Like when you put salt in your coffee instead of sugar

Well, actually, not like that at all. I just did that, see, and so I thought of how that is the first time I ever did that, and what an odd feeling it is: thoroughly unpleasant, and yet, it’s not really that tragic is it?

What I was thinking about this morning was the naturalness of languages. I have some very good British friends who have recently moved here, and they reminded me how they think I am speaking a foreign language when I speak English. So do other British friends. If I had any American friends, or friends from New Zealand (where I grew up and spoke English as the first language I ever spoke, and thus it would be considered my “Mother Tongue” or my “native” language), they would certainly feel the same, as I have lost any trace of NZ accent.

IMG_20160319_164251121
My mum and I in New Zealand

However, when I speak Italian, it is also foreign to me: it feels like a language I learnt very well: when I was at University I would pride myself in my knowledge of it, and yet, whereas foreign friends might consider it my first language, Italian friends know different: I don’t speak any dialect well, just words and expression here and there, my accent varies quite dramatically depending on whom I’m speaking to (accents vary from Milanese, to Brianzolo, to Roman, to a spattering of Tuscan in the right context) and I very often don’t know expressions, cultural in-jokes and so on. Spanish used to be the most natural of all, it might have been because I spoke it from 5 to 11 years of age in South America (though two different countries, so I’m sure accents varied there too) so nobody cared what a little girl sounded like, and when I was living in Spain, in Andalusia, they thought I had a perfectly natural South American accent and to my joy their first guess as to my nationality was “Hang on, you’re from… Argentina right?” (it was the wrong guess, as I never lived in Argentina, but it felt better than “I can’t place your accent, where are you from?” because I felt I was “from” nowhere in particular, and I never knew how to answer that question

When your national identity is defined only by your name or the passport you hold, it is very difficult to feel like you are ever at home. You are always the “one from somewhere else”. It can be handy sometimes, because, for example, here in Salento where they see I have ways that differ quite greatly from their own I am called “The English lady with the big dog”, when I am certainly not English, but it ensures they are not offended when I do not follow cultural norms of social behaviour. In Northern Italy I was “La Peruviana”, and so on. I feel like I have written about this many times before, but as you can imagine, it is still very present in my life.
When translating, or even when teaching, people (both clients and schools and agencies) expect you to fit one mould: which is your native language?
And it makes sense actually, not so much for the language, but because when you speak many languages picked up form even more countries or regions, you miss out on a tremendous amount of knowledge: TV memes, cultural traditions, moods and feelings and behaviours which will always be alien to you.
Am I saying that thus I am not a qualified translator or teacher?
I am merely admitting that keeping up with others’ definitions of what is “natural” for you is tiring, and perhaps yes, teaching and translating means being constantly aware and constantly researching what a “native” would say, but, sometimes, even feel in response to something.
This is partly why I have become more of a writer and less of a translator. I need to speak in my own language, which is when I speak in three or even four languages combined, mixed up, and thrown in there casually, and make up my own inside jokes and expressions.

My first book, House of Blue, is published here. It has a magical realist feel and was a sort of dream of a possible future, beginning as something I would wish for but ending being filled with realistic outcomes. It is set in Norway, for some reason, a country I never lived in, and involves characters who are composites of people I actually know, sometimes barely changed.

My second book begins in Bangkok and will span all the places and continents I actually know. In this book, I finally hope to find my home.

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One thought on “Like when you put salt in your coffee instead of sugar

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