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George Szirtes: what being bilingual means for my writing and identity

Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes writes in both English and his native tongue. He contemplates bilingualism and belonging

Sometimes language seems no more than a piece of tissue paper carried on the wind: flimsy, semi-transparent, endlessly vulnerable, like a deflated talks-bubble, almost weightless. At other times it is a brick wall, or worse still a room with dense walls and no exit, with only the sense of voices beyond the wall, faintly audible and never clear enough, everything they say immediately becoming part of the wall. Always provisional, language appears this or that way to us according to our own disposition and relation to it.

That is something Eva Hoffman well knew in writing her classic on exile and language, Lost in Translation. On moving languages and cultures her family left Krakow, Poland, for Vancouver, Canada, when she was a young girl something immediately drained out of her identity. In one often quoted passage, she tells how full of meaning the word rzeka Polish for "river" was for her, and how empty the English "river" appeared at first: no associations, no stories, no presence, no background of literature, song or image. Her very name changes from Ewa to Eva. She has become someone else. Rzeka was the deflated talks bubble; river the blank wall. But she resolved this in due course and became a successful writer in the language of the initial wall.

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