive the award three times (for fiction, non-fiction, and translation). For a more detailed analysis of the challenges Herta Müller's work poses for translators, read Radka Denemarková's essay in Asymptote's Criticism section.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am here today because last year Radka Denemarková received the Magnesia Litera Prize for her translation of my novel Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel). That made me very happy. I think it is wonderful that you have a Magnesia Litera Prize for translators. Translation is an art in its own right. I wouldn't dare to translate, although I am fluent in Romanian. For translation doesn't mean just replacing, i.e., finding a familiar word in your own language to substitute for a word in a foreign language. The word has to match, which is much more difficult. A translator has to recreate the sound of the original. The art of translation is looking at words in order to see how those words see the world. Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible. Finding this eye-to-eye contact is extremely difficult. It is a great art.

I learnt Romanian quite late in life, when I left my small village for the city at the age of fifteen to go to high school. However, it wasn't until some years later that Romanian became second nature. I was at university and working in a machine factory where I had to translate manuals for newly imported machines from German into Romanian without any idea of how they worked. I did it mechanically, word by word. But I also had to speak Romanian all day long because no one around me spoke any German.

Every time the same object moved from one language into another, a transformation occurred. It made me realize that your mother tongue comes to you without any effort on your part. It is a dowry that comes into your possession without you noticing. It is then judged by another language that has been added later and that comes from somewhere else. Your mother tongue feels as direct and unconditional as your own skin, and it is just as vulnerable if held in low esteem, treated with contempt, or even banned by others. Having grown up in a village speaking a dialect and learning standard German at high school, I found it difficult to find my bearings in the official Romanian spoken in the capital. For the first two years in the city it was easier for me to locate the right street in an unfamiliar part of town than the right word in the national language. Romanian was like pocket money. No sooner would I be tempted by something in a shop window than I would discover I was short of the money needed to buy it. There were so many words I did not know, and those that I did would not come as quickly as they were needed. Today, however, I know that this kind of inching along in another language, the hesitancy that forced me below my intellectual level, also gave me time to marvel at how objects were transformed by the Romanian language. I know that I am fortunate to have experienced this. A swallow suddenly appeared in a different light in Romanian, where it is called rindunica, "sitting-in-a-row". The bird's name suggests how swallows perch on a wire, close together in a row. I used to see them in my village every summer, before I knew the Romanian word. I was amazed that a swallow could have such a lovely name. I became more and more aware that the Romanian language had words that were more sensuous, more in tune with my perception, than my mother tongue. I would not now want to live without this string of transformations, in speech or in writing. There is not a single Romanian sentence in any of my books. But Romanian is always with me when I write because it has grown into my way of seeing the world.

It is from the space between languages that images emerge. Each sentence is a way of looking at things, crafted by its speakers in a very particular way. Each language sees the world differently, inventing its entire vocabulary from its own perspective and weaving it into the web of its grammar in its own way. Each language has different eyes sitting inside its words.

Another reason why I can't translate is my mistrust of language. When my best friend came to say goodbye the day before I went into exile—we embraced thinking we would never see each other again because I would never be allowed to return to Romania and she would never be able to leave the country—we couldn't bear to let go of each other. She walked out of the door three times and returned each time. Only after the third time did she leave me, walking straight down the street. I could see her pale jacket getting smaller and smaller and, in a strange way, brighter and brighter the more distant it became. I don't know if it was the winter sunshine of that February day, or the tears making my eyes glisten, or perhaps her jacket was made of some shiny fabric, but one thing I know for sure:  as I watched her walk away her back glittered like a silver spoon. In this way, intuitively, I was able to put our parting into words. And that is also the best description of that moment. But what does a silver spoon have to do with a jacket? Nothing at all. Nor does it have anything to do with parting. Yet as a poetic image the spoon and the jacket need one another.

That is why I am mistrustful of language. I know from my own experience that to be accurate, language must always usurp something that doesn't belong to it. I keep asking myself what makes verbal images such thieves, why the most apt comparison appropriates qualities that don't belong to it. To get closer to reality we need to catch the imagination unawares. Only when one perception plunders another, when an object snatches material that belongs to another and starts to exploit it—only when things that in reality are mutually exclusive become plausible in a sentence can the sentence hold its own against reality.

I am happy when I succeed in doing that.

translated from the German by Julia Sherwood

Click here to read Radka Denemarkova's essay on translating Herta Müller, also from this issue.