I was surprised the other day at lunch when someone asked me a question that, I suppose, must come with age: Had I any regrets in life?
The obvious answer, of course, is yes: roads not taken, words not spoken, opportunities ignored or mishandled. I would like to have done this and that, or gone here and there; but on reflection I decided that, all things being equal, life has turned out essentially the way I wanted it to turn out—has been better, in fact—and the only genuine regret I have is never to have mastered a foreign language.
I may qualify this by saying, in my defense, that I do have a rudimentary knowledge of French and German. I wasn’t a very good student of language in school—even in English, I found grammar to be torture—but I have kept up both languages informally, and have what I call a tourist’s proficiency. I can carry on a simple conversation in Stuttgart or Normandy, comprehend a newspaper, roughly understand a panel discussion on TV. Indeed, I was once interviewed on television in Bonn—it was the morning after a German federal election, and the crew chose me at random as a man in the street—and I have never had the experience of speaking French to a Frenchman and being answered, contemptuously, in English.
The problem is that my knowledge of these languages is largely confined to the written word; understanding oral French or German depends on the speaker. Many German philosophers are incomprehensible even in translation, but I occasionally read Friedrich Nietzsche in the original because he tended to write a simple, emphatic, straightforward German. I am a connoisseur of General de Gaulle’s appearances on YouTube because he spoke slowly, carefully, and distinctly: I have finished translating sentence one by the time he is ready to launch into sentence two.
And that’s the problem: Foreign languages are truly foreign to me, like a code which de Gaulle and Nietzsche insist on using and I’ve never cracked. My brain was hard-wired for English, as we would now say, and I have never lived in France or Germany. Instead of hearing and speaking these alien tongues by second nature, I am always furiously translating every phrase and syllable.
There is a famous passage in Helen Keller’s autobiography where she describes the moment in her childhood when she grasps that the water pouring over her hand from the pump corresponds to the word Anne Sullivan is tracing in her palm in sign language:
As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
It’s a moving description, at least to me, made slightly poignant by the fact that I’ve never had any comparable breakthrough in German or French. With, I think, one exception.
In 1998, I was back in Germany, covering yet another federal election, and on a Sunday morning in Berlin, visited a handful of polling places to talk to voters and pollwatchers. I had been in the country for a while, had refreshed my German in the months before the election, and was as immersed in the language as I had ever been. The night before, I had attended a performance of Handel’s Giustino (1737) at the Comic Opera on the Unter den Linden. Finding myself with several hours free before the polls closed, I decided to attend a service at the Berlin Cathedral on the Museumsinsel in old East Berlin.
Berlin Cathedral is a great oversized baroque structure, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the prayers and reciting the responses surrounded by a throng of sturdy German Protestants. I tend to dislike sermons, but I sat comfortably back in some anticipation to listen to the Lutheran words echoing in the nave. It was exciting to be attending a German religious service in pews once occupied by the Kaiser himself. And it was not a bad performance, as sermons go: I actually paid attention to the pastor’s message about the mystery of faith.
At which point, it suddenly occurred to me that I had been following the sermon for several minutes in German, not rendering each word and phrase in English. Briefly, magically, I had achieved the “misty consciousness” that Helen Keller described, and the words were passing from ear to brain and on to understanding without any desperate, delayed, simultaneous translation.
Just as quickly, of course, the moment passed. I literally shuddered as I grasped what had happened; but the joy that I felt was quickly tempered by the need to translate—and the realization that language was mysterious again.