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I am Vaiva Rykštaitė (my real name is Justė Vinder), and I studied philosophy and law at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. I withdrew from my law studies and took off to London to find a job that wouldn’t require using my brain. I eventually graduated with a master’s degree in philosophy from Birkbeck. I’ve been writing since I was twenty years old – now I’m thirty-three. I’ve been living in Hawaii for five years, raising two children and dreaming of completing a doctorate. I’ve written seven books, two of them for children. At one time, I was immersed in film criticism (my bachelor’s thesis was titled “A Phenomenological Reflection of the Body in Film”), but after the birth of my children I had to take a break.

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Graphic Novels

Edmundas Saladžius, That same night (cycle of 9), 1989, linocut. From the MO Museum collection.

 

By Vaiva Rykštaitė

“Language is the home of being”—I don’t remember what grade it was in which we had to write an essay under this title. I no longer remember what I wrote, only that this topic overwhelmed me, as I see now, for a long time. Still a child, I was tormented by a question which I will write in the way it was arranged in my head at the time: “So when Dutch people speak Dutch, they still hear everything in Lithuanian inside?” To comprehend existing in another language without knowing that language is like trying to imagine a non-existent color. That’s why I was kept awake at night by many questions—how do Dutch, French, and Chinese people think, how do they understand things, and is there a place in our brain which can understand the world without words?

Someone else had the idea about brain regions in which non-verbal perception happens well before I did. Fast-forward some fifteen years and instead of at the school desk, I’m sitting at the weekly Psychology and Philosophy seminar led by the relatively stern lecturer Sarah Patterson and a group of MA philosophy students at Birkbeck University in London. For some reason, the seminar is taking place in the cellar. It’s cold there. During the break we all line up by the coffee machine. For one pound, it dispenses a decent cappuccino. Back in the seminar room, I’m trying my best to follow the discussion. And best it has to be because the British speak fast, not concerned with the fact that next to them sits a Lithuanian for whom ingliš is not the home of being. Not yet. I’m sipping the sweet beverage and listening to the sleepiness-inducing voice of Missis Patterson. I surprise myself by commenting aloud. At that moment, just like any other moment in life, apart from the words that are being broadcast live in the conscious brain, tens or even thousands of other perception processes are taking place. There I am, sitting and telling my course mates about the concept theory, and at the same time I know my name and my past, I know that the wall is the wall and that my feet are touching the floor and that it’s quite chilly in the room. I know in which part of London this building is and when Simon, a member of our group, sneezes, and I recognize it as a sneeze without even once acknowledging it in my thoughts with words. Do I think in words? When I look at a table, I don’t think “table”—I know that it is a table because in my head I already have the concept of this and all other possible tables. Three-legged, red, wooden, antique, with drawers—they will always be a table, even though they might have nothing in common. You might say that a table is a thing that stands, but will a table hung from the ceiling cease to be a table? This is what I found so enchanting about Theory of Concepts—I found it mind-blowing to think that there isn’t a single concept or word with a definition that could be ingrained in stone. Everything is subjective, everything depends on the circumstances, and when I think about it, I am not thinking at all but simply swimming in an ocean of abstract concepts.

Wittgenstein described it much better than I, not surprisingly, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In it, he also talks about play, including language play, when words can be used to describe or interpret events, raise and test hypotheses, create stories, act, sing, play charades, joke, translate from another language, thank, ask questions—a definitive list is probably impossible. And what about the concept of play in general? What is play? It can be free of rules, fun or cruel, team or individual, dynamic or tryingly slow, logical or totally absurd, like, for example, throwing pencils into the ceiling at work (but even here, it’s not even necessary to catch anything). The definition of a game is ever-changing and relative, yet it remains a concept deeply entrenched in the human mind. The word play enables our understanding of the concept of play, yet if pressed to define it, we can’t—not in words, anyway. But according to Wittgenstein, “There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66). In other words, we should not demand that words be completely unambiguous.

And contrarily, I would like to add, we don’t comprehend everything through words. Every morning, my parents’ dog Činas runs to the boiler room, where he finds two bowls: one filled with dry food, the other with water. Činas knows with certainty which one is food and which is water and can even differentiate his bowl from the cat’s, even though I strongly doubt that he has either of these objects stored in his mind in verbal form. I know that Činas thinks, which can be confirmed by any loving dog owner. And although this example is a primitive one, it was precisely Činas and his worldless concept of bowls of food which helped me to truly understand Theory of Concepts: nothing is definite, and language is simply an agreement about names that label an essence we can only intuitively guess. Whether such guesses are the same for all is hard to say. But I am now walking on the edges of phenomenology.

I don‘t want to go deep into philosophy because I don‘t remember much more than what I already recounted here and also because, apart from Theory of Concepts, I was equally strongly overwhelmed by the language barrier separating me from other students during those seminars. I was one of the few foreigners in that course and the only non-British student in that small group.

At the start of the academic year, I kept blushing as I often didn’t understand what the lecturers were saying during the classes. If I drifted away for just a moment, I would lose the thread of the discussion because it was more difficult to listen in English than in Lithuanian. I don’t know what the others thought—did they notice it? But I constantly felt inferior. Although nobody knew what was going on in my head, everyone could hear my Eastern European accent. To speak with an accent is akin to being stuck at the border or airport. You are almost there but not there yet. The only difference is that in the end we usually escape from the limbo of customs.

On the other hand, knowing other languages elevates concept theory to another level. Very soon I realized my advantage over monolingual students in this case because I was able to compare the notional nuances of the same word in various languages. In general, I am fascinated by untranslatable words. For example, in English, I am struggling to find the equivalent of the word  “buitis” (an approximation of “the routine of everyday life in a household”translator’s note). And I am still to find a Lithuanian word that could deftly convey as simple a word as “excited.”  I keep planning to write a list of untranslatable words—just for myself, for the fun of it. The existence of untranslatable words, in my mind, only confirms the solidity of Theory of Concepts: for example, when I attempted to explain the meaning of the word “buitis” to my British friend she was nodding—it seemed she was able to understand the concept, despite her language not having a precise word for it. Or, for example, until the colonization of the USA, none of the American tribes had a word for ownership of land. The indigenous people found it simply incomprehensible because the land belonged to everyone and was there for everyone’s use, and if it was someone’s then only temporarily, which is probably similar to how we understand air today. Thus I feel tempted to conclude that knowing other languages enriches our bank of concepts, even though not all the words can be translated, but nonetheless, in the end, all words can be understood in one way or another.

I am talking from the perspective of someone who knows two languages on top of her mother tongue: English and Russian, which I believe I know equally well, only my Russian has been out of use for decades and is therefore somewhat rusty. At different life stages, these languages have been my second home, but they won’t ever become my homeland. 

These languages have undoubtedly enriched me, and if I wasn’t trying to please my audience (here I mean in general—from avoiding writing in English on Facebook because then my grandparents won’t understand my posts, to trying to decrease the usage of Russian swearwords in my novels because the editor won’t like it), probably every fifth sentence I write would be in English and every hundredth in Russian. My favourite expressions cherchez la femme and dolce far niente also only sound good in their original languages.

The myth of Babylon sort of implies that in a utopian society we should all speak the same language and then we’d understand each other better. Not true. Looking at it from the evolutionary perspective, the diversity of languages helps different cultures to entrench the worldview of different landscapes in words, to get rooted in that worldview and survive. There can’t be—I cannot even imagine—a single common language which would reflect the variety of all the cultures and philosophies of the world. That is why it is important to preserve linguistic diversity instead of looking for its uniformity, especially in the contexts of globalization. Thus I believe that by knowing English alongside other languages I will eventually also become a better English-speaker than those speakers of English for whom it’s the only language. Here I mean that deeper, almost metaphysical comprehension of the language layers, as opposed to the impeccable usage of articles, which, I must admit, I am still to master, and because of which I cannot place “native speaker” next to English on my CV—but I’ll come back to that.

I‘ve heard an urban legend saying that every learned language reveals new sides of a personality. It’s not hard to notice that about your own self, but it’s much more interesting to observe it in others, although I rarely meet people who speak the same two second languages. The necessary condition is that they speak two additional languages, both understandable to the observer; otherwise, how would you notice changes in personality without understanding what a person is saying? From their intonation, gestures, maybe. Many years ago during a yoga course, I met Maya from Kazakhstan and for me, she became the first emobodiment of personality changes brought on by languages. Maya’s mother tongue is Kazakh, but she is also fluent in Russian and English like I am. What fun we had talking and watching each other, not only because we had a secret language (Russian) that nobody else in the course understood, but also because the English-speaking Maya came across as an emancipated Westerner perfectly aware of her own worth—one who spent many years studying in the USA, who travelled widely, who was self-confident. But the moment she switched to Russian, I was able to see a different Maya: someone simpler, less sophisticated, more open-hearted, even though none of these words succeeds in exactly describing the subtle change that would take place in Maya’s disposition. After all, speaking a different language even means engaging completely different facial muscles. Although it’s hard to see it, it’s something you can feel.

Maya kept saying the same about me. That there are two Vaivas—the English-speaking one and the Russian-speaking one. And I’m still curious what Maya is like when speaking Kazakh. “Is the real you the one who speaks Lithuanian?” she would ask, and I’d shake my head. It’s a painful question because friends who don’t speak my mother tongue will never know a big part of who I am. However, all my “I”s are real, just as my life travelling abroad is real. In the Russian language, I discover a melodic sincerety rolling off my tongue, while speaking English reflects my vision of being inside a film—those are both the loud American familiarity and the British reticence, depending on the accent I’m trying to imitate. Nonetheless, I admit that all my ways of talking are eclipsed by the most distinct one, my Lithuanian accent, which I’ve now learned to not be ashamed of because it’s part of my identity. But this identity still trips me up when, upon hearing my accent, people start speaking slower, in clearly pronounced syllables, gesticulating (for instance, asking me do you want to eat? and simultaneously putting invisible food with an invisible spoon into their mouth). I feel that it is precisely because of my accent that sometimes I’m not taken seriously, and there are times when I feel that at my first utterance characteristic Eastern European stereotypes are being attached to me.

I’m imprisoned in my accent, I say. I hear the retort: but no accent can be heard in writing, surely? It can’t. And yet when creating something (writing) between two or more languages, a different set of quandaries and non(mis)understandings occurs. As a writer, I often hear a question: why don’t you write in English? —you’d have a much larger audience.

I don’t write in English because Lithuanian and English for me represent two different spheres. English is the language of science and knowledge; I use it more to read but, however strange, almost exclusively academic literature and journalistic writing. I wrote my master’s thesis and some film criticism pieces in English. Meanwhile, in Lithuanian I mainly read novels; this is the language in which my feelings and artistic experiences live, so it’s only natural that I find expressing myself in my creative work the easiest in the language closest to me artistically. Writing in Lithuanian brings me pleasure. I can make the words dance whatever way I wish; sometimes I consciously look for more archaic words, from my childhood which immediately make me nostalgic, for example, “čėdau” (archaic for keeping, preservingtranslator’s note), “škada” (archaic for pity, commiserationtranslator’s note) or some “rundėliukas” (a container used for cookingtranslator’s note) that can still be found on top of my grandmother’s hearth. I am not saying that I am a good or bad writer. But the Lithuanian language for me is like an enormous shopping center in which I am the oldest employee and where I know the instructions for use and the ingredients of almost every item, while English is just a small and luxurious specialized store. To write in Lithuanian for me is like playing jazz on the piano! At times, I may veer too far from the melody, yet I know all the notes and can simultaneously stamp my feet, bang with my palm on the wall, tap my fingers in a tattoo, make the piano lid creak, and sing, whoop, warble, whisper, wheeze, make the chair underneath me groan, cough intermittently, grate the little pebble I found on the ground with the sole of my shoe, and when I want silence I can tinkle a knife on a half-full glass. I believe that if needed I could create a new verb in Lithuanian. The strangest thing is that other people would probably understand that previously unheard word, or at least intuitively guess its meaning. And, as is evident from the earlier mentioned Theory of Concepts, such intuitive guesses are essential in language.

Thus, I don’t write in English as I’m afraid I couldn’t jam in that language. “It’s not true,” disagrees my friend from London, a doctor of physics, a total scientist, who believes that language has nothing to do with it and is in general considerably overrated. The most important thing is to have a good story, he says, bringing us here to the crucial fork in the road: those of the opinion that “what is said” is more important will go one way, while I will join those who believe that it doesn’t matter what one is saying—it may as well be something concerning the ingredients of an air freshener—but what’s important is how it’s said; after all, literary prizes are awarded for the “how” and that’s why various celebrities who have been through hot and cold hire ghostwriters.

I don’t write in English because I’m afraid. I’m afraid to make a mistake, afraid to sound banal or simply basic. I’m afraid to destroy the personality myth which I’ve created about myself because currently, I’m living two lives: that of a writer and of a housewife. However, all the friends of my housewive’s environment know that somewhere far away, in Lithuania, I am a writer and because of that somewhat romanticize my (everyday) life. That’s why every time my American husband introduces me to someone he proudly says that I am “a writer!” despite the fact that nobody—neither my London university friends nor my husband and his entire family—have read a single piece of fiction I’ve written. That’s why I’m afraid that, if finally able to do so, they would be disappointed and silently move me from the writers’ category to one of the hopeless wannabes, although they wouldn’t say it aloud, restricted by their Anglo-Saxon politeness.

I don’t write in English because I’m afraid that nobody would publish my work and then my big dreams would dissipate. At the moment, it’s so comfortable for me to imagine that distant future when I’ll make it to the NY Times best sellers lists. Imagining is much safer and more comfortable than confronting reality. But I’ve diverged from our discussion about multilingualism towards my personal fears. I say “our discussion” because I imagine that you are agreeing with me, nodding gently.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never even tried to write fiction in English. However, I’ve tried my hand at translation. I began with a simple text, a story I wrote for children entitled “Jūratė and Kastytis and Mikas.” I translated it exclusively out of a patriotic feeling, thinking that this interpretation of a Lithuanian legend would be of interest to tourists visiting Lithuania. But in the process of translation, a curious thing happened: the text simply refused to obey me, it didn‘t sound remotely acceptable, and the meaning kept escaping from sentences and I kept being overcome by a strong feeling to stop translating it. I felt the need to rewrite the story instead in the voice of the Anglo-Saxon part of my personality and in a way in which the story, I imagine, would be more understandable to the English-language audience, even though I do not embrace the latter reason of reader-pleasing. Nonetheless, wandering between the two languages for writing, I feel that inadvertently I try to visualize my reader. This reminded me of my friend Şebnem, a Turk who read the same work by Elif Shafak in both English and Turkish and minded that not everything was the same. I now feel it’s a pity I haven’t asked her what the differences were. I should write to her on Facebook and ask.

Upon hearing about my translating experience, writers I know were nodding with understanding—“certainly, it’s better not to attempt to translate your own work; this is what translators are for.” Translators are mediums of different worlds whose work seems to me even more special following my unsuccessful translation attempts. But in that case, who should be translating my books, a Lithuanian-speaking British-born translator or a native Lithuanian speaker who’s mastered English competently? I can see how much I’d fret knowing that someone is translating my text, probably like a painter whose painting is being redone by someone else. I ask myself, would I be anxious about artistic paradigms that may get lost in translation or because of the ever-present Eastern European complex, that is, that even in English the text would sound… Lithuanian? But then I read an email from Gabija Grušaitė whose novel was recently published in Malaysia: “It was translated by a Lithuanian translator because we very much wanted to preserve an Eastern European voice.” Bang—and I realise that just like in the past when I learned to love my accent, it’s equally important to convey in writing that part of the personality talking in a certain moment. It means that when translating literature written originally in Lithuanian, the great secret of success is to preserve that Lithuanian spirit in it. Or to write in English trying to hear my English-speaking “I”.

I finished that translation of my story out of a principle. I completed it and buried it among those computer files that are never opened. A few weeks ago, I starting writing the same story on a clean sheet, in English. I still don’t know how it’ll go, but I can already see (or maybe it just seems to me?) that even when writing I speak English and Lithuanian in different voices, even though with an accent. And it may just be, I was surprised to discover, that an accent is the most distinctive announcement of creative authenticity.

For now, I can only speculate and hope to one day finally find out how my two daughters, who have been brought up bilingual, feel in the world. For them, in none of the languages they speak was it ever that impossible to imagine non-existent color because ever since their birth the girls have been hearing two words for every thing or object. By the way, various research has shown that bilingualism doesn’t burden the brain’s activity, but quite the opposite—helps a person to make decisions faster because a bilingual person becomes used to constantly processing conflicting information; just like my daughter Žemyna who, every time she sneezes, hears:  

- Į sveikatą! (In Lithuanian, literally, “To your health!”translator’s note)

and

- Bless you!

In Barbara Zurer Pearson’ book Raising a Bilingual Child, I read about a boy who grew up in a multilingual family. The boy’s father spoke Italian, his mother English, his grandmother German, and his caretaker Spanish, while they all lived in France if I’m not mistaken*. Ever since he was born, the boy was learning and understood all these languages. However, he admitted that for a long time he thought that every person must eventually create their own language. I believe that to be every artist’s mission.

 

* I don’t remember the countries and the languages exactly, I listed them as a probable example, so it may be incorrect.

 

Translated by Julija Gulbinovič

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