To me, the single greatest line in any of the eleven Star Trek movies comes in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It’s when the soon-to-be-assassinated Klingon chancellor remarks over dinner: “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
The fact that it sort of makes no sense only makes it that much better.
(Caveat: I haven’t seen Star Trek: Nemesis. After Star Trek: Insurrection I needed a break. A long break.)
Fortunately — unless I’m gravely mistaken about a whole lot of things — I actually have read Shakespeare in the original, because I read English pretty fluently. But that’s the only language I can say that about. Even though I have spent literally years of my life trying to learn another language, any other language — and even though I have in the past claimed in several key professional contexts that I speak other languages — I am in fact still trapped inside the bubble of English.
I ought to at least be able to read literature in French. I went to an enlightened grade school that started us on French in fifth grade, which meant that by the time I graduated high school I had been at it for eight years. In those eight years I managed to crawl through exactly one French novel, L’Étranger by Camus. (I was also shown Diva and Jules et Jim repeatedly, and sometimes they even forgot to stop the projector and we got to see the parts with partial nudity.)
When I got to college I simply decided that I could speak French, because I just could not spend any more time in French classes. I went ahead and took courses on French literature, some of them even taught in French. And for about a year I actually was at the point where I could look at a page in French and feel like I was understanding what it was saying, more or less. I read, or at least passed my eyes over, the first volume of Proust in French. I read La nausée, which in spite of Sartre’s having been an awful person, is, I think, one of the more underrated novels of the 20th century. I read Madame Bovary, which to me is one of the greatest novels ever written.
And it really was different from reading in translation. It’s not that translations don’t count, it’s just that when I read one I’m always conscious that I’m interacting with a second-order object: not the real thing but a reflection of it, one remove away from authenticity. Like the moon, it derives its luminosity from somewhere else. On the rare moments when I felt I’d really broken through, really understood something in French, it was like emerging from Plato’s Cave: you’ve been staring at shadows your whole life, and then suddenly you go outside and see the real thing, painfully bright, in hi-res and full color, and you wonder how you could ever have put up with anything else.
(Yes, the good postmodernist in me reminds me that it’s all just shadows, shadows of shadows, and authenticity is just another patriarchal, logocentric myth. But who listens to that guy?)
All told I spent about a year outside the cave, staring straight into the unshielded sun of French literature. But my hold on French was only by my fingertips. Even after all that I still couldn’t hold a conversation in French. The words went in, but they wouldn’t come out.
(MORE: On the Physical Abuse of Books)
The summer after my sophomore year, in a final attempt to make myself fluent, by brute force if necessary, I booked myself into a summer course in French literature at the Sorbonne. The first book we were assigned was Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro. The professor asked me to prepare a presentation on it for the following week. I panicked. I didn’t even have enough French to make an excuse. I just didn’t turn up the next week. I never went back. I spent the rest of the summer wandering around the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.
Part of the problem was that I was shy, and I had trouble holding a conversation in English, let alone French. The other part of the problem was that I was lazy and, quite possibly, stupid. Later that summer I tried to impress a girl by scaling the wall of Montparnasse Cemetery after hours. I was immediately apprehended by the security staff, and I distinctly heard one of them say, “je peux appeler les flics,” which I correctly translated as, “I can call the cops.” This was the height of my linguistic achievement that summer. (Also my romantic achievement.)
When I got back to college I immediately switched to German. I took to it better than to French. My accent was better — German was more suited to my guttural, stuttering idiolect than free-flowing French, and plus I’ve always had a pretty good Kissinger impression in my back pocket. And I went through a major Kafka phase. But after two years I packed it in, because I had fallen in love with yet another language: Russian.
It was the novels. God knows, Kafka is incomparable, and there are plenty of French writers who mean a lot to me — Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, Sartre, Sarraute, the oddball Symbolist Gérard de Nerval. (Nerval is best known for being quoted in “The Waste Land” — the line “le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie” is from his “El Desdichado” — and also for taking his pet lobster for walks in the gardens of Paris, on the end of a long ribbon. When someone asked him why he remarked, “it knows the secrets of the sea. And it doesn’t bark.” Point: Nerval.)
But Russian — Russian is a fully loaded literature. There are very few genius-clusters in literary history like the murderer’s row of great 19th century Russian writers: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Lermontov, Chekhov. Just Gogol alone…I mean, whatever language “The Overcoat” was written in, that is a language I want to learn.
Plus I was named after Tolstoy. Russian people often assumed I knew Russian anyway.
Unfortunately, Russian is really hard. Not for the reason you think — it’s not the alphabet. After a week you acclimate to Cyrillic, and you stop noticing it. (To this day it bothers me when Americans, when they want to give something a Russian feel, replace A’s or R’s with Я’s —PRЯVDA and so on. Я isn’t a Cyrillic ‘r,’ it’s a vowel, pronounced ya.) The difficulty is that Russian is a highly inflected language. Like Latin it has a lot of cases, all of which have to be declined on the fly as you speak it. Also like Latin, it’s a free-word-order language, so its grammar can be hard to parse. And unlike Latin you’re supposed to speak it conversationally as well as read it.
I took a couple of adult education classes, then I went to the summer immersion program at Middlebury, where you sign a pledge not to speak English for eight weeks.
I really did love Russian. And I sort of had it, for a few short flights. I worked out passages from the great, doomed Lermontov, whose prose is relatively simple. I read some short Pushkin poems. I learned how to translate that stuff Colossus was always saying in the old X-Men comics whenever he was surprised (Bozhe moi! — my God! — is a useful example of the archaic vocative case).
But in the end I couldn’t hack it. I lasted six weeks, then I just gave notice, got in my car and drove away. It was the Sorbonne all over again.
I wasn’t quite finished. In graduate school my field (comparative literature) had a language requirement, two modern languages and one ancient one, and I faked my way through Russian, but I don’t think I fooled anybody. I vividly remember, at my third-year oral exams, watching as it dawned on the poor professor who was examining me just how little Russian I actually knew. I saw the calculation in his eyes: If I flunk this fraud, I’m just going to have to do this all over again next semester. I’ll never get rid of him.
He passed me. For my ancient language I swotted up Latin in six weeks and squeaked through the test, which was written-only. That was the last time I appeared in a foreign language classroom.
Now my novels are translated into other languages, they go out into the wider linguistic universe, but I’m back in Plato’s Cave for good, watching shadows on the wall. All I have left are shattered bits and fragments of the languages I tried to learn — my brain is like an archeological site, full of relics from earlier linguistic civilizations. Whenever anyone mentions the Bolshoi Ballet I quietly, smugly think to myself: bolshoi means big! Whenever drunk driving comes up, I remember a line from a dialogue we did in German class, which is apparently permanently tattooed on my brain: “Wenn wir blasen muß, dann sind wir gekocht!” (If we have to take breathalyzer test, we’re screwed!”)
Probably the last thing to go will be a song we made up in the Russian program at Middlebury. We sang it every day as we walked to class, to the tune of “Frere Jacques:”
Мы не знаем, мы не знаем,
Ничего не знаем, ничего не знаем,
Всё равно, всё равно!
Which roughly translates, without the repetitions, as follows:
We don’t know
Nothing do we know