Elsie’s Language Bucket

When I was in high school, I wrote a poem called “Language Buckets”. I was first coming to terms with my new polyglot (containing more than three languages) brain, having taken up German the previous year, and I was delighting in the maze of cultures and languages superimposed on my everyday realities. In the poem, I characterize each of my languages as having its own bucket, and that because I am constantly bouncing around, they all sort of spill into one another. Here it is:

 

Was ist das? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

But that’s not what I mean to say.

What I want to say is ¿Qué es eso?

Spanish-think! Not cheese but queso.

Con is avec and with is mit,

All these words won’t seem to sit,

In their buckets, ordered and neat

So now I must dance with word-wet feet.

Assister’s attend but attendre is to wait,

Attender is assist, I can’t get them straight!

Entender is understand, entendre, to hear,

So is oír, but that’s not even near.

Esperar is to wait but also to wish

Espero un coche, which one is which?

Bonjour! Hola! Guten Morgen! Hello!

Sometimes, I swear my brain turns to jello.

Llevar is to bring but also to wear,

So is traer, but people don’t care.

Even in one tongue, you have to watch out,

They all sound the same – try spelling them out!

Because vert is green, and verre is glass,

And vers is towards and a ver lives in grass.

Glace is ice-cream but so is helado,

That’s not even close! Like pink and rosado.

Habiter is to live, but les habits are clothes.

So is ropa, but that, everyone knows.

So if one day you say I can’t speak anymore,

You must trust me, I know it’s a skill.

Never mind only one, try juggling four,

And making sure none of them spill.

 

I began talking to my dogs in all four languages, and telling everyone and anyone about how intriguing it was that French no longer uses imperfect subjunctive, whereas it is an indispensable piece of Spanish discourse, and how wonderfully logical German cases are. The following year, I went to Tajikistan on a State Department scholarship. During a seven-week, precious chapter of my life, I had the unique opportunity to become someone new in a foreign culture – liberating, yes, and terrifying – but with the invaluable gift of different perspectives.

I packed all these buckets and perspectives with me to college, where the registrar was indulgent enough to allow me to construct a degree in Spanish, French, and German. I studied for six months in Germany, and six months in France. In the middle of the Christmas markets in Köln, and the tiny sculpture galleries in Angers, I fell deeply in love with language and culture.

While in France, I had my first exposure to the academic discipline of translation. Now no longer a necessity of communication as it had been when my parents had wanted to buy bread at the local boulangerie when I was little, I was introduced to the nuances, techniques, and methods of translation. This craft, so underrepresented in today’s US literary circles, combines research, linguistic and cultural knowledge, a bit of patience, and an artistic flair. I found manipulating ideas and grammatical structures so creatively engaging, that when Heather asked me to join SisterSpun and translate Santa’s Red Bathtub I was overjoyed. This is the beginning of a new foray into children’s literature for me, and I hope to help celebrate multicultural and multilingual communities, all the while giving kids the means to collect their own language buckets, as I am determined to do for the rest of my life.

Christmas Market – Köln, Germany

Angers Galerie David d’Angers