What follows is chapter 3 of the book Why history matters

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What follows is chapter 3 of the book Why history matters, by Gerda Lerner (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997). Gerda Lerner, born in Austria, is professor of history at Madison-Wisconsin. The chapter is scanned from the book, so probably there are some typos.

Living in Translation

Dedicated to my sister Nora

When I came to the United States in 1939 as a refugee from

Hitler fascism, I had, like all refugees, a very problematic

relationship with the English language. On the one hand,

I wanted desperately to learn English and to speak it well. This was my

meal ticket, absolutely essential if I was to get work. On the other hand

I felt a responsibility to uphold, treasure and keep intact the integrity

of the German language which fascism had stolen from me, as it had

stolen all my worldly possessions. The Nazis spoke a language of their

own-first a jargon of slogans and buzz words; later the language of

force and tyranny. Words no longer meant what they said; they meant

what the Nazis intended them to mean, and so, gradually, they became

empty of meaning. Like banners flapping forever in the wind, they

flapped around the skeleton of German speech until all that could be

heard was the clattering words pretending to meaning they could not

encompass. Seen in that light, it was the obligation of every antifascist

German-speaking refugee to uphold the old language, so that some day

it might be restored.

I had, in the last two years before my emigration, studied English

with a private tutor. The results were pathetic. The book from which I

studied must have been more than fifty years old. It operated on the

assumption that the manners, habits and customs of English gentlemen

constituted a universal norm. One learned some vocabulary and, most

importantly, a dozen or so phrases which presumably equipped one to

enter into polite British society.

"Will you come and have tea at my home?"

"I shall be delighted."

"May I introduce you to my good friend Roger Forsythe?"

To which the proper reply was: "Delighted to make your acquain-

tance, sir."

If one were seated in front of someone, it was essential to lean back

toward the person behind one and say politely: "Please excuse my

back." Or, as the occasion warranted, one might make use of the phrase

"Please excuse my glove." Unclear was whether what one was apolo-

gizing for was having or not having a glove.

The phrase book, carefully memorized, would equip the German-

speaker to navigate through the quaint old-fashioned British village,

purchase a few choice items at the greengrocer's (the book was heavy

on the use of the Saxon genitive), exchange a few polite phrases at the

fishmonger's and return to one's hostelry where the crucial question:

"Where's the Ladies?" was never to be asked. One was simply to observe

where the Ladies was. With the important distinction between "will"

and "shall" obsessively fixed in one's mind one was supposed to be

able to announce: "I shall be taking the 8:20 train to London" and

instruct the ubiquitous servants to "fetch my trunk from my room."

All of which was worse than useless in giving instructions to a New

York City cabbie or in understanding his growling response to any

question. Fishmongers and greengrocers refused to make an appear-

ance, and servants, such as could be identified, had no intention of

fetching anything without a tip which exceeded the immigrant's means

and comprehension. One gestured one's way through the first weeks

and learned that a firm "no" and "buzz off" were more valuable than

any of the learned phrases.

"Please, I desire a job," was a declaration which was certain to land

the applicant in a plastic chair in the employment agency, to wait all

morning to be called while watching other applicants get their referral


"Excuse please, lady, your newspaper announcement said there was

)ob as lady's aide* and I wait all morning why never you call me?"

"There's nothing for you today. Come back tomorrow."

"Please I desire—"

"You got no references. You can't speak English. You got no expe-

rience. This ain't the welfare."

Learning English, the kind spoken in New York City with its multiple

accents, innumerable slang words, abbreviations, elisions, swallowed

syllables and exploding expletives, was a bare bones necessity.

I listened to the radio for hours a day, especially to the advertise-

ments, which usually had longer sentences than the rest of the show.

One could go to the movies for twenty-five cents, and I spent many

evenings studying language at the movies. I listened with intense atten-

tion to people's speech and I read my way through the Children's Books

section of the Public Library, gradually advancing to Young Adoles-


English was a simple language, compared with German, French and

Latin. The verbs had simple endings, if any, one did not add adjectives

and adjectival constructs to nouns in long chains ("The no longer quite

youthful, but otherwise still good-looking, pipe smoking general etc.").

The beginner learned to rely on the auxiliary verbs—to be, to have, to

do. I kept book on the hundreds of meanings of the verb "to do" and

learned at least fifty ways of using "to get" Since the finer shadings of

syntax and vocabulary eluded me, I thought of the language as blunt

and utilitarian, and devoid of subtlety.

Living in translation and lacking both an adequate vocabulary and

sense of the rhythm of the language it was as though my adult knowl-

edge bad to be transposed into the vocabulary of a six-year-old. It does

not take long to learn to get by in English; to master the language takes


I began to write poetry in English before I could properly speak or

write. Since I wrote free verse in ordinary speech, patterning my style

after Bertolt Brecht, and getting effects by sharply contrasting images

and striking sound patterns, I could achieve some sort of effect with

the most primitive means. Writing poetry was then my way of ventur-

ing out into a higher level of language connection, but I deliberately

stayed primitive, fearing to make a fool of myself if I tried to be poetic.

For nearly two years, I managed on that level of crude communi-

cation, while my thoughts and dreams went on unperturbed in

German. I forced myself to read only in English. Whether I read news-

papers, magazines or books, I always had a dictionary nearby. I would

look up each word I did not know; for a while I kept a small notebook

with words and definitions. I was quite aware of the fact I was living a

split life, thinking in one language and speaking in another. I could not

find adequate words for the thoughts I wanted to express. I said things,

and people rephrased them, translating for themselves. More and more,

as I began to move among English-speakers, I lived with an over-

whelming sense of inadequacy and frustration.

What made matters worse was that I had aspired to become a linguist

in German. I studied Old German and Middle High German in Gym-

nasium and had done a year's work on my honors thesis, which was a

dose textual analysis of a dozen German ballads. I was fascinated with

languages and had hoped to go to the University to study comparative

languages. For at least four years prior to my graduation I had been an

acolyte of the writer Karl Kraus, whose every work I had read and re-

read and whom I considered my foremost teacher.

Karl Kraus was an essayist, satirist, playwright and, in the opinion

of many literary critics, the finest poet writing in German in the 20th

century. His monumental drama "for a Martian theatre," The Lost Days

of Mankind, written after World War I, was perhaps the outstanding

pacifist work created out of that terrible European cataclysm. As editor

of the satirical journal Die Packet (The Torch), Kraus held up a mirror

to his contemporaries, exposing their follies, cruelties and self-serving

hypocrisy in savage, brilliant essays and aphorisms. He regarded himself

as the last of the German "Classics" and as the upholder of a humanistic

tradition of form, style and language in a world deaf to its own speech

and forgetful of its history. Kraus was fanatic about the German lan-

guage, which he mastered in all its complexities of dialects and into-

nations. He wrote long essays about two lines of poetry and devoted

one celebrated issue of his journal to a 200-page essay on the subject

of "The Comma." To read Kraus, study his essays and attend his re-

markable "Readings"—performances at which he not only read his

own works but put on complete dramas such as KingLear, reading all

the parts in the play—these were formative experiences for a young

person interested in language. Kraus presented a constant challenge—

being one of his disciples one learned to watch one's speech and one's

writing. Meaning was to be found, as Kraus put it, "by tapping along

the guiding rope of language." Young writers coming under Kraus's

spell either gave up altogether or attempted to write in his voice, until

at last they found their own.

Kraus, a Jew born in Czechoslovakia, then part of the Austro-

Hungarian empire, was antisemitic, arrogant, elitist and in the last five

years of his life, politically reactionary. Earlier, he was a savage critic of

bourgeois life, of greed, corruption and exploitation. He had excoriated

the military, complacent politicians and shoddy literati and espoused

the causes of down-trodden workers, exploited peasants and victimized

prostitutes. At the time I came under his influence, he had made his

peace with the semi-fascist totalitarianism of Chancellor Dollfuss's gov-

ernment which he defended out of disgust with the failings of weak

liberalism and corrupt democracy. I was totally opposed to Dollfuss

and his government and my politics were more radically left than

Kraus's had ever been, yet I managed to disregard his turn to conser-

vatism, even his betrayal of his own beliefs, because of his impact on

my artistic and linguistic sensibilities. I attended each of his Readings

and his many lectures, read his work and every work he recommended,

honed my own writings on his demanding essays on language and

worshipped at his feet In 19361 attended his funeral and cried bitterly,

as though he had been a personal friend. In all my life, no single writer

has ever influenced me as profoundly as did Karl Kraus.

One of his incredible accomplishments was to "translate" Shake-

speare without knowing English. He had read the several current

German Shakespeare translations, the chief one by Tieck, representing

a German Romanticist rewrite of Shakespeare, and found them want-

ing. Having read all the French translations and putting these beside

the German versions and then, word for word, comparing them with

the English version, he had sensed what was missing: the Angio-Saxon

structure and bluntness of Shakespeare's speech and his poetry, which

could not be rendered adequately in the words and rhythms of German

Romantic poetry. Kraus undertook his own "translation"—one might

better call it an intuitive adaptation in German and it was these versions

he used in his Shakespeare readings. I think I have never read Shake-

speare in better German than in these free adaptations. Kraus got

Shakespeare right. Thinking about his accomplishment and the way he

went about it gave me new insights into the art of translation. A trans-

lator might get the literal meaning, and yet miss the other layers of

meanings, all the resonances conveyed to hearer and reader in the orig-

inal. She might miss the richness of ambiguity, the force that stretches

a word's meaning beyond its formal definition, the pulse and vibrations

of tone that resonate over and above mere content. It seemed to me

then and it does now, after I have worked for years on translations and

lived for decades in translation, that the overtones and resonances are

more significant than the literal meaning, lf a choice has to be made,

I would chose texture over mere information.

To come from the speech of Karl Kraus to the imbecile stammerings

of an immigrant American was a fall, indeed, symbolic of all the rest

of it—the loss of economic security, of status, of potential, of oppor-

tunity. All refugees experienced that fall, and many, perhaps most,

never got over it. They lived their lives in the new land either as tem-

porary exiles or constantly in denial. The world they had lost became

more attractive, more worthy, the longer they were away from it. In

New York City's Washington Heights they created a small Mittel-

Europa of familiar shops, coffeehouses and organizations. Their cynical

stance toward the USA gave them a sense of continuity; they were and

would remain Europeans transplanted against their will into an alien


When I made the decision, in my second year here, to become an

American writer, I made the decision to abandon such attitudes, to

become, in fact, a voluntary emigrant from Europe. I embraced Amer-

ica with gratitude and fascination, as I embraced its primary language.

If that meant suppressing and denying some of my European habits in

thought and attitude, so be it. I was young enough to start anew. There

are many gains in such an enterprise, not the least of it, citizenship and

familiarity in a formerly alien culture. But there is a cost to it, greater

than I ever wanted to admit to myself. I am trying to reckon up that

cost, at last, after fifty years and more.


In an irony of fate, the very first paid "job" I had in the United States

was as a translator of a rather esoteric sort. I had nearly gone under in

the first eight months as an immigrant, unable to find work, due mostly

to the fact that employers of casual labor and domestic work found me

"overqualified," and I was too afraid of getting in trouble with the

Immigration Service to seek even private assistance. Then, an ortho-

pedist I had met through one of my refugee friends required the services

of someone able to translate from Latin to English. I volunteered and,

for five dollars an hour, translated a medical treatise on the hip joint

from Latin into English. I earned enough to support myself for two

weeks and to regain some sense of self-respect. My fancy classical ed-

ucation, might, after all, equip me for self-support. In fact, it did not,

not for another twenty years, when it was finally useful in allowing me

to continue my academic education.

If you are forced to give up your mother tongue, what is lost? In a

way, losing one's mother tongue is inconceivable—one assumes one

can always return to it. But that is not so. Language is not a dead body

of knowledge; language changes year by year, minute by minute; it lives

and grows. In order to remain adequate it must be spoken and it must

be read. When you lose your language, you lose the sound, the rhythm,

the forms of your unconscious. Deep memories, resonances, sounds of

childhood come through the mother tongue—when these are missing

the brain cuts off connections. Language communicates much more

than literal meaning. It gives us timbre, tone, a rich undercurrent of

resonances and shadings, multiple and ambiguous crosscurrents. But

in the early years of speaking the learned language one knows nothing

of those complexities; the new language stays linear and flat. Inflection

adds layers of meaning to what is spoken, but the immigrant has no

ear for inflections. Translating meaning from another circle of culture,

she constantly makes mistakes and is given to misperceptions.

German, like most European languages which developed through

centuries of feudalism, has a rich variety of dialects and intonations,

which mark not only region but also class. British English of the upper

classes and the Cockney speech of the lower classes retain that function,

but English in America reflects region more than class. Still, there are

class markers in speech, but they are immensely complicated by the

effect of immigration—the millions of Americans who speak English

as a second language have created a number of creolized varieties of

speech. In all this the newcomer finds it hard to become oriented.

I was always aware of the awkwardness of my position as an immi-

grant. Normally, I'm quick to a fault—1 catch the meaning of what a

person says often before the speaker finishes, which leads me to inter-

rupt the speaker with my answer. A very unattractive trait, one that

over the years I have tried to unlearn, but it is indicative of the way my

mind works. Living in translation I usually could not catch the exact

meaning without doing the translation. Therefore, from being fast to

a fault, I now appeared slow, if not slow-witted. Lacking the informa-

tion usually transmitted by dialect or speech patterns and body signals,

I had to guess at the whole meaning or rather I had to be satisfied with

an approximate meaning. For a person like me, who is committed to

precise definition and precise expression, this was a form of torture.

Living in translation is like skating on wobbly skates over thin ice.

There is no sure footing; there are no clear-cut markers; no obvious

signposts. It helps to trust in one's balance, to swing free and make

leaps of the imagination. I suppose what I am saying is that it is im-

mensely strenuous. Quite apart from being alienating.

Two years after I came to the United States, the country was at war.

Speaking German in public exposed the speaker to hostile looks and

remarks. I'm a nonconformist by inclination, so public disapproval

would not have been enough to discourage me from speaking German.

The truth was, I no longer wanted to speak German; I was repelled by

the sound of it; for me as for other Americans it had become the lan-

guage of the enemy. These expressions of mindless patriotism are not

sentiments of which, in the abstract, I can approve. In practice, how-

ever, they were Just what I felt. I ceased speaking German altogether.

By then, I was married to an American-born man and all my friends

were American-born. Still retaining enough of my European heritage

to think that every child should learn one or more foreign languages,

I wanted my children to be raised in such a way that they would easily

learn foreign languages. Yet I did not speak German to them, because

of the attitude I held at the time. I did sing them German lullabies,

because they were the only lullabies I knew. Later, I taught them the

rudiments of French.

It took several years before I began to think in English. It was exciting

when it actually happened and it made a qualitiative difference in the

way I lived. I began to be able to express myself with the speed and

precision characteristic of me and most of the time I could find the

word I needed without resorting to a dictionary. There came a night

when I dreamt in English and after that, I thought I had made it.

But it is one thing to speak and think and even dream in a second

language; it is quite another to be able to write in it as a creative writer.

My decision to become "an American writer" had been made long

before my language proficiency entitled me to such a claim. Neverthe-

less, I wrote short stories and articles, although I felt quite inadequate

to the task. I had great difficulty getting dialogue right; my characters

all talked the same way, since I was incapable of creating individual

speech patterns. Awareness of my shortcomings was of little help. I felt

like a tone-deaf person trying to compose a symphony. Carrying a

notebook with me everywhere, I jotted down the speech fragments I

heard. I read books on the craft of writing and on "style." Nothing

seemed to help. One of my favorite exercises was to compose a para-

graph in the style of a famous writer. That was useful, but I still had

no style of my own. That should not have surprised me—1 already

knew then that form is the shape of content. But it is not some ideal

abstract "shape"—it is content as shaped by the creating artist, content

filtered through the prism of the artist's entire life experience. And I

was then a broken prism—a refugee without language, between cul-

tures, belonging to neither the old nor the new.

I took another translation job which I found quite satisfying. I trans-

lated the jacket copy and the texts of a collection of German folksongs

. appearing on a two-disk LP. The folksongs were all well known to me;

to give a poetic and not just a literal translation was a challenge, which

in the end I felt I met. I contemplated a career as a translator) but I

quickly gave it up. What I wanted to be was a writer.

At one point during this initial apprenticeship I decided to stay with

my Austrian culture, to write only of what I knew. My first two short

stories written in English were descriptions of my experience in Nazi

Germany. In one of the stories, I did the interior monologues of five

Nazi soldiers, caught in a tense battle situation on the Russian front.

In both stories I avoided having to do English dialogue. Both were

published immediately: the first one in a small, cultural journal, the

second one in the best fiction magazine then in existence, Story mag-

azine. This quick and unexpected "success" spurred my literary am-

bition but did nothing to improve my language skills. Daringly, I wrote

three short stories with American locale and characters—none of which

aroused the slightest interest in publishers. Once again, I returned to

my earlier decision to write about what I knew best and I began to

work on a semi-autobiographical novel It described the four years

1934-38 in which Austria made the transition from a democracy to an

authoritarian clerical government and finally to Nazi fascism, as ex-

perienced by a teenage girl.

In a sense, this novel was my apprentice work as a writer of English.

It took nearly twelve years to complete it, because I did seven re-writes.

Over and over again, I transformed the text from a translation to an

original work in English. Even so, the final version still has traces of

German syntax and style. Writing is learned by doing; there is no es-

caping that. My Sisyphian labor at last produced a book with which I

was satisfied, but by then the topic of antifascism, which had been of

such paramount interest in the early forties, had become a drug on the

market. I have readers' reports from the various publishing houses that

could break your heart. My work was compared to that of Thomas

Mann and Thomas Wolfe and the readers expressed high hopes for my

literary career, but they did not want to publish this book. In yet an-

other ironic development of my career my novel No Farewell, in which

I had invested all my best effort to mastering the English language, was

first printed in Austria in a German translation in 1954. It was very

successful there and this success inspired me to take part in a cooper-

ative publishing venture in the late 1950s, which finally resulted in

American publication of the book.


Recently, in trying to think about some of the long-range effects of my

refugee status I became aware of something as a problem which I

thought was not really a problem for me. J have a German name which

is unpronounceable by English speakers and thus is inevitably mispro-

nounced, I accepted that mispronunciation as the proper form of ad-

dress for me, came to use it myself and have done so for fifty years. I

became aware of the disjunction only when I spent some time in

German-speaking countries and heard my name pronounced correctly.

Each time that happened) it gave me pleasure. That made me realize

that it pained me that my own children, my husband, my best friends

could never really pronounce my name. I had buried that pain and

refused to acknowledge it. It was, so I thought, a trivial matter. I no

longer think so, and an examination of my relationship with my only

sister confirmed my new insight

My sister Nora and I were separated through emigration when she

was twelve years old and I was eighteen. While I emigrated to the

United States, she spent the war years in a school in Switzerland and

then settled in England. She eventually became a British subject, but

never really felt at home in England. Early in the 1960s she emigrated

to Israel, where she still lives.

We were separated by continents, by warfare and finally by poverty.

In 1948, when I for the first time after my emigration returned to

Europe, we met briefly in England. By then she was twenty-three years

old, independent, self-supporting. I was twenty-eight, married and had

a baby and a toddler in tow. Our meeting was difficult, first because of

I the presence of two overtired and cranky children. We also had trouble

I communicating with each other—she spoke English with a pronounced

I British accent; I spoke American English; both of us no longer spoke

German. I remember coming away from that meeting with a sense that

she had become a stranger to me, in more ways than one, and that she

had become "stuck up," different. What I probably reacted to was not

a change in her attitude, but the persona she presented to me, that of

a young proper English lady. From later conversations I know she had

similar feelings toward me.

We met again in 1957, when she came to visit us in New York. We

both wanted very much to have "a good visit," to recapture our old

intimacy. By then both of our parents were dead, we were the only

close family for one another and we sincerely wanted to find a common

ground for friendship. We loved each other and showed it in many

ways, but our daily interaction was stiff, formal and full of mutual

irritation. We simply seemed to get on each other's nerves—and os-

tensibly there was no good reason for it From my point of view, I

found her mannerisms, her mode of behavior, difficult and in some

profound way incomprehensible. The fact that my beloved little sister

bad turned into a cultural stranger never ceased to outrage me, but I

could not learn how to deal with it

It was on her second visit to New York, eight years later, that an

incident occurred which suddenly illuminated our difficulties. We were

in my apartment, washing the dishes after dinner. My husband and the

children were not with us at the time, and so perhaps we had a moment

of quiet. One of us, I don't know which one, began to hum an Austrian

folksong, and then to sing it, in German. The other chimed in, and we

found ourselves singing in two voices, the way we had often sung in

OUT childhood. One song followed another—from somewhere long-

forgotten by both of us, the childhood songs welled up and broke to

the surface. We were not doing it consciously; we were not even aware

of what was happening) but when we finished we were smiling and

bugged each other with the spontaneity that had been missing all those

years. I felt as though suddenly all the barriers between us had broken

down; we were children together, as we bad always been, and what

separated us—the shifts in cultures, the different lifestyles, the separate

hard struggles for survival and reconstitution—all of that fell off our

shoulders as the common language at last united us.

Nevertheless, during our infrequent visits—about once every two or

three years—and in our correspondence we mostly stayed with English.

I think this was largely due to my often expressed insistence that I no

longer thought in German and therefore could not express anything

significant in that language. I lacked the facility, I said. I would often

start a letter to Nora in German and give it up after a few lines, switch-

ing to English. Nora spoke German continuously with her close friends

in Israel, even as she tried to make the language switch to Hebrew,

which she found very difficult. So English seemed a mutually satisfac-

tory compromise. I marvel at the fact that even after the incident with

the songs, we did not seem to understand the significance of the lan-

guage barrier between us. it took another incident to make it crystal


This occurred in 1973, in Sicily. My husband had died a few months

earlier, and I wanted and needed to be with my sister. We had a won-

derful week together in Sicily, and most of the time that week we spoke

in German. We celebrated our feeling of closeness by a fine dinner in

a fancy restaurant. My sister has never learned to be a social drinker,

and at the most will take a glass of wine. That night I insisted on her

drinking along with me and between us we emptied a bottle of fine

wine. I was pleasantly warm and lively, but she was definitely tipsy.

Two middle-aged women in a foreign city, we left the restaurant noisily

chattering and decided to rest by sitting down at the curb of the street.

We were giggling and laughing and suddenly my sister started telling

Jokes—ancient Jokes which we used to tell each other as children. They

concerned a male figure famous as the butt of Viennese humor, a cer-

tain mythical Count Bobby. Count Bobby was stupid, arrogant, self-

satisfied and endlessly duped by others. He spoke Viennese dialect in

the nasal twang characteristic of the nobility and that was the way my

sister told the joke. I immediately topped it with another Count Bobby

Joke, also in dialect and we both fell into a fit of uncontrolled laughter.

The jokes were not that funny and we were not that drunk, but, once

again, language unlocked the gates and memory took over. In the Vi-

enna of our childhood, we had learned at least three different ways of

speaking German—High German, which was school German, the lan-

guage one spoke to strangers and to parents; the kitchen dialect one

spoke to cooks, servants and lower class people; and Count Bobby's

Viennese dialect, which was both accurate and a mockery of the real

dialect spoken by upper-class people trying to be "just folks." It 'is just

these kinds of distinction which are lost in translation. Nora and I

finally made it home and into our separate rooms, joking in dialect and

getting more infantile with each step, but when we said goodnight to

each other there was a deep transtonnation oi reeling etween us. Noth-

ing needed to be said', we both knew we had found each other, after all

those years. What had done it was' the mother tongue, the language

going even deeper than formal speech, the actual spoken dialect of


In the years since then our relationship has improved and deepened.

Now we speak German almost all the time; in fact, for nearly a decade,

my correspondence with Nora and our biennial meetings were the only

times in which I did speak German. It would be nice to be able to

report that all estrangement and all difficulties between us have ceased

with the change in language, but life is never that simple. Our rela-

tionship has remained complex, but deeply meaningful to each of us.

We have learned the cost to our intimacy created by cultural separation

and by language differences. Our lives have been deeply marked by our

fate as refugees and by the happenstance of landing on different shores,

on different continents. Each of us paid a heavy price for assimilation

into a foreign culture and part of that price was that we, loving sisters,

were for decades strangers to each other.

Gradually, assimilation was completed; the past drifted out of sight.

There came a time when I felt secure in my command of English, in

speech and writing. I did the acrostics in the New York Times success-

fully and usually won at games of anagrams with native English speak-

errs. I proudly developed tricky skills, like being able to read a poem or

passage in German, while reading it aloud in English. With a little more

effort I might have become a simultaneous translator at the United

Nations. But my denial of German had by then gone too far. I never

read any German books or newspapers and I lost touch with decades

of development in the German-speaking realms. As for my reading in

English, I had broadened out to a good knowledge of basic English

fiction, poetry since Shakespeare, and modem American literature. I

had, by then been an "American writer" for fifteen years, but after that

short spurt of early success with the short stories, I had published noth-

ing, Two finished novels and eight or more short stories lay dead in

my files, and for the first time in my life I seriously considered giving

up writing. Acting in a numb sort of desperation, I decided to take

some college level courses and see what would happen.

Looking back on it, there is more than accident in the choice of the

first course I was taking at the New School for Social Research. That

institution, turned into a university-in-exile by refugee scholars in the

late 1930s, is well known for the broad range of scholarship in its fac-

ulty. I selected a course in English grammar, taught by a Yugoslavian

emigrant with an unpronounceable name. My husband thought I had

temporarily lost my mind. As far as he could see I knew more about

English grammar than anybody else he knew and why I wanted to take

a course in it was beyond his understanding. He kept suggesting other

nice courses I could take, but I was unresponsive. "I need to be abso-

lutely certain I know the grammar," I explained lamely. "There are still

a few things I'm unsure about and I'm tired of it,"

There were seven students in the course, only two of them native-

born Americans. The others were one Hispanic and three Chinese. The

Americans were the poorest students, while one of the Chinese and I

excelled. I enjoyed the course and it gave me a sense of competence

and self-confidence which I had lost in my unsuccessful efforts as a

writer. In some incomprehensible way it marked the close of one period

of my life. The next course I took was in 17th-century British poetry,

and after that I decided to resume my academic training and work

toward a B.A. This led, by almost imperceptible small steps, to the

decision to become a historian and therefore to graduate study. It took

me four years of part-time study to earn the B.A. and three years of

full-time study to earn the Ph.D. As I now see it, my mastery of the

English language had to be followed by mastery of American history

before I could truly cease being an immigrant. As a shining reward for

all this strenuous effort my writing career began to flourish as soon as

I was an academic. It was then by way of American History that I

became a successful "American writer."

The story should close with this happy ending, but it does not.

In 1984 I was invited to participate in an international congress of

women historians held in Vienna, my hometown. I accepted with many

mental reservations and much anxiety. One aspect of it concerned lan-

guage. I had been asked to offer two papers, but I felt so incompetent

in German that I hired a student in the German department of my

university to translate my speeches into German. These translations I

read from the podium, feeling somewhat like an impostor. My con-

versational German seemed equally inadequate, since I lacked most of

the vocabulary of my recently developed field, Women's History.

In 1986 my book The Creation of Patriarchy was published in Ger-

many in translation. My contract with the publishers specified that I

had the right to make editorial suggestions in regard to the translation.

My editor and the translator were most generous in interpreting this

right, and so it came about that I carefully edited the German version,

first in manuscript and then again in galleys. The process was very

difficult for me and renewed all my insecurities about my knowledge

of German. I felt totally incompetent in the academic languages of the

various fields on which the book is based—paleontology, anthropology,

Ancient Near Eastern studies. Similarly, most of the words for concepts

in feminist discourse of the past twenty years were unknown to me. So

I sat, once more, surrounded by dictionaries, learning my own mother

tongue all over again.

Yet there was something else happening. My "feel" for the language

was quite intact and manifested itself in an uncanny sense of style. I

always knew when something was wrong in a sentence, but, often) I

did not know enough German to fix it I worked closely with my patient

and skillful translator, and I learned a lot in the process.

The publisher invited me for a two-week-long promotion tour in

Germany after the book came out This time, emboldened by the trans-

lation work, I decided to attempt to speak about my book in German.

I did so with trepidation, and prepared for it as though I were lecturing

in a foreign language. Every speech was written out in advance and I

mentally prepared answers to the questions I expected would be asked.

I always prefaced each public appearance with a statement, which

served both as an explanation of my refugee status and as a hedge

against linguistic failure. "You may wonder at my peculiar accent, and

often at my choice of words. Although I am a native German speaker,

I have not really spoken German in fifty years, and I have never before

lectured in German." The audience response was good, even though

there were moments when I had to use an English word and ask the

audience to help me with the translation. After one tenure a woman

came up to me and complimented me on my German. I thought she

was merely being polite and demurred, but she insisted. "Of course

you speak a competent German, but what I admire is that you speak

the purest German I have ever heard." "Pine?" "Yes," she said, "un-

corrupted by Nazi language and by all the abominations of modern

usage." Rip Van Winkle, being complimented on his "pure" speech.

How odd.. .

After that lecture tour my interest in German was revived. For the

book on which I was then working, The Creation of Feminist Conscious-

ness, I made use of many German sources, a few of them in medieval

German. As I worked over these sources my old proficiency returned.

After all, what I lacked was only the vocabulary of the past fifty years.

By the time my work on the translation of the second book started, I

felt quite adequate to the task. Now I had many more suggestions for

my translator and most of them concerned style. The content was right,

but the style was not mine, but hers. We worked on that and corrected

it. When my work on the translation of the second book was finished

I felt I was truly bilingual.

My new confidence found expression during my second book tour

in Germany. While I again carefully prepared my lectures in writing, I

soon felt free enough to answer all questions without preparation. In

a three-week intense teaching situation in a German university, I taught

with only an outline of notes in German, and finally, looking at some

of my American teaching notes in English, I lectured in German from



The Nazis robbed me of my mother tongue, but the rest of the sepa-

ration, of the violent severing of culture, was my own choice. My writ-

ing, my intense drive to become an "American writer" had pushed me

into leaving the language of my childhood behind, never counting the

cost. Through my writing, I had found the way back, but now the cost

seems enormous. The return of the mother tongue has brought some

healing of the other losses, but memory is different now. Before, what

was lost, sank into a deep hole of oblivion—one covered it up and built

anew forgetting the cost. Now memory includes what was lost and what

it cost and what might have been had I been able to be a writer in my

own language. Healing the split between feeling and thought, between

the conscious learned faculties and the rich vibrations of the uncon-

scious, I might have "tapped my way along the guiding rope of lan-

guage" and found a richer, more poetic form for what I had to say. In

translation, one becomes a trickster, too clever by far and too concerned

with mastery. I envy those who live in the power of their own language,

who were not deprived of the immediacy by which creativity finds its


There are works that cannot be translated. There are wounds that

can never heal.

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