It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of more than one language will always want another one. Which is to say that this semester I am taking German. The choice was not wholly prompted by love of languages. As part of my PhD requirements I have to pass a translation test in another language other than French or English. The obvious choice would be Spanish, as it looks very similar to French, but I was determined to do German.
When I was very little, my family moved to Germany for a couple months. My memories are a slush of Kinder eggs and giant pretzels, with the occasional castle thrown in for good measure. I remember two words from those months, neither of which will help me in the majority of either daily conversation or academic translation. I think I really picked German because of images like these: colorful houses, emerald fields, smiling people in lederhosen, and aged castles rising into the sky. It’s equal part fairy tales, October Fest, and The Sound of Music, the last of which I realize is in Austria.
Instead, I am spitting. A lot. I am hacking my way through sentences like “The book to father give” and “My mother went to Vienna see Opera good – you?” and lots of words that seem to continue FOREVER. My class is focused on translation, which means I am not learning to pronounce anything, something that kills my language loving heart, but is unfortunately necessary for the moment. Were I to show up in Germany and needed anything beyond the phrases “thank you,” “ice-water,” and “How did you sleep last night?” I would be up a creek. But if someone were to approach me and ask me to translate a paragraph on the German University system, how the calendar is structured, German Nobel Prize winners, or the invention of the engine and its effect on the German economy, I am a pro. Ready for any situation I am not, but ready for a hyper-specialized and improbable moment I am. That last phrase could actually just be applied to all of academia.
It’s humbling, really, being so awful at a language. And don’t misunderstand me — I am awful. Sometimes I try to read sentences out-loud to my German speaking colleagues and they confirm my suspicions, I am terrible. But I am learning, and it makes me understand my students better and well up in empathy for what they experience in class. It is so daunting to start a language, so overwhelming to begin at zero and hope to one day be able to partake in the miracle of speech, comprehension, and expression in another language. It is unfathomable to imagine learning a portal to another way of seeing the world.
James and I like to dream about our someday trip to Germany, the trip that I see no practical way of accomplishing anytime soon. But it’s good to have dreams to chew on for those moments when life seems stagnant. And when (if) that day comes, I will be ready. At least, I will be ready if our interaction is limited to written discourse on universities, engines, and Great Germans of History. For anything else, I will be left doing what my students do daily, struggling towards the tantalizing illusive thing that is expression.
Any German speakers, readers, lovers out there?