“But do we need to know a second language to translate?”
There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is a translation, because ink and paper, or pixellated light and darkness, are “read” through a body, an individual apparatus impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience has affected its neural maps and capacities. This body may not even know its own filters and how they act when it “reads”. Because of this, we can study literature, which is the act of sharing readings and benefitting from other filters: in reading groups, in university classrooms and cafeterias and libraries, and on-line with brilliant teachers, in cafés, in living rooms, on ferries, at bus stops.
One question I am sometimes asked is: given this, is it possible to translate without having a second language? It’s a sly question, for people know very well that Elisa Sampedrín, my nemesis-polynym who has no interior, has done this.
Elisa is a reader so avid she does not shy from what she does not know and cannot read but tries mightily to pass it through her body and end up in words she can share with those around her. She already has at least two languages, Galician and English. She has a biography, thanks to Chus Pato, so she has an exterior. But the rest of us? If we do not speak a second language, is what we do when we look at the non-English language poetry of another always appropriation, or is it reading?
Much of this is undecidable; cases differ. We must respect the work of the other. We must give our own linguistic borders a porosity that lets the works of others in other cultures into our own. Beyond these insistences, decisions must be made. By human bodies struggling with their filters.
I will say this. We always already speak a second language: we call it our mother tongue. Our first language is silence, the silence before speaking (Agamben, Kristeva), and some of us can remember that language. All of us, however, retain this language in our body, in our ability to feel fear, uncertainty, passion, or any kind of sensory arousal upon presentation of something or someone in our visual or tactile field. All those things that are displayed in Sampedrín’s Galician in the subjunctive tense, a tense that has almost drained out of English, leaving us to express doubt as certainty in our shared idiom.
And we retain it in our ability to engage with flowers and trees and smells and the taste of coffee on the tongue, or papaya when we wake up in Rio de Janeiro, or our lover’s shoulder. Delight is perhaps the name of this silent idiom.
It is impossible to be a translator without a second language, but we all already have at least two languages. We need to learn to access our language of birth all over, for our mother tongue can shut it down. That silence that operates as listening. Knowing a third and fourth language helps us know how to access the first one. Which is, in another sense, never a first one. There is always language that precedes us.