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I like to think I’m quite good at English. At least, I should be – I’ve practiced enough. While other little children were outside, hanging upside down from trees and hitting each other with sticks, I was in my room, reading a lot of books and then writing long and tangled fantasy epics on my mother’s old typewriter. When other teenagers were (presumably) re-enacting Skins, I was in my room, reading a lot of books and then writing shorter but no less tangled fantasy epics in artfully embossed notebooks, and these days I’m an English Literature MA student, which means that I spend all day in the British Library, reading a lot of books, and then come home to write crime novels on my laptop. This is a very roundabout way of saying that I’ve spent my life in the company of the English language. Ever since I can remember I’ve needed to express myself by putting words down on a page, and being able to do it cleanly and articulately is a huge part of the person I am.
I think this has a lot to do with why I’ve always had trouble learning other languages. I’m generally all right when it comes to reading them – mostly because I can connect their words to the English words I already know – but when it comes to speaking, or, worse, writing, I’m always left feeling both incredibly stupid and deeply lost. I’m unable to express the things I want to because I simply don’t know the vocabulary I need. I don’t want to say that I saw a man walking down the street, I want to say that I saw an extremely old man wearing a Jesus t-shirt and denim hot pants stumbling down the road and screaming abuse at passers-by through his luxuriant Gandalf beard, and the result is that I give up long before I might ever reasonably hope to find out the French for luxuriant.
It’s not that I spend my life lurking in some sort of Anglocentric ivory tower. One of the most important things that fiction does is to show a reader that the world is very wide, and very full of people who lead different lives than they do, and some of my favourite books weren’t originally written in English. But no matter how good a translation is, there are nuances that no translator can convey, and I’m incredibly sad that there are so many novels that I love that (realistically speaking) I’m never going to be able to read in their original languages.
I reserve my highest respect for writers who not only choose to write in languages that are not their first but manage who do it in a way that’s far more polished and expressive than I could ever manage to. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, grew up in Russia, lived in Germany(that’s two languages already) and then moved to America, where he wrote Lolita. In English.
If you ever want to be profoundly depressed about your life achievements, read some Nabokov. The man knew more words in English alone than five average people put together. There’s a scene in Lolita thatI think completely sums up what Nabokov could do. In it, Humbert buys Lolita a suitcase full of beautiful clothes as a bribe. He opens the case, Lolita is entranced with what she sees and she moves forward to take possession of her present with ‘the lentor of one walking under water’. The first time I read that I thought he must be using Latin. After all, I had been speaking and reading the English language all my life and I had no idea what that word meant. (My Word spellchecker, now that I’ve written it out, doesn’t even recognise it as English.) But I looked it up, and no, lentor really is an English word. It means slowness, with a sense of stickiness or viscidity, and when you think about it, lentor is the perfect and only word for what Nabokov wants to express here.
Lentor is a weird and magical word, and it’s being used to describe a moment so magical that the air itself seems to have changed state. Lolita’s absolutely enchanted, and the readers know, too, that in this scene Humbert has finally managed to catch her in his sticky spider’s web (and if you see a nasty pun in the idea of stickiness I suspect that Nabokov meant it). Lentor even sounds slow and gooey. Say it out loud and you’ll see what I mean. That phrase perfectly sums up why I love English so much – and it was written by a man for whom English was a third language.
I suspect, though, that having two or more languages inside your headmust have downsides to it as well as benefits. I moved to England from the United States twenty years ago, when I was three, and I still sometimes listen to my British friends speak and realise that I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Switching my brain from American to British English often feels like a process of translation, and sometimes (when I’m tired, or upset) I lose the British word altogether and have to flounder about like an idiot until I remember it again. Language is so much bound up with cultural identity that being part of more than one language, and more than one culture, can sometimes feel like being part of none. But all the same, the idea of being able to express yourself fluently in entirely different ways still seems wonderful to me, especially if that fluency has been built up from those first language lessons that always frustrated me.
So, polyglots and especially polyglot writers, I salute you. You fill me with envy and admiration, and I suspect that you’re all better people than I’ll ever be.