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Editorial: 22/3/24

This quarter's editorial is written by Zoë Green:

My colleagues give me gifts as if I'm moving to another world beyond this earthly one, rather than to a neighbouring country in the Schengen Area. When I arrive in this other country and start unpacking boxes – unwrapping bottles of whisky and gin, packets of coffee and designer tea, boxes of chocolates, jars of honey, carefully chosen books, cards with messages along the way – it occurs to me that maybe I have died. Maybe these boxes were my tomb. And when you move country (as I've done five times in ten years), a part of you does die. As Carol Ann Duffy writes in her beautiful, forlorn poem "The Dolphins", "Outside this world you cannot breathe for long." 


Well, I am trying to breathe, trying to live, but there was a specific kind of "me" that lived and operated in a unique environment, and much of my behaviour – e.g. my ability to write poetry – was determined by that environment; the change of environment and my habits (habits being determined mostly by environment) means that I am inevitably changing too, perhaps losing elements of a previous self whilst gaining a new identity amongst new people – "translating", as Duffy puts it. 

Honestly, though, I feel like a ghost – in the sense that I'm not quite sure who I am here yet. This is the first time that my working life is in a different language. When you don't speak a language fluently, you become a different kind of person. In my case, I am now someone who makes small talk. I am not by nature a small talker. However, I need to reach near-fluency in German in the next year, which involves forcing myself to chitchat about this and that; meanwhile, the mice in my skull squeak that I'm spouting nonsense, and so I fall silent. A person who cares about me says that I must – through speaking – show that I believe in myself or no one else will, but how can you believe in yourself in another language when every sentence is an approximation of what you really think and feel – when you can never express yourself exactly as you'd like to? 


This brings me to Fran Lock's fascinating essay (it's in the current issue) on the Irish lament "Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire", in which she talks of the relationship between language and the expression of the soul. "What must it have meant for Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill to have been cursing and lamenting in this very public way in her own forbidden language?" she asks. Turn that around: what does it mean not to be able to curse and lament in one's own language? What does it mean to only be able to express oneself (if at all) in approximations? My own maternal grandfather spoke Scottish Gaelic – which of course has been censored and banned at various points in history – and was the last in the family to do so. Like Lock of hers, I feel the loss of this language – wonder who I might have been with this language? How I might have written? I speak and write in English; after years abroad, I sound English; and yet I feel intensely Scottish, sometimes write in Scots, and – despite being highly commended in the 2023 Scots category of the McClellan Poetry Prize – I feel a fake. Not English, don't sound Scottish, don't have the Gaelic, can't express self clearly in German: the whole thing's a compromise in expression. 


Lock writes specifically of the lament that it is "relational, mobile and somatic. Handed down, body to body, or breath to breath, across centuries. It incubates and spreads in sinew, in the soft tissues and the long threads of intergenerational memory", but this is also the case with language as a whole if we accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the structures of the language we speak determine how we think. What does it mean if a certain way of thinking and feeling the world is passed down through generations through a language that is then lost/stolen/given up? You still have these feelings and thoughts in your bones, but perhaps only an imperfect way to express them. What does that mean for a people – for Irish and Scots, for example – spiritually, politically, societally? 


I suppose all of nature is dying and rebirthing and growing and changing: translating. For my own part, and because conclusions require some kind of synthesis, I'll take what I can from the translating aspect of things: appreciating the similarities between German and Scots (kennen and to ken something; Kiste and kist), and being amused by the differences (for example, the preponderance of double negatives to denote a positive in academic German which may or may not say something about a melancholic national psyche). I suppose the thing with translation is that you never know the exact destination nor who you'll become as a result of it – and, though I've lost one language, I am gaining another and learning to live another way. Once I've got past the small talk, I will find new ways to communicate. So hey there, how's it going?


A big "thank you" to Alan for gathering and hosting so many interesting writers here on this platform. Alan's debut collection, A Brief and Biased History of Love, is out now and you can order it here. I also hope you'll enjoy reading the opening chapters of his novel about Charles Dickens, The Sparkler, as much as I did. Please do also read, look at and listen to the work of the following: Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Gross, Fran Lock, Steve Shepherd, Alison Jones, Bridget Khursheed, Pippa Little, Jean Frémon (translated by John Taylor), Catherine Balaq, Lily Thomson, Rebecca Gethin, Dan Auerbach, Bex Hainsworth, Bob Beagrie, Daniel Gooding, Vikki C, Rob Walton, Matthew Griffiths, Sharon Salzberg, Noah Rasheta and Peter Moore.


Zoë Green is a writer based in Thuringia. Her debut pamphlet, Shadow Child is published by Hedgehog Press later this year; her first collection, Map, Compass, Key will come out next year with Valley Press. She has been published by The London Magazine, Under the Radar, One Hand Clapping and Poetry Salzburg Review.


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