“And Quite without Damnation”
An Essay on Language and Tongue-less-ness
In each interview I’ve given since the beginning of my career, one question keeps creeping up: why do you write in English and not in Bosnian, or at least in Swedish? My most honest answer is always, Because my mother does not speak English. There is an all too intimate connection between a mother and a mother tongue, and I think Dr. Freud would have at least patted me on the shoulder, if not said, like a good old fashioned father, Well done, boy. You dodged that bullet. My mother’s Swedish is not terribly good either but why take that risk? And neither did my own Swedish ever reach any literary heights. I studied it alongside English in my twenties, from courses in various refugee camps to evening schools, and then, by chance, I continued developing this colonial language and left the Scandinavian aside. Swedish is anyway increasingly influenced by English and some colleagues at my Department (of English) claim that Swedes are already practically born bilingual, or with some new hybrid Swedish. No one understands Strindberg anymore.
The other fact that influenced my choice is that after the war I was no longer sure what my mother tongue was. Nationalisms have done their job well, as always, and the Balkan languages have changed and developed in many ways and under various influences, and I felt that as a fresh Swede I was not a part of that process. I did not like the direction in which everything was moving. It happened that some of the people to whom I showed some of my first stories wanted to change my diction in a way that was seriously messed up. They wanted my characters to speak the way I’d never heard people speaking when I was growing up. Izvini, al nije moja nena baš tako pričala. Sorry, but my grandma did not speak that way.
I often remember what I experienced just before the war spread from Croatia to Bosnia in the third year of high school (I studied to be an engineer). Sometime mid-term, the teacher of the so-called Serbocroatian-Croatoserbian said that we would, from that moment, start studying the Serbian language. I remember the classroom. I remember that the light was bad. The smell of oil we brought on our fingers and the clothes from the workshop where we welded random pieces for practice. I remember the temperature. Both hot and cold.
And what have we studied so far? one student asked.
I do not remember what she said. In that era no one spoke about Bosnian as a language. But I know that the answer went somewhere in my subconscious to play ping-pong with my ego, superego, and id.
I only experienced the bizarreness of the changes in languages–in which, again, I did not participate because the ethnic cleansing brought me to Scandinavia–since 2014 during my vacations in Banja Luka. I noticed how people talked a bit differently, sounding more like Serbs in Serbia, but not quite. There was a mix of languages.
I went to get a haircut and after a couple of minutes the hairdresser said, You are not from around here, are you?
I am not.
I can tell from your accent, she said.
I was stunned. What did that mean? Why did she say that to me, and why in the world did I tell her that I was not from my own city? And why did I say it so instinctively?
Of course, one’s language is constantly changing in different environments. If nothing else, Swedish and English influenced my Bosnian. However, there is something else, something that the hairdresser did not see, that her language too has changed over the past twenty years. It is more likely that I have the Banja Luka accent from the nineties, while now they have another dialect.
There are many scenes like this, and now it is easier to deal with and easier to digest, but there is one scene I experienced when I first came to Bosnia for the first time since the war. The scene is described in the story “Afterword: Homecoming” from my short story collection, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair. It is one of the first texts in English, my third language, now my first, three steps ahead of my mother-father tongue. The story was written after my first visit to my native land, in 2004, when I started working on a PhD in English literature, eleven years after becoming a refugee, and when the question of language was perhaps the most fierce in my heart because it was a period when I definitely knew that English had possessed me, and unlike all the colonized peoples, I had no one to blame but myself. I chose it. It did not choose me. It was a period when I decided to start writing seriously. It was like trying to turn the screw with the wrong screwdriver. You cannot find the right size or shape of the tip. You need the one that’s like a cross, the Phillips head, but you have the slot head that is also too small and the wood is hard, and the screwdriver glides in the hand, and you press harder, and even harder, until the screw is in, and even the fact that the pieces you screwed together are ugly, you accept it as authentically yours.
I translated the text below into Bosnian for the sake of this reflection, which was originally commissioned as an original piece in my mother-father tongue for a collection of essays by writers from the Balkans on the theme of the language. Everything else around it, the opening and the ending of this entire reflection was originally written in Bosnian, perhaps the first time I did such a thing since I’d started writing. How did I translate the original story you’re about to read? By pulling it through Google translate. Of course, I then fixed it, but the question was how much. Was that the correct Bosnian language? Could I really write an essay on this topic in the language I only use as köksspråk, as the Swedes say, the kitchen tongue? Perhaps Google translate, in fact, gave one of the most powerful images of the soul that has, since the war, struggled with the fact that it did not know how to speak, that it lost all the words, and that no one would give them back, that every word had to be fought for.
After the editor saw the piece, she asked me, why don’t I translate it into English in case we wanted to try publishing an English version.
I mean, what on earth would that be? How was I going to just straight translate it without taking the entire situation into account. I loved the idea. I admit that much. It was actually my natural condition. This is in some way what I have always done, having to suddenly reorient, rework myself, reword myself, and thus come back to myself.
In order to repeat the experiment I pulled the entire Bosnian translation through Google translate. The result? Ah man. I hadn’t laughed that much for months.
Let’s first see that original.
ii. Mother Tongue
One other thing made me realize how estranged I was from Bosnia. The language. I hadn’t forgotten it. On the contrary, I was something of a nativist struggling to preserve this rich heritage of words that even Goethe himself learnt so as to enjoy Bosnian poetry. Well, it was not poetry I had forgotten about, it was the excessive Bosnian swearing. Bosnians sometimes pride themselves on the flexibility of their language. All words can be used for invective. We even have special suffixes that make this possible.
This is what happened. My mum-in-law wanted to buy a whole grilled lamb for her nephew’s wedding in another town. The groom and I went to get one from this man who had a BBQ place. While the toothless man served us chilled Fanta Mango out on the terrace and boasted about his business, inside the room with a big window and a grill in which six lambs were rolling, his skinny wife was chopping the seventh lamb to pieces and throwing me a smile whenever she caught me gawking at her huge, hatchet-shaped knife, which she would whet every few slices.
The man swore like mad, but he was not angry or unpleasant. He was cheerful. I had forgotten about Bosnian casual-language strategy. In order to make his language less posh, to make it as casual and relaxed as possible, he stuffed his sentences with all variations of “f****”, while his wife stuffed bags with chopped lamb. The topic was breakfast. It took the man five minutes to say: I woke up early this morning and went to the baker, Midhat. I bought three buns and a cup of ayran (sour milk), and I sat in the grass to enjoy my breakfast. What he really said was, So I “f******” woke up, a mother******* hour before the ******** rooster. And I felt, f*** its mother in the arse, what can I f****** do now? F*** it. So I washed my bloody face, and waddled down the sister-******* road to that cocksucker Midhat, who makes cunt-smelly buns, and I f****** bought three, f*** his mum in the . . . and I sat in the grass to f****** rest, and enjoy the ******* breakfast, before I had to go to the mother******* hell-job.
Something like that. You get the gist. I felt like a language Puritan. I had stopped using even the regular F*** it, let alone this syntax: only-every-second-word-normal. I was a stranger again, a posh Swede (Swedish being famous for having few and quite innocuous invectives).
Yet, not even Swedes are so posh. When they ask me to teach them a few words from my mother tongue, they always ask for invectives. Shakespeare’s Caliban said he was thankful to Miranda for she taught him how to curse and he could curse Prospero for his misfortune. This made me wonder, How in the world does a man forget to curse?
Now, back in the safe corridors of the English Department in Stockholm, a linguist colleague tells me that babies are exposed to their mother tongues even in the womb. It is an uncanny thing: swimming in a language like in the amniotic fluid, then swimming out of it as if I have emerged from the ice-cold Scandinavian sea on to some unfamiliar shore, breathless, and quite speechless. Quite curse-less.
Looking back at this old story, I came to understand a lot of things that went through my head back when I had no language to speak of. I saw how both Google translate and myself struggled to do the job. For some reason, the machine translation decided to use all the words in “ekavica,” which is more dialectically peculiar to the Serbian language, as if Google translate was, subconsciously, adapting it to the new Banja Luka variety, which was influenced by Serbian. In the Bosnian version I could quote and point this out, but in this English version, I felt you dear Reader would not understand a thing. I’d need two paragraphs to explain each little oddity that made us Bosnian LOL at the mere sight of it. In that first, authentic Google-translate, version into what is now often called BSC (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian) like an acronym for some kinky activity, I used the fact that most people would know some English and that they would know the peculiarities of the dialectical variations in the Balkans so I could play around with all kinds of code switching. I could, for instance, in the part where I speak of mother-father tongue use the word “babo” to mean “father” instead of “tata”, knowing that it would say something about my being a Muslim. This I cannot do in English. The entire sentence had to go.
But, do let me try and show you. Here I put words I’d use in the brackets so you get some idea: “Moja mamica je htela [htjela] da kupi celo [cijelo] jagnje na grilu za venčanje [vjenjčanje] njenog nećaka [amidžića]” (My mommie wanted to buy a whole grilled lamb for her nephew’s wedding). I wonder why was the original “mother-in-law” changed to “mamica” (“mommie”)? Probably a Freudian slip built into Google.
It was very interesting to me that the English word “curse” was only translated into BSC to mean “spell” or even “an oath,” but not to mean “swearing.” Probably because the Bosnian words “kletva” (curse) is so close to “zakletva” (oath). And just how much harsher did the machine make that last sentence “Quite curse-less,” by turning it into “Sasvim bez prokletstva”, which in the second run through Google became “quite without damnation.” This is funny. And it reveals to me that I used words in my third (now first) language, which are somewhat more refined, with some more literary connotations, connections, and conjunctions. And yet, when re-translated into English, “The man swore like mad” metamorphosed into “Man was cursed as crazy”. And “All words can be used for invective” became “All words can be used for psalms.” Dear God. Apparently Google didn’t know of the word “psovanje,” probably one of most common words, and went for “psalm.” Whatever looked closest to it, visually speaking.
My favorite was probably the way “a grill in which six lambs were rolling, his skinny wife was chopping the seventh lamb to pieces and throwing me a smile”, because, by detour through the kinky BSC J, it turned into: “the six lambs turned on the rabbits, his slimy woman was licking seven lambs in pieces.”
But most important was what actually happened to the last paragraph when the now fresh off the boat Bosnian version passed through the machine and back into the original English:
When I returned to the fine and secure halls of the English Department in Stockholm, my colleague told me that the babies were exposed in tongues even in their subjects. Fantastic thing, imagine, swim in the tongue like in the mother liquor, and then spill like a cold scandinavian sea on an unknown shore, breathless and without tongue. Quite frankly.
Even in the subjects. The mother liquor. Quite frankly. This was brilliant. Quite frankly, there was some fun ingenuity in all this. It’d take a certain kind of mind to call amniotic fluid mother liquor. Freud, stop laughing, please.
Finishing this reflection, I thought again, maybe, just maybe, it might have been better to just let Google translate my original essay in Bosnian, the whole thing, to let it do what it is programmed for and let that bizarre version give you dear Reader what is the only real picture of how a man feels when he has, at the same time, both the treasure and the curse of multiple languages, and at the same time, perhaps, no language. And no language to speak of.
MAHMUTOVIĆ has a PhD in English Literature from Stockholm University and MFA in Creative Writing, City University of Hong Kong. He has lectured at the Department of English, Stockholm University, since 2007 and acted as the fiction editor at Two Thirds North, a journal of transnational writing, since 2010.
He frequently reviews for scholarly journals in literary studies and creative writing. Below is the list of major publications. Besides these he has published scholarly articles in books and journals such as Studies in the Novel, Writing in Practice, Transnational Literature, Mosaic, ImageTexT Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, American Studies in Scandinavia, Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, The Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies, The Journal of Contemporary Literature, The Coleridge Bulletin,
His stories and creative non-fiction appear widely in the UK and US magazines, and his essay “Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles” has been adapted for BBC Radio.
He is a recipient of many awards for fiction and has served a judge on a number of literary prizes, including Neustadt Prize for Literature.