No Language Is the Mother Tongue.

Another quote from Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues (see this post), this time from the section on Marina Tsvetaeva:

In 1926, she wrote in German to Rainer Maria Rilke:

Goethe says somewhere that one can never achieve anything of significance in a foreign language — and that has always rung false to me. . . . Writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another. Whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. To write poems is already to write “after” something. That’s why I am puzzled when people talk of French or Russian poets. A poet may write in French; he cannot be a French poet. That’s ludicrous. I am not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light. One becomes a poet … to be not Russian or French, but in order to be everything.

[Goethe sagt irgendwo, dass man nichts Bedeutendes in einer fremden Sprache leisten kann – und das klang mir immer falsch. . . . Dichten ist schon übertragen, aus der Muttesprache – in eine andere, ob französisch oder deutsch, wird wohl gleich sein. Keine Sprache ist Muttersprache. Dichten ist nachdichten. Darum versteh ich nicht, wenn man von französischen oder russischen etc. Dichtern redet. Ein Dichter kann französisch schreiben, er kann nicht ein französischer Dichter sein. Das ist lächerlich. Ich bin kein russischer Dichter und staune immer, wenn man mich für einen solchen hält und als solchen betrachtet. Darum wird man Dichter . . . um nicht Franzose, Russe etc. zu sein, um alles zu sein.]

Tsvetaeva is therefore a particularly interesting case: a poet who could have become a real bilingual — perhaps even a trilingual — writer, but who ultimately rejected bilingual practice although she did not believe that poetry was “national.” As we shall see, Tsvetaeva’s resistance to writing in French was ferocious and emotional, and her refusal to write poetry in German was more spiritual than linguistic.

Incidentally, Rilke (who had immersed himself in Russian around 1900) wrote to Tsvetaeva that of all earthly languages, “Russian came closest to being the totalizing one to which Tsvetaeva aspired, and which Rilke recognized as being the ultimate language”: “in das Licht halte, in dem alle Sprachen eine Sprache sind (und diese, Deine, die russische, ist ohnehin so nah, alle zu sein!”

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting that she referred to herself as a male poet. Dichterin is not some terribly newfangled or rare coinage…

    To write poems is already to write “after” something.

    Rather “to create poetry is to put something that already exists in your own words”; nachdichten analogous to nacherzählen “retell”.

    That’s ludicrous.

    It’s not explicitly crazy or something, just ridiculous.

  2. Probably irrelevant, but still: Le Guin on the mother tongue and the father tongue.

  3. I love her poems, but many translations that I discover are not good actually. It does not evoke the same feeling or reveal her suicidal nature. I found a handful of descent translations, however not to the poems that I was looking for. My beloved poem that I cannot find in English is named “Your name” it’s dedicated to Alexander Block, vital historical figure and the love of her life who finally pushed her to suicide.

  4. Sometimes, when I am feeling silly, I feel that “dichten” as in “Dichten ist Nachdichten” is unintentionally ludicrous, since “it also means seal, as with a sealing gasket”. I put that in quotes for the following reason.

    Checking with Duden, I see that there is no “it” as in my scare quotes, no “the word dichten”. Instead there are two etymologically unrelated words: dichten[1] and dichten[2]. The one meant in this context is

    dichten [mhd. tihten, ahd. dihton, tihton = schriftlich abfassen, ersinnen < lat. dictare, diktieren]

    So it goes back to “dictare”.

    The other dichten is a transitive verb formed from “dicht” = “impermeable” or “dense”:

    dicht [mniederd. dicht(e); dafür frühnhd. deicht, mhd. dihte, eigtl. wohl = fest; undurchlässig, verw. mit gedeihen]

    The relationship between “dicht” and “gedeihen” = “flourish” is intriguing. Plants that grow well when they are firm and don’t leak.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    The other dichten is a transitive verb formed from “dicht” = “impermeable” or “dense”:

    “Tight” as in “watertight”, except the dt correspondence doesn’t make sense.

    The relationship between “dicht” and “gedeihen” = “flourish” is intriguing. Plants that grow well when they are firm and don’t leak.

    I rather think it refers to a lack of spaces between individual plants.

  6. So it goes back to “dictare”.

    Curtius discusses this in ELLMA, actually. Near the beginning, but can’t supply a better reference than that at the moment, sorry.

  7. “Tight” as in “watertight”, except the d-t correspondence doesn’t make sense.

    Tight was thight until about 1400, one of those sporadic changes that Just Happens, so that’s why its continental equivalents are in d-; cf. the related thick. It’s also one of those words like dream that got new semantics from the Old Norse cognate, which is þéttr ‘watertight, solid, closely woven’; in OE it is known only from compounds like meteþiht ‘fat from overeating’.

    The OED2 (1912) considers thight still a current dialect word, and has a separate entry for it with quotations as late as 1895.

  8. ELLMA Kapitel 4 “Rhetorik”, §8 “ars dictaminis”.

  9. My beloved poem that I cannot find in English is named “Your name” it’s dedicated to Alexander Block, vital historical figure and the love of her life who finally pushed her to suicide.

    Here you go, but Blok was not the love of her life (that was Efron), nor did he “push her to suicide” — the Soviet Union did that.

  10. That Kaminsky / Valentine translation makes Tsvetaeva sound very symbolist. I always thought the 4th in the series was the sexiest:

    Зверю — берлога,
    Страннику — дорога,
    Мертвому — дроги.
    Каждому — свое.

    Женщине — лукавить,
    Царю — править,
    Мне — славить
    Имя твое.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Tight was thight until about 1400, one of those sporadic changes that Just Happens

    Ah. Usually they Just Happen on the German side (tausend “1000”, “thaw” and “dew” merging as tau-…). 🙂

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