Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Lives in Translation

Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity

Edited by Isabelle de Courtivron

Palgrave ($22.95)

by Karl Krause

True to its title, most of the essays collected in Isabelle de Courtivron's Lives in Translation focus on lives: first person narratives, struggles, and ponderings about life as an other. Love affairs with languages and their emotional histories abound as these writers contemplate writing in a second tongue. José F. A. Olivier shares a poetic history of his German and Spanish roots, with curiously Spanish syntax inflecting the English vocabulary. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes a charming, graceful account of her search for an identity and a "mother tongue"--which, she suggests, is truly defined only by the blatherings of unconscious or perilous circumstances.

As true lovers are wont to do, many of the essayists in Lives tend toward dramatic exaggerations. Nancy Huston begins "The Mask and the Pen" by saying "A person who decides, voluntarily... to leave her native land and adopt a hitherto unfamiliar language and culture must face the fact that for the rest of her life she will be involved in theatre, imitation, make-believe." Making the point that language cannot be unlearned, Huston later adds that "babies never pronounce their first goo-goos, Ma-mas, and Ba-bas with an accent; they immediately get the sounds right." This is technically untrue; babies' first noises have proven to be as linguistically diverse as the entire spectrum of human language.

I argue with Huston here because in foregrounding the bilingual exploration of identity and creativity, so many of the essays aim to make complicated, irreconcilable differences responsible for a history of personal dilemmas or mysteries. To structure a topic as universal as language wholly within one's own experience--that is mysterious. Lives in Translation does provide a few expansive instances with authors who depart from their own lives as "others" to explore arguments, implications, and new literatures resulting from human expression. Ariel Dorfman's observations on immigration and technology lead him to a collection of terrific, tragic questions, such as "Do you dwell in a language that is wonderful only for making love or teaching your children the difference between right and wrong or serves to pray to God?" Ilan Stavans's magnifies these questions with a grand review of mixed literatures ranging from Cypress Hill's Temples of Boom to Yiddish's infusion into English. In these essays, language shows its plasticity--the natural tendencies stemming from baby babble--with a selfless interest for the plural worlds of bilinguals.

There are some delicate personal histories in Lives--many of which will direct readers to some amiable writers. So inspired, even I have found myself in the first person here, a rare and comfortable condition. While de Courtivron's collection makes only a short attempt to examine bilingualism in its widest human context, the book is rich with introspective first persons; if you are looking to hear their personal accounts, you will find warm words in de Courtivron's enthusiastically diverse collection.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents