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Daily I switch languages — call them masks:
At times a mask can feel like your own skin.
At other times, the spirit has to struggle,
Saved only by the tongue it calls its own.

The mysteries of life, of the universe,
I can describe in English now, although
In my mother tongue alone I can stammer out
The words that compose the sunset, make it glow.

George Gömöri  tr. Clive Wilmer

Thus the distinguished Anglo-Hungarian poet, George Gömöri, describes the predicament of someone ‘entre deux langues’. It is interesting that the poet, who has lived in England for much the greater part of his life, talks of languages as ‘masks’ and speaks of “the tongue it calls its own” rather than ‘my mother tongue’. George Gömöri tells me that he writes his own poetry in Hungarian first and collaborates with his friend Clive Wilmer (also a noted poet in his own right) to make a rendering in English (Note1).

I certainly share a dislike of translating something I have written myself into another language and there are one or two poems I wrote in French that I have no desire at all to translate back into my first language, English, (including a fairly long one about a Parisian friend of mine entitled Michel le Hongrois). I sometimes find myself lapsing into French in conversation  when I want to get across feelings or ideas that just don’t come over at all well in English, indeed for which there literally are no proper equivalents. (I don’t know whether George Gömöri, when he wants to ‘make the sunset glow’, reverts to Hungarian because the latter language is better at this sort of thing, or simply because it is his first language.)
That there is a very considerable ‘difference of sensibility’ between various languages is indubitable. French is cited by linguists as being one of the most ‘evolved’ of all the world’s languages (along with Mandarin) and it is certainly better at expressing intricate philosophical and scientific concepts, and marvellous for the meticulous analysis of human affections and affectations. French is indeed the language of the ‘philosophes’ — though whether it was the language that created Voltaire or Voltaire who left an indelible mark on the language is an open question. French, however, lags far behind English in vitality and descriptive power : not only was there no French Shakespeare, one cannot imagine there ever having been one. And vice-versa, one can with difficulty imagine an English Proust — Henry James, one feels, would have been a greater writer if he had been born the other side of the Atlantic/Channel.
It would be interesting to hear what other translators and fluent speakers of two or more languages have to say on this and related subjects.   S.H. 15/7/12

Note 1 : In an earlier version of this post I wrote erroneously that George Gömöri writes in English first and then has the poem translated into Hungarian by Clive Wilmer. Apologies to both George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer for this stupid error and many thanks to George Gömöri for pointing this out to me and also giving me permission to quote his memorable poem.    S.H.

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