Soundscapes and Worldviews: Life Between Languages

By Patricio Ferrari

 Let’s continue this conversation.  We invite interested members of the Brown community to an IWB Luncheon to explore how identity, communication, and individual expression change as one changes language.  For more information and to sign up, click here.

 When Jorge Luis Borges came to Harvard in the fall of 1967 to deliver the Norton Lectures, by then almost entirely blind yet displaying a vast, eloquent memory, he shared reminiscences of his earliest poetic experience:

 Perhaps the real thrill I got out of the verses by Keats lay in that distant moment of my childhood in Buenos Aires when I first heard my father reading them aloud. And when the fact that poetry, language, was not only a medium for communication but could also be a passion and a joy––when this was revealed to me, I do not think I understood the words, but I felt that something was happening to me. It was happening not to my mere intelligence but to my whole being, to my flesh and blood.[1]

Tempted to echo Borges’s words, this time not in regard to poetry, but to language itself, I wish to turn to 1993 when, under the summer shade of ash-leaf maples, the voice of an unknown girl charmed my barefoot run behind a leather ball. Although completely foreign to me, her French suddenly stirred a deep chord within, much like, according to mythology, Orpheus’s music had done to the wild beasts.

When metaphor from human experience alone cannot fully convey what we mean to express, the immense reservoir of mythology often comes to the rescue by way of offering us a larger, less immediate sense of reality and meaning.  This is why I would like to call your attention to yet another myth––that of the Tower of Babel:  the story told in the Book of Genesis (the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament) as a way of accounting for the origin of the existence of different languages. Notice how the very name of the Tower—the Tower of Babel—signifies, telling us also (if you allow the pun) that the existence of different languages creates a chaos of babbling tongues.

4But what is it about language, in its many multiple forms, that makes it so slippery, so hard to pin down, so—in a word—confusing? As you all know, various linguistic properties distinguish one language from another. In addition to a system of sounds and signs, a system of meaning is always a distinguishing feature. One of the focuses of this latter is the study of words themselves.

And since my interest here is in the plurality of languages, I will ask you to consider a conundrum that perhaps some of you have already encountered:  what to do when you come across a specific noun or verb that has no equivalence in your own native language?

There are words that linguists allege cannot be translated, either because they have more than one layer of meaning or because the concept does simply not exist within the given culture. Anyone who has lived abroad, for instance, has felt what the French call dépaysement (i.e., a feeling of estrangement that occurs when a change in country carries with it a profound change in personal habits). And who has not heard the noun flâneur, the most Parisian of all words? From the verb flâner, it was defined in the nineteenth century by the literary crowd of the French capital as the art of aimlessly strolling for the mere delight of being absorbed in the city’s beauty. As you can see, in order to translate we are left with the paraphrasing of meaning.

Instances of untranslatable words can be found even in languages belonging to the same language family, which suggests that every language has unique ways of experiencing the world. Let me give you two typical examples from the Germanic group. The German noun Fernweh (literally distance-pain) may be explained as a feeling of homesickness for a place that a person has never visited; in Swedish the noun gökotta (otta is an ancient word for ‘daybreak’, from och meaning ‘dawn’, and gök stands for the cuckoo bird) refers to waking up early in the morning to step outside in order to hear the first birds. Each word tell us something about its culture, history and people.

Those of us who live between languages tend to compare them and often put words from different languages in relationship to each other. In this respect, it is worth observing what the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa did with that untranslatable Portuguese noun, saudade, usually defined as a joy in remembering something and/or someone a person loves––a remembrance tainted with sadness because that thing or person is gone or distant. In one of the books he brought from South Africa[2] and which is still extant in his private library, he found a possible definition (not a word equivalent) in English. Pessoa underlined one of the passages (“an unspeakable melancholy that yet is not all pain”) that Edward Dowden (Percy B. Shelley’s biographer) had quoted from Mary Shelley’s journal regarding her deceased husband, and wrote “saudade,” as if it contained the definition of this untranslatable word.

Fig. 1. Edward Dowden.The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Regan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd.,  1896, p. 314. Detail.

Fig. 1. Edward Dowden.The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Regan Paul, Trench, Trübner
& Co., Ltd., 1896, p. 314. Detail.


Without aspiring to be exhaustive, this personal list of untranslatable words would be poorer if it did not include a non-European language. The more different the culture, the more likely that even everyday words will not find an exact translation. In Hindi, for example, there is no verb to have. Possessive postpositions are used depending on what the possessor possesses. A simple phrase such as ‘I have a notebook’ Hindi in Essay (3) [mere paas ek kitaab hai] literally translates as ‘a notebook is near me.’ Possession is marked in a way that radically differs from the languages thus far mentioned. I learned this from a boy years ago, in Varanasi, by the Dashashwamedh ghat (riverfront steps) on the banks of the Ganges River. At play, without knowing it perhaps, he bathed me in a drop of language history––in an unprecedented way for me of being-in-the-world.


 3Born into an Italian family (from Northern Italy on my maternal side and Southern Italy on my paternal side), I left Argentina for the United States at the age of sixteen. Since then I have lived abroad (India, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Sweden)—studying languages and literatures, editing, translating, and writing poetry. Following my formative years in Pennsylvania (last year of High School and a B.A.), I spent months wandering across India and then settled in Europe. My interest in foreign languages and literatures is anchored in these destinations. While the love for etymologies led me to Hindi—a derivation of Sanskrit—I was drawn to Paris by the sounds of French. It was in that city, on a morning like any other, outside Sainte-Geneviève Library, that I experienced something akin to an epiphany: reading Fernando Pessoa’s “Tabacaria” [Tobacco Shop][3], I felt absolutely compelled to learn Portuguese so that I could read him in the original. I left for Lisbon shortly after completing my master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne.

Poem(r)_revThe seven years spent with Pessoa’s archive gave me the chance to steep myself in one of the most original writers of the twentieth-century: a poet who wrote in Portuguese, English, and French, who created in various genres, who constructed over a hundred and thirty poetic personae, and whose writing was both informed and transformed by various literary traditions. Pessoa’s multiple perspectives crafted through literature is, in a certain way, what a life between languages gradually produced in me: a process of self-othering… Incorporating a new language entails, first and foremost, not only thinking but also feeling with what that given language has to offer.

Poem(v)_rev2Almost twenty-five years ago I undertook a journey where curiosity and friendship, hardship and beauty have all gone hand-in-hand with dépaysement and Fernweh: soundscapes and worldviews––life (or lives, I am inclined to say) between languages. It is what I have tried to capture in Nomad Books, a multilingual work in progress of my own poetry written in eight languages with a self-translation into English. Let “Voicexile,” one of the seven English pieces included in the volume and transcribed below, be a possible insight into that ever-transforming experience––the acquisition of a new language.


                                                                            To S. V. B.

Cacophony and oxymoron were fossils
you handed me, as you rode off the field.
Across acres of prosody I’ve plodded


Words made of words of words we are mad we are made.

Can you believe that more time has passed from our time at Campbellsville to now
        than from birth to Campbellsville?


You’ve dressed me with a looming soundscape,
a fibrous lint to gravitate
the prose of this world.

Camped in this room
I unfurl my foreignness as a faded map

of words made of words of words we are mad we are made—

Camped in this room
from farness to humanness.


[1] Borges referred to Keats’ famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” See Jorge Luis Borges. This Craft of Verse. Edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 5-6. The entire series is available on-line:

[2] Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) lived in Durban, South Africa, from February 1896 to August 1905. In August 1901 he returned to Portugal where he remained until September of the following year, embarking once again for Durban. In December 1904 he completed his studies at Durban High School.

[3] Poem written and published under the fictitious name of Álvaro de Campos. See Álvaro de Campos. Obra Completa. Edited by Jerónimo Pizarro and Antonio Cardiello. Series directed by Jerónimo Pizarro. Lisbon: Tinta-da-China, 2014.