(m)other words

(m)other words
Mária Chilf: kiesett pillanat 1
An essay by Tzveta Sofronieva

Translated from the German by Chantal Wright

The places inside me edge closer and closer together and each new place holds something familiar. These places form layers, merge into a single place. Words and stories, buildings and events begin to merge. More than ever, Europe's face is characterised by the features of a new intercultural nomadism and its many languages. The golden and sunlight-flooded, iron and ice crystal-illuminated spaces of Europe's languages are becoming porous, cloaking places with delicate webs of understanding. Meanings, varying forms of sensual perception and traces of lexical memory mingle in these webs. Misunderstandings both tragic and comic, of a surreal dream- (and nightmare-) like quality, banal and political, arise between different cultures and between individuals. We often believe we can free ourselves from geography through globalisation. But it reveals itself in the history of places, it is reflected in their linguistic imagery, no matter which language is being used to communicate.

Conversations between cultures are becoming ever more important, conversations about how we communicate with each other and how we translate culture, about whether words form a gulf between us or allow us to build bridges. The space in-between, inhabited by words from many languages, is growing. My most marked experience of this space began when I took up residence in the German language.

often i ask myself in the dark whether you feel
the glitter of words and see their souls unfurled

I wrote in 1991 in a poem about language, and continued:

[...] on the islands of my soul
play torture me the words shadows the souls of my emptyemptyemptyemptyemptyemptyemptytongue
untranslatable into verses or into your tribe's emptyemptyemptyemptyemptyemptyemptongues

In Bulgarian the poem was originally called 'rodina' (homeland) and in many languages there was nothing problematic about this title. But in German it couldn't be called 'Heimat', it was given a new title which felt more natural, 'Gefangen im Licht' ('Caught in Light'): I felt caught in the light of language. In the place where a language resides, one cannot say more than the language allows for until one extends its boundaries.

When I arrived in Germany fifteen years ago - from America, not Bulgaria - I knew four words: 'gut', 'kaputt', 'heil' (from 'Heil Hitler!'), all from Russian war films, and 'das Sein' because of Kant. I learned German playfully, like a child - I didn't plan on remaining in German, just as children don't plan on things. I was confronted with a great deal of lightness, with precision of reference, and with many boundaries. Slowly I felt my way around the hills and valleys of the language, the chasms of its seas, smelled its blossoms and enjoyed the cool of its springs. Played, crawled, tried, fell, cried, got up, walked, crossed through, jumped over, seized, adapted, conquered, failed, departed, felt disappointment, began again, grew to love, felt sheltered, ran, fell over, swam, reached new banks, built sandcastles, kneaded dough, shaped, baked, let the smell of bread float out of the window, made coffee to go with it. In this way German became one of my homes - through the process of learning about lightness, reference, and borders, through walking. A different lightness, new references, a different precision, new mistakes and different discoveries made while out walking, new borders.

The souls, the seas of my first language (the German word for soul, 'Seele', has its origins in 'See', sea), the language in which I was born and in which I swim without any effort: even there I am attentive, remain alert, observe the changes in its reefs, sound its depths anew. I know little about many of these seas myself, I have only heard or dreamed about them. But I remember most of them, their moods, their unusual winds and the colour games they play with the sun and the moon. The ways in which seas reflect light, unshared experiences, the physical feel of these sea-waves, soul-waves - all these are untranslatable. Each of these seas is home to old sagas and myths, and the stories of those who have died there before me. Do I know them if I know you? Do you know them if you know me? A quiet reminder of sketches of the future made in the past? The verses and languages of our lineage, of the places we come from, of our family - we always have plenty of them, the tongues of those who inhabit the seas of our language and whisper to us. Do they not stand between us like shadows or blinding light whenever we wish to communicate?

I hope that the souls, the meanings of Bulgarian words can wander into German words and be reborn. I wait for the souls of my language, for its character, its breath, its source of life, for its inhabitants to carry me, lead me as I swim in the waters of the unknown. But they fade, turn to shadow and die just like in the Greek myths. I come from the Balkans, from Europe, I envy Asia its belief in reincarnation (without knowing if it is justified). I come into the light, I want to meet you even if we run the risk of getting burnt or going blind, because loneliness does not bring knowledge. My fellow writers said it was bad that the word 'bog' (God) was unaltered in the German translation of my poem 'Caught in the Light', it was a word that ruined everything, destroyed the other metaphors because of its association in German with religion and church. What did the word God stand for before I spoke German? The fine line of free will, the attempt to come to terms with it and to make something of it; overcoming loneliness; a friend of Einstein and Newton, of my physics professors at university (because nobody steeped in the natural world and things human doubts the existence of the inexplicable). Back then I studied natural sciences rather than ideologically tinted literature, the famous joke when I was a student was: An angel runs over to God. "Lord, the humans have figured out the next part of the great unifying theory." "Well, thrown them down a few new differentials." That's the way it was with God - one of the goals along the path to knowledge, a competition against ourselves to name things. It wasn't about belief but about finding words for what was (then and still) inexplicable within the world and within ourselves. About pushing the boundaries of language.

In the language I grew up in, words connected with 'history', 'belief' or 'origins' usually also had something to do with language and alphabets. The Cyrillic alphabet was created in 855 to spread Christianity from Constantinople to Bulgaria and on to the Slavs. God only really became language and identity during the five hundred year rule of the Turks over the Bulgarians. The word God makes me think of Christmas Eve, which we called 'badni vetcher' (evening of watchfulness, of becoming, of being) under 'really existing socialism' (or shall we leave it at Communism?). We weren't allowed to celebrate Christmas Eve, and it came to resemble an Odyssey, with each member of our family making his or her way to my grandmother's - by different routes and at different times, discreetly. My parents and my aunts, who rejected religion completely and understood 'enlightenment' to be part of their job descriptions; my grandfather, who found the notion of a Christian God ridiculous and liked to quote Greek sagas and deities; we children, who knew God as a story from school, had heard him explained in Marxist fashion as a historical figure, and weren't even interested in the Bible - terrible thing! - as a fairytale: all of us sat at one table. Grandmother carried God within her somehow: God was never the church, not a mechanism for giving power to those who were stronger, but a mechanism for protecting those who were weaker. It was not a coincidence that our family was extremely upset at the expulsion of the Muslim and Turkish population in the nineteen eighties. The centre of Sofia is located in a rectangle, marked by an Orthodox cathedral, a Catholic church, a synagogue and a mosque. This is what the new peripheries of Europe look like. And because this is where Europe's fate will largely be decided, the word 'God' is important. I use it in my poem as the first cell of language within me.

Language has a lot to do with borders. Languages also have a particular characteristic: on the one hand they know no borders, are borderless in their attempts to name things, but also because they run into one another seamlessly; on the other hand they can be a symbol of nationalism and be instrumentalised against intercultural togetherness. I left my home and my language deliberately. Max Frisch, in his 1974 Schiller prize acceptance speech, described 'Heimat' as the difference between the train station in the place he was born and every other train station in the world: "It isn't the first place you arrived at, it's the first place you left." Leaving for the first time, starting out, I wanted to be at home in myself. As Wim Wenders, whom I encountered later and came to adore, puts it: "not being at home means being more at home than anywhere else ... Identity means that one doesn't need a home", that one can develop a consciousness for everything.

I still want to investigate "esizsite na tvoja rod": the tongues of your genus, the languages of your history, the dialects of your relatives, the words of your birth, the many languages you have as shelter, as identity, the language you left for the first time - to learn other languages and to leave them again - the language you were able to leave and the one you had to. In the German translation of my poem 'Caught in Light', the line remained: 'die Sprache deines Landes' (literally: 'the language of your country'). I don't like this translation, but even today I have no better suggestion. I certainly do not mean 'the language of a country'. I still want to describe the connection between the natural world and the human being, to reference it. And I still want to know whether one uses other words in German for feelings that I refer to using words that are troubled in German - or do people no longer have these feelings? And if people don't have them any more, has something grown in their place or are they gone completely and for ever? 'another one of those forbidden words' was the title of the first poem I wrote in German. I ended it with

don't disappear

the yearning for words, the yearning for language.

In many countries today postmodern literature has turned away from certain concepts it would like to relegate to past eras. Saying goodbye to sketches of the future made in the past, a peeling away of husks. But even here avoiding a word can be an interdiction of its own kind, can trip us up, can become a means of avoiding culture, people, oneself. My concern is the loss of pathos not in terms of rhetoric but in terms of passion, when something is so hurtful that it provokes reflection and demands change. For a word ceases to be full of pathos the instant a rupture occurs and a different context is created, when the old pictures lead somewhere else and are completely and utterly transformed. Today there is talk in Germany of a pathos that is necessary; literary magazines discuss taboos and history; the German Academic Exchange Service's Berlin programme for the arts adopted a Humboldt quotation as its slogan for a whole series of readings: "Our true home is in language".

This avoidance of a word in a poem about language sensitised me to the way we deal with language, to old abuses, new taboos and to the traditions of different languages, to the different ways in which linguistic borders are defined, drawn up and experienced, and how language changes through this. I do feel that if we avoid words, avoid what is bad about them, then we judge their meaning conclusively and something goes very wrong. I refuse to accept communicative taboos on principle. Abused words are of great literary interest. It wasn't only 'Heimat', 'Gott', 'Blut' (blood) and 'heilig' (holy) that were problematic, 'Seele' and even a word like 'Großmutter' (grandmother) also met with scepticism and rejection. 'Trost' (consolation), 'Sehnsucht' (yearning), 'Erwachen' (awakening), 'Begabung' (talent) sounded dubious too. Words that when translated into German from English or Spanish often sound sentimental, and when translated from Eastern European languages sound full of pathos. They are not only burdened by the Nazi era, by the ideologisation of political life in the late sixties, and by the 'anything goes' attitude that followed in the eighties. The fact that one couldn't use particular words in Germany, that there existed words that were difficult to imagine occurring in German literature, that were and still are forbidden, led me to think about the burdens carried by words in Bulgarian and in other languages. I began to notice my allergic reaction when somebody said 'badeshte' (future) in Bulgarian. Will I ever be reconciled with the word that I invariably associate with the "bright future of Communism", a word that still has the ability to depress me? And I noticed the extent to which I am disturbed by 'izbor' (choice), 'svoboden' (free), 'rabota' (work), 'plamuk' (flame), 'satrudnitchestvo' (cooperation), and 'sigurnost' (security: it always sounds like Stasi, Staatssicherheit, state security, the secret police). The time I spent living under a totalitarian regime has left its traces even in the language of my childhood. When I was living in Canada in 1989 and the end of a totalitarian era in Bulgaria was in the air, I thought, what if there is a future, choice, work, friendship, a way, democracy, memory ... all those abused words from my childhood. And thus I wrote in 'Journey to the West':

[...] history sits at my parents' tea-table
In Bulgaria, words slowly acquire their old emptyemptyemptyemptyemptymeanings.

My German translator said that if the prefix 'wieder' (re-) was omitted, if the German verb was 'gewinnen' (acquire) and not 'wiedergewinnen' (reacquire), then it would be obvious that the poem was not about rehabilitating words. I'm not so sure, even today. In Bulgarian I meant that the vacuum which opens up in abused words fills itself with possibility and with openness, has meaning bestowed upon it - this might be a new or an ancient meaning - and that its contents are enriched. The Bulgarian verb I used contains 'extract' in the sense of extracting coal or gold, it can also mean to gain experience or to acquire something new, necessary and valuable. "In Bulgaria words might extract meaning" would be the direct translation. Or do the empty husks of words dry out and disappear? What happens to these husks? What happens to the shadows of words, to their traces of memory? How do they receive their fresh scars? Thanks to 'homeland security' and the war in Iraq, home sweet home has surely taken on new connotations, and terrorist carries an almost unbearable burden. Simultaneously the word 'Heimat' has become very popular in Germany.

Our contemporary use of language is also influenced by an awareness of political correctness, which arose out of the desire to create equality between different points of view and to combat discrimination through language. But isn't political correctness also being abused? Is it really more correct to say 'interracial' than 'mulatto'? And is it really politically correct to shelve contemporary novels by interracial authors under African American Literature instead of Fiction? Am I 'innerracial' because my parents belong to the same race? Is a 'Kokusaijidô' (Japanese for 'international child') no longer an 'Ainoko' (child born of a relationship between a Japanese woman and a non-Japanese man)? Is my child, born of the relationship between a German and a Bulgarian, a 'Kokusaijidô' or not?

As experiences are linguistically processed, words inevitably become charged in specific ways. It is interesting to observe the differing cultural 'charges' of words, how they change, how they are abused and how this abuse is abused, the reasons for avoiding a word or for unw

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