Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange. I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.
I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker. The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so. You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.
Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English. But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it. I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.” I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.
Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.
Reading is not like speaking. You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension. Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing. I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.
I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker. Confidence is important. A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary. In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”
Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels. As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation. The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.
During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).
Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary. A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap). It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know. I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.
When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose. For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me. But I forced myself to go one word at a time. Before long, rather than feeling as though I had been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street. At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary. I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation. But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football. Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.
At page 85, I continue to creep along.
I think I can, I think I can.