By Jimena and Maria
In 1998, Jacques Derrida published Monolingualism of the Other, an interesting reflection on issues such as identity, language, citizenship, and colonialism. Derrida confessed his personal history to analyze how exclusions -as the one he faced- “come to leave their mark upon this belonging or non-belonging of language, this affiliation to language, this assignation to what is peacefully called a language”. He stated:
“…My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it. It inhabits me. The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat. It is impassable, indisputable (p.1)…Yet it will never be mine, this language, the only one I am thus destined to speak, as long as speech is possible for me in life and in death; you see, never will this language be mine. And, truth to tell, it never was (p.2).”
During the whole essay he goes back over and over again to one particular sentence that, in a way, sums up the core of his reflection: I only have one language; yet it is not mine.
We found this sentence in particular -and the whole reflection in general- both compelling and transcendental. We felt that the sentence contains contradiction, anxiety, frustration but also a sort of poetic language. When we read the text, we inevitably thought of the condition of the immigrant, and in some contemporary unsolved conflicts inside nation-states that remark how those categories (language, culture, citizenship, and identity) create boundaries that still exclude and miscommunicate.
Our own thoughts on Derrida’s reflection were the inspiration for our sound experiment. We didn’t attempt to fully interpret Derrida’s ideas by conducting this modest sound exercise, but to explore this idea about language beyond the text.
We walked over 5th avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and recorded the voices of 8 people, all of them immigrants who work in various stores and restaurants. We asked them to say what their mother tongue was, in their native language and in English; then, to read the sentence from Derrida (I only have one language; yet it is not mine), and finally to translate the sentence it into their native language.
At first, we thought our directions were straightforward and didn’t anticipate any misunderstandings or special reactions. But when we hit the streets, the interaction with people we encountered was both a challenging and enriching experience. Most of the people were immediately engaged in the conversation as soon as they were asked to speak in their native language, although some of them said that they only spoke little English. After speaking in their native language, they asked if we understood what they were saying, and some of them offered to explain the translation or write it down for us.
Most of the people had a hard time understanding what the sentence in English meant and because of our language differences, we struggled to explain it. Some of the participants required a few minutes to think of the best way to translate what we asked them to say. And this is how we learned, among many other things, that the exact meaning of the word language is hard to translate in some languages, such as Bengali.
At the end, we put all the voices together in a piece that captures not only our interpretation on Derrida’s reflection but, what is most interesting, these 8 people’s interpretation at first glace.