Memory: A Consequence of Langauge

Now that my parents are gone, who will remember with me who I was as a child? Photo: Jørgen Hattesen.
Now that my parents are gone, who will remember with me who I was as a child? Photo: Jørgen Hattesen.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Pied-á-terre CPH in October 2014. It was reblogged on Translatorpower.

When my father was dying I wrote memories of the childhood I had with him. I wrote in my native language, Danish, and gave him a long, long brain dump of everything that came to mind in the short period I had. He enjoyed reading my perspective of events he could recall to greater or lesser extent.

Together we wrote the story of his own life, illustrated it with photos and had it published in 100 copies. I put one copy, hot from the press, into his hands just as the ambulance officers came to collect him to take him to the hospice. Two days later he died.

With both my parents now gone I have no-one to remember with me the self I was as a child. My siblings and remaining childhood friends remember stuff, but they do it from the perspective of a child, not an adult. After 23 years of English-language immersion, it was refreshing to remember and write in Danish. A bit rusty perhaps (but I am not a best-selling author like Christian Mørk); memories flowed easily and my brain was filled with words, images, smells, feelings and sensations that were conjured up and remembered in Danish.

When I reconnected with my dear departed uncle, who was in the business of story telling, he called my written Danish refreshingly crisp and un-corrupted by adulthood’s work habits. He encouraged me to write more and to write in Danish.

In Danish, I wear a grey 'spencer'. In English, I cannot even find the word, references to an 18th century women's fashion borrowed from military dress. Photo: Unknown. 1969.
In Danish, I wear a grey ‘spencer’. In English, I cannot even find the equivalent, only references to an 18th century women’s fashion borrowed from military dress and a range over a very different aesthetic for girls dresses. Photo: Unknown. 1969.

We experience the world differently in different languages.  How I remember my experiences depend not only on the language I use to remember, but also the language I used at the time.

I have lived all my working life in Australia. When my mother first visited us I tried to explain to her my work in Danish. I found it really difficult to find the Danish words for the particulars of my day-to-day working life, which itself was word and language based. I was constantly using English words to explain my role to mum, who must have felt she was losing me in more ways than one. It turns out this is a common experience for people who are bilingual.

Nabokov’s three autobiographies testament that language and memory go together: first he wrote and published Conclusive Evidence in English. Then he translated it to Russian, but found thinking about his life in Russian brought out many more memories worthy of documentation, making the English version seem woefully inadequate. Once he had finished his Russian autobiography (Drugie berega or Other Shores) he then translated it to English; yet he found it difficult to fit his Russian experiences into the ‘straightjacket of English’. So he ended up with three very different documented versions of the same life, the last being Speak, Memory.

According to Dr Anna Pavlenko, language and memory are integrated – language used during particular events becomes a ‘tag’ for memory of that event and when we try to translate to another language something becomes lost in translation: We lose the sense of a correlation between words and things and words and feelings. It is never quite the same. Our childhood language integrates words with our experiences, which can make the memory feel real. Words learned in the class room or later in life do not integrate with our experiences in this same way “because by then we learn to suppress our emotions.”

Language even shapes our cognitive ability, as Asst. Prof. Lera Boroditsky points out. She juxtaposes a five-year-old child in Pormpuraaw in Queensland, able to point to North when asked, with a Stanford lecture room filled with distinguished scholars who could not. The difference was her language which uses the constancy of the compass to determine direction rather than the subjective left/right we use in English. She also explores how the English language leads people to attribute blame for an accident, whereas Spanish and Japanese speakers were less likely to even recall who caused accident, because of their language.

During my gap year in Copenhagen in 2015, I begun my creative writing practice in earnest. Drawing on memories of my Danish childhood and family mythology, I wrote creative fiction. Perhaps mistakenly, I chose to write in English because of the plentiful opportunities to enter English language short stories in competitions and the Queensland Writers Center had advised me the size of the English-speaking market gave me more opportunities for success. And of course I strive for success.

In memory of my uncle’s advice, I found myself translating short stories originally written in English. I have published some of these on this site. Feedback so far indicates that my memory-based stories flow far more easily in Danish than the do in English.

No doubt my writing would be different in Danish. It would also be challenging. Spending a year in Copenhagen let me reclaim contemporary Danish language. I know bilingualism does not necessarily make for proficient translators, but I intend to learn the tricks of the trade so I can publish confidently in both languages.

Thanks for reading. Do you have any feedback or comments?