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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Language and Terror. Seven Remarks on the Languages of Europe

Hans Maarten van den Brink
Traduction de Paul Vincent

Texte intégral

Mijn Europa is een Europa van vertalers. Mijn Europa is
een huis waarin niemand helemaal thuis is en waarin
iedereen spreekt in een taal die hij niet helemaal beheerst.


1I do not love my language, Dutch. Not unreservedly. It is a capricious instrument. Sometimes I think I know precisely what I want to say, and the revelation of the meaning if life, or at least a magnificent novel, seems within my grasp. But when I try to put what I mean into words, I fumble. And it’s gone. Language refuses to do what I ask of it, the tone is wrong, the cohesion is missing, not one word means exactly what I expected. At such moments I some­times dream of having another language at my disposal, a real one. French, for instance, or German. If need be, Serbian or Danish. After all universal communication is effortlessly achieved in them.

2Could I still cast Dutch aside and start afresh with better tools, as Conrad and Nabokov once did? But that’s the point: in a way I cannot rationalize, at least not in my own language; I am convinced that this would not be a solution to my problem. And the writers I mentioned were probably not in the least dissatisfied with Polish or Russian, but were simply determined not to be held back by the chance circumstance of being born in Krakow or Saint Petersburg. They just happened to be extremely talented.

3However, the fact that they were able to leave their own language area and achieve mastery of English does say something about the nature of language. You are not imprisoned by language, although it may occasionally seem so. Unfortunately, however, neither is language ever a safe haven. You may learn several languages, but in no language will you coincide completely with yourself. Language confronts you with the harsh truth that you are not someone who is all of a piece. If you were, you would probably no longer need a language. So distrust those who glorify their mother tongue unambiguously. They understand nothing about language and very little about themselves.


4Because language is not a home, it has nothing to do with territory. In the house in which I grew up, German and Dutch were spoken; these days Italian is often added, as well as the occasional bit of French. Just as in Europe at large we speak English at the table because everyone can more or less make himself understood in it. If we sometimes fail to understand each other it is not due to our insufficient command of English or the barriers between the various languages. If only that were so, because then arguments could simply be settled with the aid of a language course. It is not a specific language, but language itself, in all its inadequacy and imperfection, that trips us up.

5Only my aged mother, now a grandmother, is still occasionally inclined to mutter to herself that you can really only express what you feel in your own language. Evidently she still has German feelings, though she has been away from Germany for most of her life. “That’s really sad!” I say. “So you never really understood your father?” Her father came from Poland, but never taught her Polish.

6“But of course I understood him,” she says. “He was my father, wasn’t he!”

7“And what about your children,” I continue to probe, “who prefer English to the language they grew up with?” My two brothers left their country almost twenty years ago and no longer ever speak, write, or think Dutch.

8“I can understand my children perfectly well!” she says indignantly. “My own flesh and blood!” Then she switches on the television to watch the news. She is anxious to know what is going on in her country. It is German television. Her home has been in Holland since time immemorial.


9Anyone who has taken holiday in the more picturesque areas of Europe, and sometimes the less picturesque ones too, will have passed the occasional place-name sign that has been rendered illegible and on which a corrected version of the original designation has been written. At such a moment one is confronted with the struggle for emancipation of a language used by a minority in the country, or even region, concerned. It is often a minor language that is involved, like Basque or Welsh, or a language that is so vaguely defined that it is scarcely acknowledged as such, like Groningen or the Aragonese dialect. It strikes one at first sight that minor languages do not go in for small print. They write not with the pen, but with the paintbrush or the spray can. Subtlety does not seem to be a characteristic of minor languages.

10For a long time I regarded it as an innocent joke, this crossing out and whitewashing over of place names. A more or less folkloristic activity, evincing love for one’s own culture, on the one hand, and a playful streak on the other. The few times that we lost our way were just part of the experience. Since I have become familiar with the reality of language struggle, I feel differently about it. Making a name illegible is an act of aggression that is no laughing matter. It is an act befitting a minor civil war, which almost always follows the same pattern.

11It does not begin when a totalitarian power suppresses the language of a minority and imposes a uniform, state language. Only when such a power starts to become tolerant, when the oppression is no longer as intense, and the first democratic reforms have made their appearance, do the heroes of the language struggle awake. First, the formerly oppressed population demands the right to speak its own language in public, to print its own books and news-papers. Then there follows the request for equality in public life. At school, in court, and in the town council a second means of expression is permitted alongside the national language. Once that stage has been reached, place-name signs in two languages appear at the boundaries of villages and towns, regions or provinces, and we find that the same location must have two names: San Sebastián and Donostia, Kishinov and Chisinau. Not because the locals had been losing their way — that is only starting to happen now — but to anchor the newly acquired rights in geography.

12I have misgivings about speaking several languages at one table. It is not good for the cohesion of the gathering and not good for conversation. The activists for the rights of minority languages know that too — and that is why the emancipation process never ends in multilingualism, in the equal status of different forms of expression in the same society. Once the second language is consolidated, lawyers and teachers start maintaining that they simply cannot understand the first language, and in any case have the right not to listen to it. The youngest activists again set out at night armed with brushes and spray cans, this time to cross out the Spanish, German, English, or Russian on the bilingual signs and signposts. The terrorists do not do this in the name of standardization — that is a loaded argument. This is when the historical card is usually played. The major language is the language of oppression — nothing can change that. For that matter the minor language has more “historical rights,” and these must be restored. In this way of thinking about history the last fifty, hundred, or even thousand years are, for the sake of convenience, declared invalid. But neither is there room for the notion that language acquisition begins only after the birth of each individual, and hence from a historical point-zero. Nor for the idea that mastering a second, third, or fourth language represents the opening of multiple avenues of self-realization. Everything is sacrificed to the imagined rights of the historical language.

13But was what was described above as “language struggle” really about language? Are there not always quite different reasons, social and economic ones for example, for taking up the struggle? Is not language simply being used to make one’s neighbor, fellow townsman, or fellow villager an alien whom must be driven out? Languages have nothing to do with land and nothing to do with flesh and blood. Nor do they have a historical right to exist forever. Whoever thinks that is thinking unhistorically.


14In December 2002 many European papers carried a report about an area of Ireland, to the west of Galway, where nationalist politicians wanted to restrict the sale of land for house construction to those with a command of the original language of the country, Gaelic. The politicians supporting this measure fear that Gaelic, in which only about ten percent of Irish people are fluent, will otherwise die out. But why would that be so awful? More awful than last year’s snow that has melted away?

15For years the Irish government has been allocating large sums of money to keep the ailing tongue alive. Radio and television programs in Gaelic are subsidized, as are books and magazines. Government departments relocate to areas where this language is spoken a little more commonly than elsewhere. At school Gaelic les-sons are compulsory. In this, Ireland is doing the same thing as many other democratic countries confronted with minority languages have done. In my country, the Netherlands, it is Frisian that continues to exist thanks only to subsidies. You can study the subject, voluntarily, as part of your graduation exams at high school, though there is virtually no interest among Frisians. You can demand that all government documents be translated into Frisian, if necessary for your sole use. And there are not only writers, but also translators, whose task it is to perpetuate the illusion of a Frisian literature by, for example, rendering Also sprach Zarathustra into Frisian at government expense. There is not a single reader who has a practical need for this because his command of Dutch or German is insufficient. It is pure gesture politics. But it will never really work, because there are no other interests bound to it.

16Those Irish nationalists got it right after all: only force and violence are really effective in reviving a moribund language. Or the creation of a common enemy, which is present not only in the realm of language. In Spain the nationalist governments of Catalonia and the Basque Country oppose Madrid partly for economic reasons. In this, the language issue serves as a weapon, a way of establishing more distance. In these areas one sometimes encounters an antipathy, apparently genuine, to Spanish, a language whose popularity is growing continually in the rest of the world. Nor is there anywhere in continental Europe a popular movement against English — only a few intellectuals worry about its advance. Only when too many English people buy a second home in Italy or France do the locals in some areas suddenly develop a passionate love for their own language. With the accompanying racism.


17The extinction of a language is no different from that of the European hamster or the dodo. There is something tragic in both cases; however the aforementioned creatures are irreplaceable, while a language is by definition replaced. By another language. Is that a bad thing?

18There is another difference that is related to the first. A language is only really dead when it no longer dies a little every day. Most of us feel alienated when we read or hear our own language as it was fifty, or even twenty, years ago. The amount of change in a human lifetime and the number of words and turns-of-phrase that have died out! Just as well, since it is proof that the language is still alive. It is a commonly held view among translators that a classic work should really be retranslated every fifty years, so the (unchanged) source-text remains accessible in the (changing) language of the translator. I have sometimes wondered why the same should not apply to the work in its original language. But chronological adjustment, what one could call vertical translation, is, in fact, wholly accepted only in the case of stage adaptations or children’s versions. Goethe is seldom translated into German.

19Honesty compels me to state that it is not usually the writers and poets who provide the necessary changes. They are nostalgic by temperament, tragic figures that have made a profession of the battle against the advance of time. No, the dirty work of language renewal is done in the street, by ordinary people who have other things to think about than pinning down meanings. People who unwittingly abuse their words and interpret wrongly, who swap and borrow, import and export. In this way, without realizing it, they are constantly breathing new life into the language. And try as literature may: if the street is no longer interested, its language is doomed. Language then becomes a cherished object of study, something for collectors and scholars. A museum piece. I often prefer being in a museum to being in the street. But that sums up the condition of the writer.


20It is important that the division of roles between street and script retain a certain sense of tension. It is good for writers and poets to continue opposing dynamism with their precision and criticism, for them to continue rowing upstream, to continue correcting and amending, to continue their pathetic resistance to every form of inevitability. Suspicion is called for when the interests of poets, politics, and public turn out to coincide. It is sustainable in exceptional situations, but it can never last for long. From the period of the German occupation of the Netherlands comes the line “my word, a weapon to resist,” which later became the title of a collection of resistance poetry. This line suggests a sense of helplessness: the people, here given a voice by the poet, have only language with which to stand up to the occupier. That sounds wonderful and, in this case, may have been true, but as a general statement it is horrific nonsense. Poets who place themselves at the head of a popular movement are not at all innocent; to the contrary, they are deadly dangerous. Their words are not innocent. They can do more damage than bullets or bombs. Though censorship is always wrong, there are poets whose weapon permits I would gladly confiscate.


21My Europe is a Europe of translators. I am not shutting my eyes to what has been called the problem of untranslatability. But the problem is just as much a matter of time and class as of borders and languages. It is an interesting and fundamental, but literary, problem. From a social point of view it is irrelevant. About the politician who maintains that his words can, in fact, only be understood in his own language — and hence by his own people — I can be even more succinct: he is a scoundrel.

22My Europe is a house where no one is completely at home and where everyone speaks a language he hasn’t quite mastered. It is a salon where people converse in French, a trading floor where English sentences ring out, a coffee house where lines of German poetry are — always incorrectly — quoted, and a museum where sick and dead languages are lovingly nursed and studied, but without their being imposed on anyone. It is a hotel that earns the Dutch a pretty penny. It sees itself in perspective, but not for want of care or love. It does not retreat, it expands. Consequently my Europe is not confined to the physical borders of the present Union, or even to those of our continent. We also find it in South American ports, in the African bush, in housing tenements in Japan or China. In fact, we find it everywhere that people regard it as a mark of civilization not write and speak their own language under all circumstances.


Further Reading:
On the Water. Translated by Paul Vincent. Faber and
Faber, 2001.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 183k


The Netherlands
Born in Oegstgeest in 1956, the writer and journalist Hans Maarten van den Brink studied Dutch at the University of Leiden. He worked as editor, editor in chief, and correspondent in Washington and Madrid for the leading newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, before becoming editor in chief at the Dutch television station VPRO. He is vice­president of the Dutch Literature Foundation, editor of De Gids, the oldest literary magazine in the Netherlands, and writes a weekly cultural column for the magazine Vrij Nederland. His first novel De Vooruitgang was published in 1995. He has also published works on the culture of the Netherlands Antilles, on the United States, and on the Spanish tradition of bullfighting. In 1998 he achieved international renown with his novella On the Water. In 1999 he published the novel Hart van glas. Hans Maarten van den Brink lives in Amsterdam.

Paul Vincent (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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