Μου λειπεις .
I miss you.
Speaking more than one language will forever change the way you write. If a writer can speak more than one language, they are immediately exposed to the possibilities and limitations of their expressions. For example, the two sentences above appear at first identical – the same number of syllables, same intended meaning – and yet their direct translation indicates the differences in the way they are expressed.
The Greek phrase implies, ‘you are missing from me.’ Whereas the English phrase seems a little more selfish, focusing on the needs of the first person, the Greek translation immediately captures the yearning one feels for someone who is absent. ‘Μου λειπεις’ wants the other person to know just how much they are needed, as though they are a limb removed. After writing the same phrase in Greek, ‘I miss you’ feels cold. However, as a writer I only realize this through my ability to compare the two languages. When you can speak and/or write in other languages, you become aware of the expressive limitations of a single language as well as the subtle changes in each emotion behind them – barely conveyed in the three limp words, ‘I miss you’ and yet contextually powerful enough to feel different.
Writing in all of your languages, no matter what those are, will help you to find meaning in phrases that would otherwise seem ordinary. In my own fiction, the moment I introduce characters who speak Greek, a certain intimacy enters the plot. I feel no need to translate the phrases I use to non-Greek readers. By doing so, I am distancing them from the lives of the characters, yet simultaneously introducing them to an intimate portion of a conversation I would not have held if they were physically present. It allows me to write in my own voice, even if it is communicated in two different ways. When I speak to American relatives in English, ‘I’ll see you later’ is a bland phrase we pass back and forth, knowing we mean what we’re saying but we say it so automatically we barely think about it. When I speak to my father in Greek, ‘θα τα πουμε’ is said casually, but when we translate that it becomes, ‘we’ll say more later.’ The lingering in the meaning, the promise in the goodbye, is one I can’t find in the English language. If I were to write that out, it would take a full sentence. In Greek, it was captured in three words. And despite these differences, similarities arise through the indissoluble connection between words and narrative. In writing in more than one language, we can acknowledge not only a context that is fluid, always moving, always encountering and needing new linguistic configurations, but also acknowledge that language itself is narrative.
In the few occasions I write about my family or private life, my dialogue overflows with phrases like ‘ελα βρε’ or ‘που’σαι καλε’; phrases that the English language doesn’t have. I don’t write these to seem pompous… My life is not a steady stream of perfectly constructed English sentences, so why should my writing be? If anything, my writing is realer, fresher because of the differences that flow through it. And even if you only speak one language, you still experience the sound of someone else’s. I am limited to my two, and I think a lot of the meanings, expressions and feelings I’ll never learn.
If you speak multiple languages, I urge you to write in them. Do not feel as though you must stick to one language because one is more mainstream than the other. The use of different languages in a narrative make it richer, because it provides your reader with a sense of intimacy and diversity that can more accurately present life, rather than represent it (it does, after all, underline the constructed nature of language). Your reader will understand you by hearing you in all of your voices. Celebrate the different meanings, stress the tones they were meant to be said in. Language is a tool to writing, to creating worlds and their people, and the more tools we have, the better.
Irene Zahariadis was born in Queens, New York, and was raised in Athens, Greece. She studies English and Creative Writing at University of Warwick, where she is developing her work on multicultural literary production, translation and coming-of-age narratives. She hopes to go back to the US to pursue writing. She is currently writing a piece about growing up with two different cultures.
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