Love at first sound

John le Carré on the German language, translating and interpreting, and possessing another tongue

It was Charlemagne, quoted here by le Carré, who once said, “To possess another language is to possess another soul.” In his speech on the occasion of the Oxford German Olympiad Awards in 2013, the great writer talks about the “otherness” experience of knowing a different language than one’s native language. He describes his relationship with the German language, which started under unusual circumstances – the Second World War was in its fifth year and it was almost imperative to hate, not to embrace, anything German. For le Carré, to do something that was not shared by the absolute majority of people at that time was part of the fun, but it was not the actual reason why he became attached to the German language and would stick with it for the rest of his life. It began, as it probably happens to many people, with his teacher.

Who or what was it for you? Listening to this spirited speech might make you think of your own story with the “other language,” your first encounter, how it happened that you started loving that language enough to overcome all the difficulties and hurdles to eventually master it. At least this is what happened to me.

In East Germany, where I grew up, English was an optional subject, and we started with it only in 7th grade. That was progress compared to the schooldays of my parents, in post-war East Germany, when studying English was effectively forbidden. My father caught up with the banned subject later, and there were some English language books on our shelves. It just nudged me. I liked the pictures on their covers, the smell of them – somewhat foreign and adventurous. There were poems which I did not understand, but I liked their sound when my father read them to me. Shortly thereafter, we had visitors from Poland, and my older brothers tried some Russian with their teenage boys, but they insisted on speaking English. Thus, over the course of a summer I learned to say that dinner is ready, that the cat is to be left alone, and that grandpa’s air gun was not meant to be shot at people (in much simpler words, admittedly). The third, and ultimate, reason why English would eventually become my “other soul,” was my dear Aunt K., who started learning English at the age of sixty-five. The Queen’s English, mind you. Aunt K. would show up every other week or so at our house, always impeccably dressed, wearing gloves even in summer. She encountered us, raucous children who had gone through a period of anti-authoritarian upbringing with its own consequences, with constant politeness and grace. Her little apartment in town was as stylish as her clothes, a true achievement in the East Germany of those days. Possibly, Aunt K. was a lost British soul in a German body. I had none of that style and that grace, and I loved everything about her. When she started coming to us with new English words every time, I would coax them all out of her.

My fascination with the English language never abated. It would not have been complete, though, without actually living in an English-speaking country which became my “other” home.

John le Carré himself made Switzerland his second home because at some point in his life he could not stand his English environment anymore. It had to do with a rather unhappy childhood (“one was enough,” as he phrased it), and Switzerland and the German language became his haven of escape. Le Carré discovered German literature as an inexhaustible source of inspiration. And as gifted newcomers sometimes do, he developed an awareness of the other language in a depth that few native speakers ever experience. The kind of awareness of someone who has immersed himself in another language with dedication and enthusiasm, which can be related to the beauty of sound and rhythm, or to the many, many linguistic details that make up the uniqueness of a language.

Not a trained translator or interpreter, le Carré also offers some insights into our profession. How it is, as a matter of fact, impossible to actually translate from one language to the other, because “there is no bridge between languages, just a peaceful coexistence.” Even in the technical texts that make up the bulk of my income, I find this often enough simply to be true!

“To possess another language is to possess another soul,” said Charlemagne. To know another language means to enter another world, to broaden boundaries of what had been standard and familiar, to enter “a different skin,” as le Carré puts it. One that cannot ever be taken away, that will make it impossible to see the other as “another” at all, because what was other has become one’s own.

It was, by the way, the same Charlemagne, who is supposed to have claimed that he spoke to God in Spanish, to his lover in Italian, to his friends in French, and to his horses in German. I don’t know if he loved his horses more or less than his God, lover, or friends (I speak English with my husband and German with our pets, and this is in no way a degradation of my native tongue). But I do assume, from all that I have seen, that at the heart of any serious conquest of another language there must be something we may call love.