Linguistic Cross-Dressing by Marcus Speh

Linguistic Cross-Dressing by Marcus Speh

Linguistic Cross-Dressing, a deep reflection about the Babel Tower and the problems of understanding in a globalized world by the author Marcus Speh.

Linguistic Cross-Dressing by Marcus Speh

Linguistic Cross-Dressing by Marcus Speh

«If I cannot love the typical modern German, I can at least pity and understand him. His worst fault is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.»

—George Bernhard Shaw, in: The Perfect Wagnerite (1883)

For more than 10 years I have been regularly tormenting myself with the question whether I am better off writing in my mother tongue, German, than in English, which is a language I acquired in passing as it were but which is not mine by birthright.

I suppose this torment might appear to others as a privilege, and complaining about the choice will seem a luxury to them. But the world created by one’s intellect to understand and perhaps to describe the world not created by one’s intellect is made valuable mainly by privileged choices. Choices which are rooted in complex concepts like morality and loyalty, which must be opened up by reflection rather than closed by action. Therefore I cannot feel too sorry for myself for having the problem though I do feel and have felt very sorry for not finding a solution.

So much so that lately I was fed up and I decided that perhaps the problem itself was the solution I needed. That oscillating between both languages, using them as it were to cast a different image of the same idea, struggling with them in very different ways, was the very core of my being a writer.

No process encapsulates this solution as well as the process of translation. Which is why I have hitherto enjoyed translating my original English texts into German and vice versa, sometimes going back and forth between the two until, in many cases, I am no longer sure which version really was the original. I think this is quite telling for the degree to which the languages must have merged in my mind, or if you prefer the negative, for the degree to which I have freed myself, at least on the plane on practical writing, from either idiom. It is also disturbing at times. It’s not really supposed to be that way. Language corresponds to mother and father, it incorporates and transports feelings of loyalty. One can only gain one language at the price of losing another — neither gain nor loss are complete, of course.

The fate of true bi-linguality (which is my daughter’s fate, not mine, I’m merely a linguistic cross-dresser) is severe, the burden imposed on the individual is solemn. It places the self between two cultures, removing it from either one without freeing it entirely. The new path, the new place is not exactly overpopulated. In literature, the number of near-bilingual writers of note is small. In the 20th century the likes of Nabokov, Brodsky, Conrad and Beckett belong to this nation. There must be others due to the history of colonialism—India especially comes to mind, but I’m not well-versed enough to drop names. South America has produced a peculiar type of expatriate writer who sees his cultural capital abroad—like Cortazar, for whom it was Paris, not Buenos Aires.

In the course of two world wars and a great number of smaller wars, thousands of writers have been displaced only to lose their language, sometimes irretrievably. In Germany, the loss of the rich literate culture of the 1920s is especially felt as a ludicrous loss of core energy. Nowadays, the speed with which language culture becomes increasingly global leads to more displacement and more confusion. One of the side effects of globalization is the growth of the new nation populated by language-crossers.

But I have strayed from my original subject and I wish to get back to it: the meaning, for me, of having two fully developed, operational languages in my head; and I have strayed from my goal: to relate my recent experience of having been translated by a native speaker (who also happens to be my wife). This is what happened: I wrote the story (or rather, I dictated it, which is how I write these days) and put it through two drafts before presenting it to the translator. The first translation led to a substantially altered third draft, because my wife didn’t just transpose my words from German to English, but she edited me at the same time (I wish I could say that she had done that subtly, but as an editor she is an old hand and knows that the author only succumbs to pressure and direct attack). From that moment on, the story really existed in two different versions: the German and the English version. Clearly, the German version could make the prior claim of existence, but the story as it stood, wouldn’t have existed without it’s translated version.

If both stories have been given voices, the English story would’ve kept an ironic, well bred distance from this whole unpleasant question of originality. While the German story, feeling slighted by the need to be translated in the first place (rather than tickled by the opportunity for greater exposure and additional audiences), would very likely have sulked.

The process I’ve sketched for you is only too similar to the process that I have held in my head between my German speaking and my English-speaking self. Having a translator means that I could see it much more clearly from the outside. The product, the finished story has, I believe, greatly benefited from the interplay between writer and translator. I’m aware that this kind of co-creation and editing of the first story version in the light of the second must be rather rare, but perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to be.

Last night I returned to the German version of the story after sending the English version off to the magazine. The English story was sort of out of the way now and I could have a quiet word with the German. It was a good word: it resulted in a few more changes and made the German story better than it had been. Some of these changes were shadows of the translation, but a number of them were completely new (without, I hasten to add, turning it into a different story). One lesson may be: if you set out to refine a German, make sure there’s no stranger in the room. Even a close relative may get in the way.

Linguistic Cross-Dressing. More about Marcus Speh

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  • Ayax

    People who speak 6 or 7 languages say their thoughts are based on images. Maybe better than on words.

  • Thank you Ayax, that’s a great observation. I speak a few other languages (badly) and so I cannot say, but I should like to ask someone who is truly fluent in several! For me, this is less an issue of images vs words. I think it is perhaps rather like learning an entirely new language…if someone is more inclined to navigate the use of this language by image or by word, by sailing boat or by steam boat as it were, may depend on the person, on his brain etc.

  • (Here Martin) Great article, Marcus. I understand you perfectly.

    • I wish I understood myself as well as the writer of this article seems to indicate. A conundrum of (online) writing—as soon as it appears on the screen, the dispossession of one’s work begins. Anyway, all issues that took half a lifetime to build may as well take another half of a lifetime to solve!

  • I’m quite excited about Google Glass[es] this morning…and I wonder what this will do to writing, especially also to translations “on the go” and to interpreting…

    • Came back to this article myself on a short trip down memory lane…interesting that Google Glass has bitten the dust in the meantime while machine translation is on the rise – in fact I have never ever used so much automatic translation as now. The Babel fish, Douglas Adams’ forecast of a kind of implanted translator (carried around in your ear if I remember correctly) may become reality soon. With regard to my own writing practice (which brutally follows the law of diminishing returns, yielding less and less words and more and more aggravation…), not much has changed: I’m still crossing the linguistic domains, I’m still torn and I’m still reading and listening to so much more English literature that my knowledge and grasp of German seems to dwindle…unless this is the general experience of dwindling that comes with age. Cheers, everyone.

  • I wish I could read German, but your command of the nuances and the variant versions of English is remarkable for a non-native speaker. I cannot wait for the launch of your book and all the surprises and twists that you pull off so well in English.

    • @Lucien Thank you for your comment—my inference is that the linguistic area covered by a language-crosser is much greater than for a native speaker while the intimacy with the acquired language is (of course, much) diminished. But this need not affect the quality of the writing as long as there is a back and forth movement. Just a thought! — And I am also looking forward to the book launch!

  • Gabriel

    In Poland I had to give a short speech. When I finished the translator, a medical Doctor by profession and poet, told me that he wished I had warned him that I was going to recite a poem. It was not, I thought, a poem, a short speech, yes.

    The Poles liked it so they had it translated and published in their journal. I was sent a copy of the journal and my business partner’s mother, Polish by decent but certainly Americanized, and not an educated woman but a really fine cook, thought that I should know what I had said, not knowing that it had all started in English spoken. So she translated the speech into English. It was a much different story that she made of it, but it was a story that I liked.

    I also had an opportunity to watch television in Warsaw one night when there was a nature program with a Polish dub overlay, and the English in the background. My host was a sea captain and he translated the Polish into sea captain’s English for me. Just how a sea captain explains a duck bill platypus waddling around in the mud of a stream was curious.

    • Wonderful examples, one would like to hear the Polish version of these incidents…This story, or stories, explain some things about poles that I hadn’t put together before, perhaps about Eastern Europeans as a whole: their enthusiasm for the spoken word and their recklessness can result in wonderful work. There’s a place for chaos in creativity and in the West I feel we often deny chaos its proper place. Stanislav Lem, long one of my favorite authors, and a favorite and friend of my father,who himself was no stranger to the abyss, albeit a little heady even more my taste, is an example for the word work that is both highfalutin’, highly artistic and holistic in its approach to both thought and language (think Italo Calvino enlarged). I digress, but you inspire, that’s my excuse…

      • …chaos of course is at home in all human endeavours, but my unscientific, unvalidated (other than by intuition and literature and personal friendships) view is that the people in Eastern Europe have retained their skill of handling it and coming out on top altogether. An ability that in Germany we lost somewhere along the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ post-1960. I may be wrong. But culture and language clash always results in chaos, too.

  • Gabriel

    My only language that I work in is English but I can reflect on chaos in story in a few directions.

    My last trip to Poland, I go there for sort of business reasons, being surrounded by a language spoken that I do not understand the rhythm of the sounds had an impression on the rhythms of my own English and when I returned to home in the USA my speech patterns confused those with whom I spoke in English. I enjoy this unexpected pattern as I enjoy the phrase that stops a person to have to think what has just been expressed. If I do not have to think about what I say but it comes out confusing all by itself then it makes it all easier for me to be happy. [I should note that I have been to Augsberg but was surrounded by English speech.]

    I have thought for many years about translation, and the bi-lingual, in part that I have wondered if I was at a loss as a writer for not being able to indulge in either. What I have concluded is that it is our own psyche that conditions our relationship to language and that one can dig very deeply into the dynamic and mechanism of one language and come out just as bewildered and confused with the chaos of it as at root all language of any sort takes us either to the heights or to the abyss. In other words our lives encompass all the creative territory that we may ever need.

    I wrote one time a story that I set in Berlin and I handed it to my Austrian friend, bi-lingual, and he read it and told me it read like a story made by someone who had never been to Berlin. This was true.

    He then, without my knowing until some time later, and back home in Austria, set about to write an 80,000 word novel in German with the idea that the literary world of German language was a smaller pond than for English and he may get further with it.

    I thought it odd he did not give his characters names, he used letters of the alphabet with the idea that he could easily insert names later. I enjoy the names of characters and shape their stories around them.

    He did attract an agent, but his project went nowhere. He then went out and studied electrical engineering and now is involved in installation of solar power systems.

    I have not answered your reflection on Eastern European command of chaos, but I think in part it has to do with the subversion of language as a socio-economic political statement. One does not survive in life if one does not survive in language.

    Lately I have been reading a biography of Bulgakov, a Russian in English, that includes his letters (translated) and it interests me the relationship between reality and the mental pressures of poverty and suppression that seem to exhibit themselves in the wonderfully fantastic.

  • Gabriel, You make a very interesting point about being happy when somewhat innocent and not participating in the patterns and rhythms of language around you; this is something that I experienced too during my travels but especially when I lived in countries whose language I did not understand; unfortunately my ego always wants to make me improve myself and learn and while I get cleverer and more informed all the time it could well be that my happiness suffers defeat. I am hopeful that is as I approach old age my memory and my intellectual abilities will deteriorate to the extent as to make childlike happiness possible yet again. Also, with the Internet we have to learn less and less and can more and more rely on external memory and finding tools. I’m looking forward to the time when Google Glasses will take care of my translation needs…

    I think you’re right that “our lives encompass all the creative territory that we may ever need”- well put, I must remember that especially next time I feel as if I’m missing out on something. Excellent existential point. The format of your paragraphs are reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Story fragments supporting a deep design. The habit of using letters instead of names could be a Kafka thing…Austrian writers are very eccentric. Handke, Bernhard, Musil…and Kafka was a creature of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

    “One does not survive in life if one does not survive in language”- yes! You understood me perfectly. The Eastern European literature all the way from Dostoevsky is shot through with fantastic survivalist experimentation. Here and there a traditionalist (Turgenev, Gorki) who is better understood by the West…if you don’t know them yet, check out the Brothers Strugatzky, favorite writers of mine, Anti-Soviet Sci-Fi, literature of the highest calibre…


Marcus Speh is a German writer who lives in Berlin. His short fiction collection "Thank You For Your Sperm" is forthcoming from MadHat Press. Marcus' short fiction has been published in elimae, Mad Hatter’s Review, kill author, PANK and elsewhere. First published in 2009 at Metazen, his work has been nominated for a Micro Award, two Pushcart Prizes, two Best of the Net awards and two Million Writers Awards, and was longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize. His German stories are sometimes translated by his wife, Carlye Birkenkrahe.

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