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Tongues native and adopted

Posted by David Mehegan  August 23, 2007 11:28 AM

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One more section from my interview with Charles Simic, the new poet laureate, which didn't make it into my Aug. 18 profile: Though he had studied English a little, and liked it immediately, before he came to this country in 1954, age 16, his grasp of it was minimal. But he absorbed the language quickly and soon began writing poems in it.

Since all of his literary writing was in English, I asked him if Serbian, his native tongue, was operating under the surface as he wrote. He answered, and returned to the subject later, speaking of translation:

"In the early years, as I wrote down an English word, such as 'ashtray,' I would hear in my head also the Serbian word for it, so there was a kind of simultaneous translation in my head, two languages. At some point, it stopped, I would say less than 10 years, and the reason is that I was reading so much poetry in English. I wanted to educate myself, so I read all the American poets and all the English poets. I really didn't know much about contemporary Serbian poetry." (Later, he investigated that poetry, and translated much of it into English. When an anthology of American poets was published in Serbia, he was to be included.)

"I was asked to pick out five or so [of my own] poems to be translated into Serbian, and someone said, 'Why don't you translate some poems yourself?' So I said,'That's a great idea.' I took a poem and found that I could not translate it. I knew every word, but I had already lost, because I was a kid when I left, a sense of connotation, of resonance. When you are writing a poem, you choose words to make a poem echo in a certain way. I had just lost that, so whatever I put down didn't seem right. So I went to a Serbian friend, and had him try it, and he used different words. It was very strange."

When asked why he took so readily to English, he said:

"One of the great delights of American English, both poetry and prose, is that we mix levels of diction, from pretty formal to colloquial to slang, back and forth. Writing in French needs to maintain a certain literary level. A surrealist [poet] might say outrageous things, but in school French -- he does everything without lowering the language to the level of the concierge. Serbs do that, too. But look at [Ezra] Pound, great Anglo-Saxonisms, he might use four-letter words, and all kinds of stuff. It's wonderful, just delightful, I love it."

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