Word! The Language Column
Masks with Benefits
Learning how to write in a new language can prove a long and rocky road – and ultimately a liberating experience. Hernán D. Caro, who has chosen to write in German, agrees on both counts. And he treasures his second language like a second skin.
By Hernán D. Caro
What does changing languages entail – especially for people who write for a living? The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who gave up his mother tongue at the age of 34 and subsequently published only in French, described it as “the most dramatic event an author can experience – historical catastrophes can’t compare!” Agota Kristof, a writer who fled to Switzerland from her native Hungary at the age of 21, recounts her ongoing struggle with the French language, in which she wrote all her works: “That was the beginning of my struggle to conquer this language, a long, bitter struggle that will last my whole life long.”
Assimilating a cultureI can vouch for that too. Having grown up speaking Spanish, I decided as an adult to try my hand at writing in German. But my decision wasn’t quite as drastic: I didn't want or need to break with my past like Cioran, Kristof or even Klaus Mann, a German writer who reinvented himself in English during World War II. I simply wanted to work another culture, German culture, into my biography. And yet, it hasn't always been easy. Parts of German society are not particularly receptive to “foreigners”, even if those foreigners happen to be receptive and curious about Germany. And the language! How often have my strenuous efforts to write in German proved an agonizing ordeal, a “bitter struggle”? But neither Germany nor its language has managed to drive me mad yet, so I’d say that on the whole the experiment has worked out.
Shackled and liberatedThe first emotion I associate with my efforts to “assimilate” a new language is one of liberation – albeit in the form of an odd paradox. When I’m trying to find the right words to express a thought, the German language often feels like a straitjacket in which I can move only tentatively and awkwardly. (But doesn’t everyone who writes often feel shackled by language – even their own?) And yet, strangely enough, I often feel less self-conscious and inhibited in German than when writing – and even speaking – in my native language.
German friends who talk about similar experiences when using a foreign language claim their personal sense of liberation is due to the fact that the German language is less emotionally expressive. To which I say: Nonsense! I’m convinced there isn’t a single feeling you can’t express in German. I believe that, for many of us, any new language is like a magic mask: it protects us without hiding us. It gives us (or at least me) the confidence to go up and talk to people, to undertake exciting adventures and to share thoughts, things we’d be too shy (which I am) or demure (which I don't want to be!) to do in our native language. German often feels to me like a suit of glass armour, like a second skin of words that help me overcome my self-consciousness and insecurity – perhaps because they are not fraught with the taboos and inhibitions with which I was raised as a child.
UnveilingI notice that especially in my work as a journalist. I find it easier to write in German about myself or anecdotes drawn from my life or that of my family – and even when I'm covering “objective” stories such as elections in the US, international drug policy or integration problems in Germany. I experience a similar liberation through unveiling in other areas of my life as well. In love, for instance – that is to say, in so-called “intimate” moments in which I occasionally dare to utter words in German that would be liable to sound too forthright, candid or brash to me in my mother tongue.
A German acquaintance once told me that, while he doesn’t always agree with my opinion pieces, he does find them courageous. But that has little to do with fearlessness on my part. It is the language which I have put on like a magic veil that conceals less than it reveals and so encourages me to overcome my inhibitions and show my true face.