Found in translation

I love languages and I’m usually quite obsessed with them. I enjoy learning a tongue as much as I like learning about them.

The process of learning a foreign language is very intriguing, for it really challenges one’s preconceptions of oneself.

I’ve recently been given an issue of the Metronome magazine, a collection of fiction, poetry and thoughts by a collective of artists and writes. This special number from 2001 deals with speech and its magnetism.

The work of Danish artist Lise Harlev really caught my attention. Some excerpts:

When you come across a word that you do not understand as foreigner you are often in doubt whether you should ask about the meaning of the word right away or pretend to understand and go look it up later.

As a foreigner you often wonder if you actually manage to express your true personality to other people through the foreign language.

Wenn ein Inländer seine Muttersprache spricht, hört es sich manchmal so fliessend und perfekt an, dass man als Ausländer sein intektuelles Niveau überschätzt. (When a native speaks his/her mother tongue, it sometimes sounds so fluent and perfect that one as a foreigner overstimates the person’s intellectual level).

Som utlænding oplever man ofte at man taler fremmedsproget bedre men nogle indfødte end med andre.(As a foreigner, one often realizes that s/he speaks the foreign language better with some natives than with others).

The work, called Når man dagligt taler et fremmed sprog (“When you speak a foreign language daily”), is written in Danish, German and English and it is interesting to notice that although the sentences contain similar ideas (I chose different ones), they don’t translate exactly in the same way.

The questions raised by Harlev are also extremely clever because they make us wonder about how much what we think of ourselves is a product or not of our linguistic abilities. This is something that becomes very obvious when we are struggling to learn a different language.


Are we what we speak or is there more to us than just words? Most importantly, how can we know?


2 responses to “Found in translation

  1. Thinking about our conversation Ive decided to write a proposal for a congress called Art in Translation. Cool that you have posted it here, very interesting issue, boy.

  2. Cool! Thanks for lending me the issue, and you’ll get it back too. I promise.

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