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On the Tip of my Tongue

A journey through the hidden functioning of the Unconscious in Life, Language and Art.



Living in a foreign language

Identity Struggles


When lying in bed, shortly before falling asleep, on the threshold between conscious and unconscious, I catch myself listening to my own thoughts, and suddenly realise – my inner dialogue is held in English. As soon as my awareness of this fact enters my consciousness, I get this uncanny feeling that I am not familiar with the person speaking in my mind – I am a stranger to myself[1]. I hastily switch back to forming thoughts in my mother tongue, German, and immediately the fear of losing contact to my ‘true’ self passes.


During daytime I do not question my mind’s transition towards the English language – the foreign tongue that I am surrounded with, since I have moved to London less than a year ago. Only when I am all by myself at nighttime, in a state of tiredness, thinking in English feels unnatural. The effort it still takes me to from these foreign words appears to be a play I am performing for someone, except no one is watching beside myself. Am I acting out an egocentric game, where I fulfil a need to prove to myself that I am settled within my new environment? Or am I being split into two characters: One that is more than familiar to myself and speaks to me in my mother-tongue, and another one that is a stranger who enters my inner world almost unwittingly, and speaks in the adopted tongue that I have borrowed from the world that surrounds me? Probably a bit of both is what causes me to hesitate and return to the familiar vocabulary of the German language.


In the first part of this essay, in order to comprehend my own experience of living in a foreign tongue, I will observe the writings of the bilingual writers Eva Hoffman and Nancy Huston. Both of them reflect on the affect of the foreign language in their cultural exile on their lives and creative writings.


Eva Hoffmann in her memoir gives an autobiographical insight into her journey from her mother-tongue Polish to her Canadian exile’s foreign language, English. She was forced to leave her home at the age of thirteen. Her parents decided to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Canada. Being Jewish, the oppressive circumstances made their living conditions more and more unbearable. In the first chapter of her novel, Hoffmann looks back at her teenage life, and her first struggles with the new language. When a Canadian friend gave her a diary as a birthday present, she found herself unable to decide what language to capture her personal thoughts in. Similar to the feeling I described earlier on, writing in English to her seemed to be an act of self-voyeurism:


"Polish is becoming a dead language, the language of the untranslatable past. But writing for nobody's eyes in English? That's like doing a school exercise, or performing in front of yourself, a slightly perverse act of self-voyeurism."[2]


Nancy Huston left Canada in her early twenties, to settle in France. Different to Hoffmann, and similar to my own story, leaving her home country was Huston’s voluntary decision. In her essays Losing North. Musings on Land, Tongue and Self, she reflects on her personal experience of living in a foreign language. The act of switching between two countries, cultures and identities to her means that one is condemned to be involved in a life long theatre play:


"A person who decides, voluntarily, as an adult, unconstrained by outside circumstances, to leave her native land and adopt a hithero unfamiliar language and culture must face the fact that for the rest of her life she will be involved in theatre, imitation, make-believe."[3]




Huston argues that expatriates are more conscious about the many identities that one individual is made of than people who never lived in more than one culture. She argues, everyone would carry various different identities within themselves, the most obvious being the childhood that we all lose when we grow up to become adults, independent from our parents. Expatriates were more aware of this truth than people that never lived outside their home country, because to them there were a radical division between their childhood years in their mother’s land and their adulthood in their new home.[8]


"Expatriates are consciously (and often painfully) aware of a number of truths which, unbeknownst to others, shape the human condition in general."[9]


The unfamiliar language that enters my mind forms a new part of myself that I can add on to my many other identities. ‘I’ consists of many interweaved circles, depending on where I go or whom I meet, one or a number of these rings apply. To my family, for example, I am either the youngest daughter, or the smaller sister, or, more recently, the aunt. If I leave the circle of my family, I may be perceived as a member of my Family. I may identify with a circle of friends, the city I come from, or the state this city lies in, and since I left my home country, I am simply recognised as a German. If I went even further away, outside of Europe, I suddenly become European at first place and only after that German, and all the other smaller circles that follow. Next to these geographical inscriptions, our identity is shaped by our different roles and characters, our jobs and hobbies and so on. ‘I’ is such a complex and lose net that once we become aware of our plurality we get dizzy by its endless number of possibilities. Living between cultures one recognises the relativity of life.[10]


Becoming aware of my many selves in the dim of falling asleep, it is this realisation of the relativity of life that worries me. ‘I’ can be so many different versions of myself that I wonder: If I cannot even tell who ‘I’ is with certainty, if my character changes with each new language I learn, and if every new place I settle in shapes me, how can I be certain of anything?






[1] Refers to Julia Kristeva. Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Hertfortshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991


[2] Eva Hoffman. Lost in Translation. A Life in a New Language, London: Vintage, 1998, p.121.


[3] Nancy Huston. Losing North. Musings on Land, Tongue and Self, Toronto: MacArthur & Company, 2002, p.19.


[4] Isabelle de Courtivron, ed. Lives in Translation. Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity. New York: Palgrave Maximillan, 2003, 2.


[5] Cf. Ibid., 2.


[6] Ibid., 3.


[7] Huston, Losing North, 8.


[8] Cf. Huston, Losing North, pp. 7-9.


[9]  Ibid., p.9.


[10] Cf. Ibid., pp. 69-75.

New self and Creativity

„What is it like to write in a language that is not the language in which you were raised? To create in words other than those of your earliest memories, so far from the sounds of home and childhood and origin? To speak and write in a language other than the one that you once believed held the seamless connection between words and things? Do you constantly translate yourself, constantly switch, shift, alternate not just vocabulary and syntax but consciousness and feelings?"[1]


These are the words Isabelle Courtivron introduces her collection of essays with. In this chapter of my essay they form a perfect guideline that I will try to respond to, regarding my own experience with living and writing in a foreign tongue. First of all, I need to point out that I am not a writer, but an artist who uses text as part of her visual work. I have been doing so for several years now. My own writings only became an essential part of my practise since I have arrived in London. I ascribe this change in my practise to living in a foreign tongue, and the new possibilities writing in English opened up to me.


In the collection of essays Lost Childhood and the Language of Exile, the psychoanalyst Susan Haxell speaks about her experience of studying a new language (here the Greek) and how she was effected by the use of this other tongue. To her, learning a foreign language opened up the possibility to see the world with new eyes.[2] In many ways being in a foreign tongue may feel like a loss, but the change that comes with it also brings positive chances for transformation. Susan Haxell writes:


“It is very noticeable to others how much freer I am in Greek than in English. {…} Our mother tongue is laden with our family and personal history, and cultural heritage as well. A new language may be free of that contamination and we may be able to approach it in a fresher, lighter way.”[3]


Similar to Haxell, Eva Hoffman describes the constraints that our mother tongue inhibits:


"There are people for whom leaving one's mother tongue is a liberation; they feel they can invent new personae in new words, or finally express their personality –a self that had been inhibited in their first language because of cultural constraints or early inhibitions." [4]


And to consult another psychoanalyst, John Clare in his introduction to Lost Childhood says:

“The old agonies can be experienced differently in another culture and expressed anew in that culture’s language. Perhaps a lifting of inhibitions comes when it is possible to escape the maternal sensibilities. It may be only now that sexual thoughts can be expressed – at a safe distance from the mother’s body and far from the rebuke of the father’s gaze.”[5]


The short story[6] that I have been working on since my arrival, or shall I say since I left my father’s land, deals with my relationship to my father, and the unconscious inheritance of his traumata of growing up as a war child. Life in a new language allows me to express my “old agonies”, as John Clare puts it, in new ways. English did not shape my youth and its words are not inhibited by my early childhood sensations. In fact English, to me, is a cold language. I still have to fill the words with images, feelings, smells and memories. My mother tongue, as the term suggests, is tightly linked with my mother, and father, and all experiences that relate to them. Being in a foreign language gives me freedom of constraints. I am freer to write about my inner conflict with my father, because he is far away, not only in terms of geographical distance, but also regarding the psychic image of him that I carry with me wherever I go. This image of his speaks to me in German, not in English.




[...]Walther Benjamin’s theory in The Translator’s Task where he argues that true translation reveals the pure speech that lies beneath all languages:


“Beyond the communicable, there remains in all language and its constructions something incommunicable which is, depending on the context in which it is encountered, either symbolizing or symbolized; symbolized however in the development of the languages themselves. And what seeks to be represented and even produced in the development of languages is that kernel of pure language itself.”[9]


Benjamin argues furthermore that a good translation does not create a word-by-word replica of the original text. True translation seeks for the translatable in the original and finds its counterpart in the other language (and cultural constraints that this language inhibits). According to Benjamin not every text can be translated, the original needs to be translatable.

Or the other way around, in Nancy Huston’s words:


"What is important can be translated"[10]


For Huston this leitmotif helps her soothe her anxiety of relativization. Not every single thing is relative. The important things in life can be translated to any language in the world, and any human being will agree to their relevance.

Writing in a foreign tongue, I need to extract the translatable from within my experiences. I remember one of the first texts I wrote in London, I took down in German and then translated it back to English. The process was rather painful, because it made me realise how many words do not have a counterpart in the foreign language. They may be described, but never does the translated story remain the same as the original text. Translating felt like I was losing a vast part of my capability to express my thoughts. English readers were congratulating me to a good piece of writing, and I would not understand how they could like this translated version of the text. The original text to me seemed to be the ‘real’ work, and its translation felt like a trivial imitation. What I did not realise back then was that I was seeking to find the same words in the new language, instead of accepting the differences, and recognizing the foreign within each of the languages. Words were not what I was trying to translate anyhow, I was translating a personal experience to people who did not know my background – and by doing so I was in fact searching for the connection between others and myself. [...]


I write about personal experiences, because I know I am not that different to others. My personal feelings are translatable to other people’s feelings. If I open that sealed box of my personal life and let other people enter, I only do so, because I know they will not be surprised by what they find. There is a similar sealed box within them.


"Reading, we allow other people to enter us – and if we make room for them so willingly, it's because we know them already. The novel celebrates our miraculous capacity to recognize others in ourselves, and ourselves in others."[13]


Nancy Huston’s thought does not only apply to literature. In my view, it applies to all types of artistic practise. Our capacity to recognize others in ourselves, and ourselves in others also applies when we listen to a musical piece, or watch a drama in the theatre, or observe a picture in the museum. Art carries the possibility to translate our individual thoughts, feelings, and experiences to others – what is important can be translated.[14]




[1] Courtivron, Lives in Translation, p. 1.


[2] Cf. Suzan Haxell. “Another Tongue, Another Voice.” In Lost Childhood and the Language of Exile, ed. Ivan Ward Judit Szekacs-Weisz, 76-88. London: IMAGO MLPC, Freud Museum, 2004. 86.


[3] Haxell. “Another Tongue, Another Voice.”, 86.


[4] Eva Hoffmann. “P.S.” In Lives in Translation. Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity, ed. Isabelle de Courtivron, 49-54. New York: Palgrave Maximillan, 2003, 51.


[5] John Clare. “Introduction.” In Lost Childhood and the Language of Exile, ed. Ivan Ward Judit Szekacs-Weisz, 11-16. London: IMAGO MLPC, Freud Museum, 2004. 14.


[6] The short story “Something to do with my Father” can be found in the Appendix of this essay.


[7] Assia Djerba. “Writing in the Language of the Other.” In Lives in Translation. Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity, ed. Isabelle de Courtivron, New York: Palgrave Maximillan, 2003, 26.


[8] Djerba, “Language of the other”, 24.


[9] Walther Benjamin. “The Translator’s Task.” traduction, terminologie, rédaction, vol. 10, n° 2, (1997): 151-165: 162, (accessed June 04 2013).


[10] Huston, Losing North, p. 73.


[11] Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 191.


[12] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003,



[13] Huston, Losing North, p. 98.


[14] Cf. Ibid., p. 73.

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