Living Between Languages

Sylvia Molloy

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee


Like many English immigrants of her generation, my grandmother, my father’s mother, spoke bad Spanish. She had trouble remembering the word for teapot and, much to her son’s glee, would ask not for a tetera but a tetada, a titty, of tea. It upset her that I didn’t speak English very early on, that Spanish was my first language. I think it also upset her that my father had married an “Argentine girl.” It never occurred to her that my father was himself an “Argentine boy”; she just did not think of him that way. Immigrants and their offspring, regardless of their place of birth, were thought of in terms of language; they were their language. My mother had lost the French of her childhood; she was monolingual, left out in the cold, therefore Argentine. My father spoke English with his mother and sisters, Spanish with his wife and friends. Sometimes people called him che, inglés. My grandmother died when I was four: I remember visiting her shortly before her death, I remember saying something to her, I don’t know in what language. This not knowing what language I used needles me. In fact, I have used the episode on two occasions in fiction: in one version, the child speaks English and makes his grandmother happy before she dies; in the other, the child refuses.


Each language has its territory, its appropriate time, its rank. The school I went to as a child was divided in two: English in the morning, Spanish in the afternoon. It was, therefore, a bilingual school, but everybody thought of it as an English institution, un colegio inglés. This was due no doubt to the prestige attached to the term, but also to the rules of the school. If a student was caught speaking Spanish in the morning, she was punished. She had to go to the principal’s office, where she signed a black book, which turned out to be a tatty little black notebook, less ominous than it sounded. If you signed three times, however, you were expelled. Other serious offenses that led to signing the black book and to eventual banishment: wearing your socks rolled down, having your hair untied, or cheating on a test. These were serious offenses (as arbitrary as mortal sins in the Catholic church) but to speak Spanish during the English morning period may well have been the worst. In the afternoon, classes were taught in Spanish. If someone spoke English, no one cared; there was no punishment. Compared to English, Spanish was a lackluster language, at least for those of us who brought it from home. As the mother, in Freud, Spanish was certissima. My parents admired this pedagogical system, not just because of the clear-cut division of linguistic time and space but because English was taught to students in the morning, “when their minds are fresher.” They scolded me, scolded us, my sister and me, if we mixed. Our home mimicked the lines drawn by the family romance: Spanish with the mother, English with the father. A mixture of both (when nobody heard us) between sisters, a private language of sorts. I recognized that very same mixture not too long ago, in Buenos Aires, in a shop selling artesanías and indigenous art. Two well-dressed women, roughly my age, are fingering some alpaca wool scarves while speaking to each other: “This one will look good on him, no te parece, but it’s quite expensive, che, no quiero gastar tanto, después de todo, I don’t know him that well.” The switching is effortless: it may have its rules but I, as a speaker, am unaware of them, I can switch pero no puedo analizar. I tell myself: these women must have gone to the same school I did, and now that their parents are not around, they mix.


Why do I speak of bilingualism, of my bilingualism, in only one language, and why am I doing it right now in English? An earlier version of this text was in Spanish: it came more naturally at the time, I don’t exactly know why. Another question: How do you translate bilingualism, how do you convert the switching so that the effect of two languages working on each other, against each other, remains? Unavoidably, one must always be bilingual from one language, the heimlich one, if only for a moment, since heim or home can change: let’s say one is bilingual from the language one settles into first, if only temporarily—the language of fleeting self-recognition. This does not mean the language in which one feels more at ease, or the language one speaks the best, much less the language one has chosen to write in. There is (rather, one chooses) a point of support, and from that point one establishes a relation with the other language as absence, or rather as shadow, the object of linguistic desire. Although she has two languages, the bilingual subject always speaks as if she were lacking something, in a permanent state of need. (I think of this last phrase in French: état de besoin. Among other things, the expression describes the state of an addict in need of a fix.)


What language do I use to speak to my pets, a friend wants to know? Never in French, I shoot right back, sure of myself. Maybe because French never quite became a home language for me, and animals are very much part of the home. I think some more and add that maybe I speak in English because I like speaking nonsense to them and call them silly names when no one is around, and nonsense comes naturally in English. But no, that’s not quite the case, I add, I must talk to them in both English and Spanish because I often call the dog mamita linda, and as you can well imagine, I never called anyone in my life “pretty mama,” I wouldn’t be caught dead, but with animals one can afford to be cute or cursi, whatever. As for speaking nonsense, I guess it’s not just limited to English because I used to call one of my hens, for quite some time, Curuzú Cuatiá. Don’t ask me why: it’s the Indian name of a town in an Argentine province, yet it sounded just right and made me cackle. Yes, I do speak Spanish to my chickens, I conclude without hesitation, and see the surprise in my friend’s eyes. He did not know I had chickens. They come running to me when I call out, “Chicas, a comer!” and when I put them to bed at night I sing, “A la cama, a la cama, a la cama con Porcel” as they march into their coop. This I say as if confessing a serious sin; I who was never a fan of Jorge Porcel, one of the most vulgar and sexist entertainers in the history of Argentine television who did, indeed, invite young women to bed. My friend laughs and—I think—understands. But then, do they know about Porcel in Puerto Rico?


To be bilingual is to speak fully aware that what is being said is always being said in another place, in many other places. This awareness of the inherent strangeness of all communication, this knowing that what is being said is always necessarily alien, that speaking always implies insufficiency and above all else doubling, if not duplicity (there is always another way of saying it), is applicable to any language in itself, but in our need for transparency and contact we tend to forget it. The explicit, often messy bilingualism of the subject wielding more than one language—through a habit or laziness, as a provocation, for aesthetic needs, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially—renders that otherness patent. That is the bilingual subject’s privilege; it is also her undoing. I recall what Nabokov says of his passage to English: in translating Despair he discovers he can use English as “a wistful standby” for Russian. Replacing one language for another is not devoid of melancholy: “I still feel the pangs of that substitution.” I also remember that, many years ago, before I left Argentina, I found a memorable phrase in a text by Valery Larbaud. In a list of recommendations to potential writers, he advised them to “donner un air étranger a ce qu’on écrit.” The advice struck me as brilliant: it turned what I considered a fault into an advantage, uncomfortable to be sure, but an advantage nonetheless. It gave me permission to write “in translation.” And so, I did, and continue to do so.


In what language does one wake up? When I’m away from home, traveling, and the phone rings, I answer half asleep, trying to do so in the right language, the language spoken there, wherever that is. If I don’t, I feel I’ve made a bad blunder, I’ve been careless, have been caught off guard. I’ve allowed something that usually remains unseen to be seen—something literally obscene—and I don’t quite know what that is. It’s as if I had been caught in a compromising position. One morning, still half asleep, I started speaking to the woman lying next to me and she kept smiling while I became impatient, as if I were dealing with a deaf person. It was like one of those dreams in which you think you’re saying something but the sounds never come out of your mouth. Suddenly I woke up completely and realized that I had been speaking to her in the other language, the language she did not know. I never found out what it was that I really wanted to tell her. And why do I say “really?”


In terms of writing, how and by what means does the bilingual subject enter the written language? The nineteenth-century Cuban slave Juan Francisco Manzano—who, it could be said, was bilingual since he spoke both his own hybrid Spanish and the cultivated Spanish read and spoken by his master—teaches himself to write by literally tracing the writing of the other. That second language, the neoclassical, literary Spanish, becomes his own for poetry, yet when he writes down his life, at his master’s bidding, he goes back to his other Spanish, the messy one. I remember similar exercises in mimesis. When I wrote my first book in French, I tried to imitate the writing of my dissertation adviser, paying close attention to the idioms that peppered his discourse: for example, qu’à cela ne tienne. Then, when I wrote my first texts in Spanish, I filtered—the verb is not excessive—everything I wanted to say through my readings of Borges. When I wrote my first book in English, though, I trained for the exercise like an athlete. Until then, English had been a practical language, destined for the everyday life of exile, and the language of affections, past and present. It was also the language of memory, mainly the memory of my father. To regain ease in written English—ease and authority—I did not follow prestigious examples but practiced a bric-à-brac effect. I would write words on bits of paper, expressions, clauses (usually adversatives) that I liked and wished to use, a little as if I were plagiarizing; instead of tout compte fait or qu’à cela ne tienne, it was now notwithstanding, hitherto, despite, conversely. It was an adventure in translation.

I have written the keyword: translation. I will not dwell on its implications, just mark its power for the bilingual subject as a permanent reminder of the “being in between” that marks her speech, her writing, her tenuous life. And while on the subject of translation, one last anecdote. Many years ago, back in Argentina after many years spent in France and before I attempted to write anything of my own in Spanish, I entered two translation contests together with a friend. One was a translation from French to Spanish (Jean Paulhan), the other from English to Spanish (Virginia Woolf). When we were done (it was a collaborative venture), we had to choose a pseudonym. My friend always claimed that I got depressed when I translated, looked gloomier than an impending storm, qué cara de tormenta, che. I had just finished reading Tropic of Cancer and treasured the scene in the Paris bordello where the narrator’s friend, the Indian Nanantatee, defecated in the bidet because he had no idea what a bidet was for: it was a culturally alien artifact. My friend and I chose “Gloomy Nonentity” for a pseudonym. We won both translation prizes. Today, I would certainly not use that adjective to qualify the task of the translator, or the life of the bilingual subject, I would look for something more upbeat because, for all its inconveniences, it is part of me. I might, however, keep the noun.

translated from the Spanish by Sylvia Molloy