Tuesday 26 June 2012

Bring across

As a leaving present back in March I received a generous token for a bookshop chain with which I bought the kind of things I can't often afford: a newly published hardback, a couple of expensively imported Spanish paperbacks and an unabridged French CD audio-book of Ni d'Eve ni d'Adam (translated as Tokyo Fiancee), a short novel by Amélie Nothomb, read by the French actor and director Sylvie Testud, who played the Nothomb character in the film of Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) - the two books evoke the same period of Amélie Nothomb's life as a very young Belgian woman working in Tokyo.

Shock! Concentrate as I might, I had a hard time following these quick, clipped tones, listened to the whole 3.5 hours and wasn't doing much better. It's ages since I spent much time in a French-speaking country and the 'ear' for a less than open rhythm and intonation that you haven't heard recently can slip away: I know this happens, though I don't know why, and I know it does come back. So I tried again, put the CD on quite late last night, listened attentively for an hour or so and fell asleep with it playing, put it back on when I woke up and... womp! there the words were, back in focus, dropping crystal clear from every sentence.

Magic. Here, I think, we're at the heart of language, which goes deeper than words - what I most love and least understand. What my brain just did is remember how to translate this clipped Parisian French into meaning - translation, the 'bringing across' of meaning, as it takes place between two languages, but also in the processing of a single language. And not just verbal language: are these the mysterious bits of my particular brain that work pretty well for words, but not, alas, at all well for figures, or algebra, or html...?

And does a similar dynamic extend to visual language? Is this why I always feel these photos - my favourite photos I've ever taken, ever! - have something to do with translation: the visual image dissolving in the pavement and re-forming in reflections, brought across, different, but with some of the same meaning?

Amélie Nothomb's novel, now I can 'hear' it more clearly, with its tale of a Belgian-Japanese romance, is much about the things that can and can't be translated between languages and cultures - a tense mixture of fascination and despair.

Submitted for Edition 16 of the >Language >Place Blog Carnival, with the special theme of Translation.


Rachel Fox said...

Love the photos you linked to (and I don't use 'love' lightly!). there's something very parallel universe about them... and different languages do make parallel worlds, don't they? Well, at least partly parallel anyway.

Have you tried big prints of the photos? If so how did they come out?

Natalie said...

Fabulous photo and mind-stirring observations on language recall. Much to ponder.

litlove said...

Gorgeous photos, Jean, amazing. And you make me want to rush and pick up an Amelie Nothomb. I bought part of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu on audio CD and just cannot keep awake during it. The lull of melodical French is too soporific. But when I dream in French (very rare), it always seems to me that my French is much better than in reality. It could just be the effect of the dream, but I rather hope it is so.

marja-leena said...

I remember those amazing and stunning photos, Jean! And this post about language makes me think of my own Finnish which I so very rarely get to speak anymore. If I do get a call suddenly from someone speaking in Finnish, I find my tongue truly tied, as if I cannot twist my tongue around the words. It seems to take a while and then it gets easier. A physical phenomenon - I wonder if you have that happen to you? It isn't just the mental challenge of remembering the right words.

Beth said...

Yes, I remember those beautiful, dissolving photos so well,Jean! And this is a wonderful post, full of the kind of insights and writing that drew me to your blog in the very beginning. I've never even heard of Amelie Nothomb and now want to rush out and buy some of her work...thank you.

Jean said...

I'm so glad these words and pictures resonated with some of my favourite thinkers!

Rachel, yes, parallel worlds! I'd like to print those photos one day in a little book, and perhaps the thoughts blogged here are the start of some text to go with them.

Marja-Leena, I do get tongue-tied too, oh yes, when I haven't spoken a langugage for ages - embarrassing! But a failure of understanding disturbs me more deeply, I think. Perhaps we're more accustomed to the idea that any active skill will lapse when not practised.

Natalie, 'mind-stirring' - what a lovely thing to say, thank you!

Litlove and Beth, I've yet to read any Amelie Nothomb, but definitely want to now. In this short novel, at least, her style is very simple, but precise and energetic and builds deceptively into something more powerful than you realise. She's young, eccentric and rather frighteningly prolific.

Sandra Davies said...

Much to ponder, as Natalie says, and litlove's comment about dreaming in French strikes a chord because with only a barely-scraped 'O' level (some 50+ years ago) I can still occasionally dream in a French I don't even remember having learnt.
And your photo is entrancing.

Anonymous said...

really like the way the photo speaks to your words (and vice versa). the bringing across- so much poetry in that!