There in my local public library, where I've been hanging out a lot in a determined attempt to stop buying so many books, was a book that I think I’ll now have to buy my own copy of, so I can double-underline whole paragraphs and scrawl copiously in the margins: Is That A Fish In Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure ofTranslation by David Bellos. It's not at all the one of many gimmicky, over-praised non-fiction books - there are so many! - that I'd half-presumed it might be, but a fine work whose comprehensive survey of translation in history, in practice, in literature is almost overwhelming. My main criticism, perhaps, is that this takes on too much for one book, leaving insufficient space around so many stimulating facts and ideas.
The chapter entitled Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours? seized my heart and suddenly got me feeling as well as thinking:
We all start with a mother and it seems obvious that we first learn language in her arms. The language that your mother speaks to you is therefore what you are 'born into', which is all that can be meant when instead of 'mother tongue' we call it a 'native language'.
It is an axiom of language study that to be a native speaker is to have complete possession of a language; reciprocally, complete possession of a language is usually glossed as precisely that knowledge of a language that a native speaker has. In spite of the obvious fact that speakers of the same language use it in infinitely varied ways and have often quite different vocabularies and language habits at the levels of register, style, diction and so forth, we proceed on the assumption that only native speakers of (let us say) English know English completely and that only native speakers of English are in a position to judge whether any other speaker is using the language 'natively'.This was a polite kick in the stomach. I have many questions about the purpose and status of the work I'm doing, both translating into English and copy-editing the English of writers not defined, or not self-defined, as native speakers. It's axiomatic in the community within which I trained that only translation into the translator's mother tongue is satisfactory, that only language written by a native speaker is good enough for publication, for decision-making, that anything else will undermine standards and foster the growth of a nasty, lowest-common-denominator, global sub-language understood in more and more places, but communicating less and less. And I do passionately believe this, but not without a number of caveats. With more and more blended, multi-national, emigrant, immigrant and diasporic families, what is a mother tongue? More and more individuals, surely, have more than one? At what point does the whole concept become meaningless? But what better standard is there? And who is to judge?
These are uncomfortable questions, but the deeper and more shocking pang hit me with the very words 'mother tongue'. Coming upon a commonplace term in a context that's making you think particularly hard can bring its full meaning into sudden relief, and that's what happened here. The most uncomfortable question of all: what does 'mother tongue' mean to a translator long estranged, like me, from her mother and her family of birth? The concept that I take every working day as a given is almost unbearably loaded with pain and ambivalence. How on earth have I managed to ignore this?