Found in Translation
A poet learns how to feel and see and think and sound in the language of his adopted home
By Piotr Florczyk
March 6, 2017
To have been born in another country and immigrated to the United States is both a blessing and a curse. For those who see America as the proverbial Promised Land, the move brings new opportunities, but it also triggers insecurities, a fractured identity, and an uncertain sense of self-worth. The newcomer not from an anglophone country has no choice but to enter into the strange process of acquiring English by translating himself for others while simultaneously translating his new home and friends into his native tongue. This process is full of static, of confusing innuendoes, of grating, accented sounds that heighten one’s sense of otherness. I don’t know any immigrant, including myself, who hasn’t experienced this type of cultural hazing. For those of us who feel less than secure in their adopted homeland, the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land has only made the task of self-definition more fraught.
It has taken me a long time to accept my accent—however much it has diminished over the years—and turn it into a badge of exceptionalism and a pathway to finding my own place, both physically and metaphorically. Nonetheless, it bothers me that the purity of diction to which every immigrant aspires will always remain out of reach for me, my speech stubbornly distorted despite my best efforts. Teachers of English as a second language know that their students can probably communicate just fine in their native languages. The trick is to convince them that although their metamorphosing identity may now come across as a little schizophrenic or syncopated, it is replete with opportunities waiting to be seized.
Some of the assimilation happens through writing and involves negotiation between your native language and your new surroundings. For instance, immigrant children tend to keep diaries in their new language, often to protect their private feelings and thoughts from the eyes of overbearing parents. If parents typically insist on speaking their native language at home, perhaps to soothe the pain of dislocation, children usually aim for the opposite. After all, you cannot fit in at school without speaking English. The native language of the home and the increasingly familiar American English of the world outside are the parallel roads on which one’s identity blunders and staggers forward. It’s only with time that a child, now grown and more secure in his identity, will begin to accept and cherish his multilingual and multicultural identity.
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Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books are East & West, a volume of poems, and two volumes of translations, My People & Other Poems by Wojciech Bonowicz and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, which was long-listed for the 2017 PEN America Award for Poetry in Translation.