Multilingual Writing, for Example

An Interview for the Fall Festival on the Theme: "Alter-Englishes"
of the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, Department of English
September 24-25, 1999

Why "for example"?

For example," indicates that I'm not suggesting that other people write using more than one language. I mean that it’s something I do (and of course not only I) and that I have good reasons for doing it. Of course, I don’t always write multilingually. I often write in English alone, and I also use neologisms that may or may not mean something in Bantu, Basque, or Burmese Lolo.

Could you tell us what these "good reasons" for writing multilingually are?

You really don’t need any reason at all to write a poem, unilingually or multilingually. It’s enough to exist and to know a language and to want to use it.

But to explain one of my reasons briefly: I was born in France and grew up in Paris, in Budapest, and in Vienna. Once grown up, I moved to New York, where I live now. So the order in which I learned languages was French, Hungarian, German, and English. I often think of them in alphabetical order as EFGH (English, French, German, Hungarian), though chronologically it was FHGE. This really doesn’t matter as I am almost equally at home in all, though lately I’ve come to be more at home in English because I’ve spent most of my adult life in New York.

Even so, the British-French-Norwegian poet and teacher, Caroline Bergvall perceived my European background, to which she refers as "foreground," when, in her essay on plurilingual writing, "A Blur of Languages?" in discussing my book Cat Licked the Garlic , she describes elements of those multilingual poems as "shrapnels of tales from what is both a European and personal folklore." She adds that "the relays and transmutations which make out a lot of the humour and absurdist slant of Tardos’ piece[s] can be seen to function as the mnemotechnical notations or inscriptions of a post-babelian narrative."

In the preface to my later book Mayg-Shem Fish (Potes & Poets, 1995) I say that I regard this kind of writing as a "liberation from language-segregation." Bergvall says that "the very notion of a liberation from the differentialities of languages could be ambiguous, might imply a universalist impulse, a longing for a unitary, subliminatory ‘pure language’ (Benjamin) which these unassimilated fragments might as a whole point to."

Bergvall’s use of the adjective "unassimilated" comes as a surprise here, since for me the whole point in writing multilingual poems is precisely to assimilate and to reconcile the hitherto artificially quarantined language units.

A few years later, in her foreword to Uxudo, she wrote that "cultural allegiance is not experienced [by Tardos] as necessarily predicated on linguistic origin. And the sense of linguistic belonging is in turn neither necessarily nor clearly predicated on the acquisition of one’s ‘first’ language. In fact, the very notion of a ‘first’ language is up for grabs.

. . . It is often argued that bilingualism itself ought to be considered a first language.

Since I acquired each of my languages by living in their respective countries, I inevitably became enmeshed in the human geography of each culture.

Cultural influences accompanying a language have always been an endlessly fascinating subject to me: how a language can change one’s behavior, the way one stands and gesticulates, even the way one looks. I noticed, for example, that when I speak French, the pitch of my voice rises noticeably higher than, when I speak another language. I might make entirely different decisions in one language than in another. Perhaps I am a more generous person in English and a more relaxed or calmer one in German. Or I may find myself being more irritable in French or more morose in Hungarian. These are inevitable and probably uncontrollable cultural-linguistic associations.

How did the different cultures you lived in influence your thinking?

My book Cat Licked the Garlic (Tsunami Editions, Vancouver B.C., 1992) opens with a two-sentence poem:

"I was brainwashed as a child. There was no other way."

This, of course, applies to everyone. There is no other way. We spend the rest of our lives forming our own opinions, our own world, making up our own, personal reality, which we then share with like-minded friends and acquaintances. But having no other reference point at the outset than what we are offered by our immediate environment, we really must be brainwashed, as it were, or we couldn’t function in the society we’re born into.

Do you feel that writing in more than one language brings you closer to an "inner truth"?

If my inner truth happens to be multilingually shaped, it would. While freely mixing the languages I know, I may be getting closer to a hidden and personal truth, a truth that lies deep and can best be unearthed by using or inventing this "private language" that is composed not only of various existing languages, but also of their lookalikes and their soundalikes. When I say "private language," I don’t mean that it is entirely incomprehensible to readers who don’t speak these particular languages. In fact, I’m often surprised what people read into my poems: meanings I did not knowingly intend. Writing, for me, is a lot like musical composition. Listening to poetry, even in a language I don’t know, can be a perfectly musical experience. The way I see it, language is music. Often I’m not even aware of which language I’m in at the moment of writing.

Referring to my book Uxudo, Ron Silliman writes that "language itself, in our time certainly, must always be plural: a system of differences, midrashim to an Ur-text that never existed but perpetually surrounds us. Place exists, but enterely as displacement."

What does multilingual writing have in common with unilingual writing?

I think that we write in order to learn something, to discover something about ourselves. By composing poetry we might explore our relation to language as such, be it rooted in our personal linguistic history, in our musical tendency, or anything else that is essential to our being. A poet’s relation to language may be rooted in the vocabulary of her profession. If a poet makes her living as a newspaper editor or a train conductor or a homemaker, I can imagine that her relation to language could be found in the vocabulary she uses every day. Why not? I’m not suggesting that poets should necessarily write about their daily lives, although many do it, and do it well—in fact, I will explain why it’s inevitable to write about what is on our minds, even if indirectly—but I think that it would make sense for any writer to use the vocabulary she is exposed to professionally.

Are you saying that homemakers should write using the vocabulary of daily chores?

I guess they could use the vocabulary encountered in the supermarket, or on television, or not. That would be up to them. But it would make sense—wouldn’t it?—to reach out to what surrounds us, both our internal and external environment.

Is then the shopping list to be regarded as the external environment and the personal history as the internal one?

In a way. But there is no need to worry too much about the differences between what is seen and by whom and with what. We’re all capable of seeing everything with our own eyes, with our unique eyes. Even when we follow or mimic someone else’s view, we do it as only we can. By internalizing, we assimilate the information and make it our own. We keep our individuality, even if we don’t mean to.

And perhaps most importantly, there is this inner conversation that takes place in our minds at all times. A kind of internal chitchat that buzzes incessantly inside our heads. (This is the chatter we aim to put to rest for a while when we meditate.) We are having these conversations and commentaries and negotiations with ourselves during every waking moment of the day, it seems, and of course when we sleep, dreams keep going on, whether we remember them or not. This dialogue is founded primarily in our personal history and in our relation to the outside world, of which we are a part. This mono/dialogue then is not grounded only in the internal self, acting as the inner voice, but is itself an intrinsic part of the continuing construction and reconstruction of the self, the building of what we are becoming. With every action we are continually forming our own character, developing our personality. And if you listen closely, you’ll notice that these incessant thoughts are seldom syntactical and are not always in a particular language: they can be sounds, single syllables, melodies, anything. This morning, for example, I woke up uttering the sound "KHE!" This is the kind of internal voice to which I refer, originating in our inner, personal history. This is what’s really unique about each of us in any language, and this is what’s definitely worth exploring and listening to when making art.