In tongues

A really complicated trick for beating writer's block

A fortnight ago I decided to start a newsletter, after a long time wondering whether it was a good idea or just an advanced form of procrastination. (“Why not both?”, the chorus pipes up. Shut up, chorus.) Then my life turned into one of those Texas days where bright sunshine gives way to an apocalypse of thunderstorms. I had wanted to write about the essays I’d had come out, and I had wanted to write about how tricky it is to be a person with a lot of interests in a world that rewards specialization. Frankly, I had wanted to write about Kris Jenner. (“Queen,” the chorus whispers.) But I’ll have to hold off on that. Because right now what is on my heart is the story of writing an essay for the first time in my mother tongue.

Last week, The Rumpus published “Tongue Stuck,” in which I describe my fractured relationship to Romanian, and the imperfect, though dogged, way I’ve still tried to pass it on to my son. The essay seemed to resonate with quite a few people. Language is the great divider, but linguistic alienation seems to be a bridge between people of vastly different backgrounds. When we see our birth-grammar falling apart, our shock is the same.

I was delighted but also relieved. You see, although I worked on a number of drafts with a wonderful editor whose ear I trusted, and had signed off on the final version happy with what we had achieved, when I first read the piece on the website, I was horrified. It seemed choppy to me, missing transitions where I would expect them, jumping into information without warming the reader up. The musicality seemed off, not like my writing at all.

And the odd thing is — that was intentional.

You see, “Tongue Stuck” was my own translation, adapted and expanded, of an essay I wrote in Romanian. It’s at this point I must tell you that I have the Romanian of a five-year-old. A clever five-year-old, it is true, but no more. I was born in Romania and learned to read and write in a basic way, but we emigrated before I could attend school. Nor have I read much in Romanian over the years. Poetry and fiction are written using a vocabulary that’s difficult for me, too different from the daily conversational Romanian I’m used to. My Romanian is a heritage language, blended with English syntax and sprinkled with grammatical mistakes.

It had never occurred to me even to try writing in Romanian. But back in 2019, I received an email from Luiza Vasiliu, an editor at Scena9, a cultural journal based in Bucharest. She was interested in collaborating, and I quickly agreed to have my essay about moving across borders with things, “The Things We Take, the Things We Leave Behind,” (originally published in the Southwest Review) translated into Romanian. (“Did you rip off Ferrante?” asks the chorus churlishly. Probably, but not on purpose.)

Luiza also suggested what I never would have dared: that I write a piece on my relationship to my first country and language.

In the halcyon days before a worldwide pandemic, back when I only thought I was tired, I had the bandwidth for this sort of thing. So, while on vacation, I decided to give it a go. Before I sat English exams in high school I always primed myself by reading P. G. Wodehouse, and so it seemed like a good idea to try the technique this time too. I picked an easy enough Romanian book from my shelf, Mircea Cărtărescu’s De ce iubim femeile (Why We Love Women), a collection of short stories about a topic you might guess. By the time I finished it, I was thinking in Romanian again. So I started writing.

Composing in Romanian for, well, pretty much the first time in my life was surprisingly liberating. I write about this in the essay, the way I was almost magically free of writer’s block. It was like the linguistic version of the Comic Sans trick. It was so clear that what I was writing was at a child’s level, that I was lucky to have any words show up at all, that I took anything I was given. No worrying about precision, about melody, about length of sentence or variation. If a word came into my head, I used it three times, because by God, that was the word I had.

A few times I only had the vocabulary to say something that wasn’t quite right, not exactly what I meant, but I just put that down anyway. By the time I was finished writing, I believed my own little lie. This is a convenient way to write. (“You should try it more often.” Yes, I should, but I think that’s called fiction.)

Editing was easy, because I couldn’t edit myself at all. I sent the draft off to Luiza, and when she sent her notes back, I simply accepted them. No sitting there wondering if I really liked the editor’s suggestion or if I could think of something better. I was more dependent on my editor than I ever have been, and that reduced the tension too. There was a sense in which I couldn’t hold myself fully responsible for the quality of the work.

There were also some things that were easier to write in Romanian simply because they had taken place in Romanian. I realised as I wrote that I am so often translating my experience into English, especially when writing memoir, and that the result is something that sounds strangely bloodless compared to the scene I remember. It’s like watching a silent film without a soundtrack.

The essay was published in print only in Romania, so I couldn’t really tell what responses were to it, if there were any. Since I loved the topic, I decided to translate the piece into English in the summer of 2020. Because I was incapable of polishing the original version myself, I decided to keep the English a little rough too. In some ways it was rougher, since I deleted some details that didn’t make sense in translation, and had to find awkward English equivalents for language that sounded so natural — finally — in Romanian.

Now that the English has been read by so many people, and had a warmer reception than I’d expected (it was featured by Longreads and Memoir Monday), I’m at peace with its odd flavour. It seems oddly authentic to me that it exists imperfectly in two languages now, just as I do. (“You should translate it into German.” No really, that’s enough from you.)

Friends, thank you for reading this far if you did. Send me a note with what’s on your mind.


PS. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the essay I published with Avidly on how Kris Jenner is like Eleanor of Aquitaine, or about the new episode in my London Review of Books podcast with Mary Wellesley, on Julian of Norwich. Mary’s book on the secret lives of medieval manuscripts is out right now, and having gotten to know her brilliance and humour I feel comfortable saying you should probably read it.

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