Can the Bilingual Speak?

15 May, 2022
“Jerusalem” by Nabil Anani, 2013 (cour­tesy of Zawyeh Gallery, Ramal­lah).


(In lov­ing mem­o­ry of Emile Habi­by, 1921–1996)

“… Frag­ments. Or the anec­dote as a form of knowl­edge.” —Paul Auster, The Inven­tion of Soli­tude


Anton Shammas


A cou­ple of years ago, I was kind­ly invit­ed, in mono­lin­gual Eng­lish, to be a pan­elist at a con­fer­ence on bilin­gual­ism, on account of my dubi­ous lin­gual past in Ara­bic and Hebrew. I imme­di­ate­ly declined the flat­ter­ing invi­ta­tion, explain­ing to the orga­niz­ers that it had been a while since I’d last thought of myself as an active bilin­gual writer and trans­la­tor of these two mutu­al­ly exclu­sive lan­guages. Hebrew, in the last two decades or so, seems to have bowed out grace­ful­ly from my lin­guis­tic state of mind, and the bilin­gual­ism I had cher­ished for decades is no longer a dis­tinct part of my lin­gual iden­ti­ty, what­ev­er that is.

Then I recon­sid­ered the invi­ta­tion and changed my mind, and that change of mind, curi­ous­ly enough, hap­pened in Eng­lish, as Ara­bic and Hebrew were mutu­al­ly absent from my deci­sion-mak­ing process for a change. I thought, in Eng­lish, that after some fifty years of life with­in Ara­bic and Hebrew and life in the pre­car­i­ous inter­sec­tions between the two, it’s prob­a­bly time for me to pause and look back at my hum­ble and equal­ly ques­tion­able his­to­ry as a bilin­gual writer and trans­la­tor of these two lan­guages and maybe draw some intro­spec­tive con­clu­sions as a lin­gual retiree, for what it’s worth.

When does one become a bilin­gual or, to para­phrase the ninth-cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal Ara­bic writer al-Jāḥiẓ, when does one begin to feel com­fort­able with hav­ing two tongues in one’s mouth?

“A clas­sic, com­plex nov­el of iden­ti­ty, mem­o­ry and his­to­ry” as Goodreads notes. Arabesques is the first nov­el writ­ten in Hebrew by a Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zen of Israel.

I should imme­di­ate­ly append a dis­claimer: I real­ly know noth­ing about bilin­gual­ism, and all I seem to know is some­thing about my own life as an alleged bilin­gual. The fol­low­ing frag­ments, then, are extreme­ly per­son­al and, as such, could be unre­li­able and, worse still, unverifiable.

So, maybe I should start off by pos­ing the seem­ing­ly sim­ple ques­tions: When does one become a bilin­gual or, to para­phrase the ninth-cen­tu­ry clas­si­cal Ara­bic writer al-Jāḥiẓ, when does one begin to feel com­fort­able with hav­ing two tongues in one’s mouth? And if you don’t hap­pen to be, say, a George Stein­er, is there a moment in time when the knowl­edge of, or the profi­cien­cy in, a sec­ond lan­guage reach­es the same lev­el or exceeds that of the first? Is that an objec­tifiable and mea­sur­able process?

Is the knowl­edge of a lan­guage gauged by the abil­i­ty to speak that lan­guage or by the abil­i­ty  to write it well, or by both? Is bilin­gual­ism defined by the abil­i­ty to speak two lan­guages equal­ly well? And if so, what does it mean, in effect, to speak a lan­guage? Is that at all pos­si­ble — to speak a lan­guage, to dwell and feel at home in a lan­guage, let alone in two?

Wise Hei­deg­ger would tell us that it is lan­guage, as such, that speaks, not the subject:

“Lan­guage speaks…To reflect on lan­guage thus demands that we enter into the speak­ing of lan­guage in order to take up our stay with lan­guage, i.e., with­in its speak­ing, not with­in our own. Only in that way do we arrive at the region with­in which it may hap­pen — or also fail to hap­pen — that lan­guage will call to us from there and grant us its nature. We leave the speak­ing to language…Language speaks. Humans speak in that they respond to language.”

So, can the bilin­gual speak?

For if the bilin­gual can speak only when respond­ing to lan­guage, which of the two would they be respond­ing to, and how would the two lan­guages of bilin­gual­ism speak simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on their behalf? And what hap­pens when the two lan­guages of the bilin­gual are mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, mutu­al­ly con­testable, mutu­al­ly try­ing so vio­lent­ly yet so uneven­ly to silence each oth­er, on so many lev­els, like Ara­bic and Hebrew have been doing for almost 150 years now? And is it pos­si­ble for a bilin­gual in Ara­bic and Hebrew to speak about that bilin­gual­ism in either lan­guage, or is it only pos­si­ble to do so using a third, seem­ing­ly neu­tral lan­guage? For if you chose Ara­bic in order to speak, Hebrew, for more than five decades the lan­guage of lethal mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion, would be seem­ing­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the sta­tus of a sec­ond fiddle, and vice ver­sa. Which means, in effect, that bilin­gual­ism can  be addressed and defined only from the “with­out,” as Beck­ett, prob­a­bly the great­est bilin­gual of all times, refers to the out­side in his play Endgame. Is there an out­side of lan­guage or, bet­ter still, out­side of bilin­gual­ism, a “with­out” from which one can exam­ine what’s with­in the two lan­guages? Is that “with­out” pos­si­ble to find only inside a third language?

That said, as a retired bilin­gual des­per­a­do, it is also hard for me to find the right words in any of the three lan­guages in which I con­sid­er myself to be a refugee to talk about bilin­gual­ism. It’s inter­est­ing, though, that hav­ing a third lan­guage to dis­cuss the adver­sar­i­al, mutu­al­ly exclu­sive rela­tion­ship between Ara­bic and Hebrew adds a spin of san­i­ty to that act, mak­ing the lin­guis­tic and polit­i­cal entan­gle­ments of my Ara­bic and Hebrew, and the asym­met­ri­cal pow­er rela­tion between the two, seem eas­i­er to han­dle, eas­i­er to unrav­el. Still, who knows, maybe that is yet anoth­er illusion.

Now, let me tell you three anec­dotes in total­ly ran­dom order which I think might cap­ture, in vary­ing degrees of rel­e­vance, some of the things that come to mind when I think about my own bilin­gual past, a past in which when­ev­er I wrote in Hebrew, Ara­bic would always be its uncon­scious, and vice versa.


1. The Black Rooster of the Rabbi 

Some fifteen years ago, around the time that the Hebrew lan­guage and I had a falling out of sorts, some­thing very amus­ing­ly uncan­ny hap­pened to me. A friend of mine, a schol­ar of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, had writ­ten a paper which she want­ed to run by me. “In a 1980 anthol­o­gy of new Hebrew poets,” the first sen­tence read, “Anton Sham­mas [that would be me] pub­lished a grip­ping poem titled ‘Dyokan’ (Por­trait). This poem describes the expe­ri­ence of assim­i­la­tion into the lan­guage of the Oth­er in intense­ly vis­cer­al, cor­po­re­al terms, as a kind of vio­lent inva­sion by a for­eign presence.”

By 1980 I must have been already done with poet­ry, in both Ara­bic and Hebrew, and thought I was ready for the intim­i­dat­ing expe­ri­ence of switch­ing to writ­ing fiction, so how could I have writ­ten and pub­lished that poem? Besides, the Hebrew word dyokan, or por­trait, sound­ed so alien and so unusu­al to my ears — and come to think of it, so intru­sive for some­one whom I remem­bered would have refrained from open­ing up like that. Then I went on reading:

“Yet the poem also con­tains a num­ber of elu­sive sub­texts and baf­fling ref­er­ences. Through a com­plex net­work of inter­tex­tu­al allu­sions and asso­ci­a­tions, it invokes the famous midrash on Rab­bi Shim‘on bar Yohai in the cave — with­out ever men­tion­ing the word ‘cave.’ The poem ends enig­mat­i­cal­ly with this line: ‘A black roost­er beat­ing its wings. Jerusalem.’”

I was total­ly dumb­found­ed: the famous midrash on Rab­bi Shim‘on bar Yohai in the cave and a black roost­er beat­ing its wings? I pricked up my ears, but no bells were ring­ing. Was the writer mak­ing it all up, I won­dered? Because I real­ly didn’t have any rec­ol­lec­tion what­so­ev­er of writ­ing about that Rab­bi, or about his black roost­er for that matter.

I looked the poem up in the two vol­umes of Hebrew poet­ry I’d so irre­spon­si­bly pub­lished in the sev­en­ties, and at which I hadn’t looked for a long time, but couldn’t find that poem and was so curi­ous to know what that poem was all about.

I couldn’t find the anthol­o­gy men­tioned in the paper, so I Googled the poem, and all  I could find were essays writ­ten about it by teach­ers of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, as the poem seemed to have been part of the cur­ricu­lum of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture in Israeli high schools. But the poem itself was nowhere to be found,  and I was now more inter­est­ed in try­ing to remem­ber it, try­ing to con­jure  it up, but failed miserably.

I couldn’t remem­ber the poem, and, worse still,  I couldn’t remem­ber the per­son who had writ­ten that poem, appar­ent­ly in the late sev­en­ties. True, I used to have black­outs dur­ing that decade, as some of you may have had, but the total era­sure of the mem­o­ry of writ­ing a text in Hebrew, and the total era­sure of the mem­o­ry of that per­son I used to be, was quite shock­ing, unset­tling, and disorienting.

And I was won­der­ing, Did that hap­pen because I was no longer that bilin­gual per­son I used to be when I reck­less­ly moved around that no man’s land, between Ara­bic and Hebrew? Does lan­guage real­ly inhab­it us, in the form of either an orig­i­nal or a trans­la­tion? Do we real­ly inhab­it and dwell in our lan­guage, or in our languages?

Gil Hochberg, who was not the writer of that paper, writes in In Spite of Par­ti­tion about my work in Hebrew: “show­ing how amidst what appears to be a promise of cacoph­o­ny and a hope­ful act of mul­ti­fac­eted trans­la­tions (bor­row­ing of mul­ti­ple voic­es and tongues), one finds a bit­ter reminder of the lim­its of such affir­ma­tive trans­lata­bil­i­ty: clear lim­its, set by and care­ful­ly guard­ed by the eth­no-nation­al ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of lin­guis­tic zones.”

In oth­er words, are these clear lim­its, “set by and care­ful­ly guard­ed by the eth­no-nation­al ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of lin­guis­tic zones,” so dis­cur­sive­ly pow­er­ful that any attempt, per­son­al or oth­er­wise, at chal­leng­ing them is pre­de­ter­mined to fail or to be swal­lowed whole by these eth­no-nation­al lin­guis­tic zones and to be turned into a part of the sys­tem of pow­er against which these attempts were aimed at in the first place?


2. Translation at Gunpoint 

In the ear­ly ‘80s in Jerusalem, around the time that I was done with writ­ing poet­ry in Ara­bic and Hebrew, I start­ed enter­tain­ing the idea of writ­ing a nov­el in Hebrew. I had been invest­ing most of my time and ener­gy in trans­lat­ing fiction and poet­ry from and into Hebrew and Ara­bic, when I was asked by a dear friend, the late Daniel Amit, then a physi­cist at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem and a very anti-Zion­ist polit­i­cal activist, who had just found­ed a small pub­lish­ing house, Mifrās (sail), to trans­late into Hebrew a nov­el by the Pales­tin­ian writer Emile Habi­by, Al-Mutashā’il (The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pes­sop­ti­mist, or sim­ply The Pes­sop­ti­mist).

The small press had a very clear polit­i­cal mis­sion: to pub­lish in Hebrew books on Pales­tine, Pales­tin­ian pol­i­tics, and Pales­tin­ian lit­er­a­ture. Habi­by had served for twen­ty years as a Knes­set mem­ber, rep­re­sent­ing the Israeli Com­mu­nist Par­ty in the Israeli Par­lia­ment, before he decid­ed in 1972 to leave that waste­land behind and focus on writ­ing fiction.

When Al-Mutashā’il was pub­lished in 1974, it was hailed almost imme­di­ate­ly by lit­er­ary crit­ics in the Arab world as a mas­ter­piece of Ara­bic style. So, when Daniel asked me to trans­late the nov­el into Hebrew, I told him imme­di­ate­ly that it was sim­ply impos­si­ble to trans­late Habiby’s daunt­ing Ara­bic style. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. In order to sup­port my claim, I showed him a rav­ing review of the nov­el, pub­lished in Hebrew in the dai­ly Haaretz, by Shi­mon Bal­las, an Iraqi-born Hebrew nov­el­ist and renowned Israeli schol­ar of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, in which he stat­ed unequiv­o­cal­ly that the nov­el would be impos­si­ble to trans­late into any lan­guage. Daniel dis­missed the claim on the spot and said, many decades before Emi­ly Apter, that there was no such thing as “untrans­lat­a­bles.” So, I asked him for some time to sleep on it. “There’s no such thing as sleep either,” he said, but still agreed to give me some time to reconsider.

I was liv­ing in Jerusalem at the time, and even though I had a steady job, it was hard for me, every now and then, to pay the rent, as trans­la­tion didn’t pay that well. Amit had offered me $500, a very con­sid­er­able amount in those days, so that was very tempt­ing. Some weeks lat­er I changed my mind (in Ara­bic) and told him (in Hebrew) that I’d trans­late the nov­el. We signed the con­tract (in Hebrew), and I could pay the rent. Then I set out to trans late Emile Habi­by into Hebrew, only to real­ize after strug­gling bit­ter­ly with the first cou­ple of pages that for one, the nov­el, all in all, was real­ly untrans­lat­able and two, worse still, I had spent the $500.

I still can’t remem­ber how I did final­ly find the courage to call Daniel and break the bad news to him. But I remem­ber it was a Thurs­day after­noon, and after a long, elab­o­rate, and awk­ward apol­o­gy, I told him that it would take me some time but I’d definite­ly return the advance money.

There was a long, long silence, and I could clear­ly hear Daniel’s mea­sured, pas­sive aggres­sive breath­ing. Then he said, very calm­ly, “Lis­ten, Anton. You know that I define myself as anti-Zion­ist, but I had to serve in the army, and I own a gun. As you sure­ly know, I know where you live, and on Thurs­day next week, ‘at five in the after­noon,’ as that famous line goes in Lorca’s ‘Lament  for Igna­cio Sánchez Mejías,’ next Thurs­day, at five in the after­noon, I’ll show up in your apart­ment build­ing on 7 Meno­rah Street. I won’t take the stairs to where you live on the sec­ond floor but will open your mail­box at the entrance to the build­ing, and in your mail­box, I’ll find the trans­lat­ed first chap­ter of the nov­el. Then I’ll come back the fol­low­ing Thurs­day, at five in the after­noon, and there will be wait­ing for me the trans­lat­ed sec­ond chap­ter of the nov­el, and so on, Thurs­day in and Thurs­day out, at five in the after­noon, until we’re done. Now, if I show up next Thurs­day, at five in the after­noon, and I don’t find the trans­lat­ed first chap­ter, I’ll take the stairs to the sec­ond floor, I’ll knock on your door, you’ll open the door, and I’ll shoot you.”

I chuck­led because I thought he was jok­ing, but he was dead serious.

The nov­el had forty-five chap­ters, so you can imag­ine that after forty-five Thurs­days, the Hebrew trans­la­tion of Al-Mutashā’il was completed.

And I have lived to tell all about it … in English.


3. Translation as Revenge 

My trans­la­tion of The Pes­sop­ti­mist came out in 1984, and Habi­by, whose Hebrew was far bet­ter than he claimed, was very hap­py with the trans­la­tion. A year lat­er, in 1985, he pub­lished his sec­ond nov­el, lkhtayyeh, which he sent to me with the very sly inscrip­tion, “To my beloved broth­er Anton — all I’m ask­ing is that you read this book.” But I knew he was ask­ing for more, much more than a no-strings-attached read­ing, and he knew that as well.

Those days, in between trans­la­tions, I was wrap­ping up my own nov­el, in Hebrew, when I was asked by anoth­er pub­lish­ing house, and a very per­sis­tent lob­by of Habiby’s fans, to trans­late lkhtayyeh. Well, I had no choice, so I did, and when the trans­la­tion was pub­lished in 1988, I had already left Israel for good the pre­vi­ous year. Then he pub­lished his third nov­el, Sarāyā,  in 1991, my most favorite nov­el of his. By that time, we’d become long-dis­tance close friends, as I had earned his full trust not only as a devout in-house trans­la­tor, but also as an occa­sion­al edi­tor and fact-check­er. He would send me the ear­ly drafts of the chap­ters and ask for com­ments and sug­ges­tions, but for some weird rea­son we nev­er dis­cussed the poten­tial trans­la­tion. When the nov­el came out, he mailed it to me in Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, with the inscrip­tion “Your friend­ship alone is an hon­or for me, so what can I say when you are also my trans­la­tor? I owe you more than you’ll ever imag­ine. Yours, Emile Habiby.”

I was deeply flat­tered, of course, and deeply grate­ful, but equal­ly appre­hen­sive and anx­ious. And then on page 151 of the Ara­bic orig­i­nal, I read the fol­low­ing para­graph, which hadn’t been in the ear­ly draft he had shown me (and this is from the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Peter Ther­oux, which I’ve also edit­ed, along with Peter Cole):

I am no longer going back to tell you about Sarāyā or how I  searched for her … until that evening! So, as the Arabs say, what has dri­ven you away, after you showed me your love? In oth­er words, what, in fact, has hap­pened? I answered him: what in fact has “hap” in it. And that which has won’t hap­pen again. And with this I chal­lenge Anton Sham­mas, the Pales­tin­ian trans­la­tor who has trans­lat­ed my books from Ara­bic into Hebrew — I chal­lenge him to trans­late this jux­ta­po­si­tion and this pun, into any lan­guage or reg­is­ter, near or far, high or low, as com­pen­sa­tion for what the speak­ers of Hebrew have tak­en from us and from our language.

ﻓ ذا ﻋﺪا ﻣ   ﺑﺪا؟ أﺟﺒﺘﻪ: ﻣﺎ ﻋﺪا إﻻّ ﻫﺬا اﻟﺬي ﺑﺪا. وﻣﺎ   ﻳﺒﺪ ﻣﺎ ﻋﺪا وﻟﻦ ﻳﻌﻮد. وأﺗﺤﺪى

أﻧﻄﻮن ﺷ س أن ﻳﱰﺟﻢ ﻫﺬا اﻟﻄﺒﺎق واﻟﺠﻨﺎس إﱃ أ ّي ﻟﻐ ٍﺔ ﻗﺮﻳﺒﺔ أو ﺑﻌﻴﺪ . . .

ומה נשתנה, אם כן, הלילה הזה? או, כמאמר הערבים, מא עדא ממּא בּדא

)שפירושו, מילולית: מה הרחיק אותך ממני אחרי שהראית לי אהבה.( עניתי:

לא ﬠ ָדה עלינו זולת אשר ָבּ ָדה. ואשר בעדיינו התע ָדּה, ואחר ִנ ְת ָבּ ָדּה ְו ֻה ֲﬠ ָדה,

… ָדה ﬠ

לא ישוב עוד ֳק ָבל

So Habi­by addressed me direct­ly in the text, by name, chal­leng­ing me to trans­late a cer­tain Ara­bic idiom into any lan­guage, but specifi­cal­ly mean­ing Hebrew. And let’s face it, I’d asked for it and had only myself to blame. And I thought that beyond the sly lit­er­ary device, the lit­er­ary hail­ing, and beyond the per­for­ma­tive chal­lenge, and beyond the delight­ful Althusser­ian inter­pel­la­tion, Habi­by was telling me, in effect, that I could speak only as a trans­la­tor, as his trans­la­tor. And that was a benign vari­a­tion on the theme of trans­la­tion at gunpoint.

Shai Gins­burg has argued that “unlike the great resis­tance Sham­mas the author has raised, Sham­mas the trans­la­tor was (and is) well received. As a trans­la­tor from Ara­bic into Hebrew he — like oth­er trans­la­tors — allows Israeli cul­ture to present itself to itself as lib­er­al, as shar­ing in mod­ern uni­ver­sal human­ist val­ues. As a Hebrew author, on the oth­er hand, Sham­mas unmasks the bad faith of this ‘lib­er­al’ image for as such he asks Israeli cul­ture to do what it can­not do: to fol­low through its espoused val­ues out­side the lit­er­ary realm.”

A cou­ple of months after the pub­li­ca­tion of Sarāyā’s Hebrew trans­la­tion in 1993, when I was vis­it­ing my fam­i­ly in Haifa, I was asked by the edi­tor of Ha’īr, a local news­pa­per pub­lished in Tel-Aviv at the time, to con­duct a lengthy inter­view with Habi­by. I remind­ed him when we met of some­thing that we had man­aged to avoid men­tion­ing all those years, an ear­ly encounter of the embar­rass­ing kind in the mid-sev­en­ties. Those days I was work­ing for the pub­lic TV sta­tion in Jerusalem, as a pro­duc­er of a lit­er­ary pro­gram, and want­ed to inter­view him about his first nov­el, The Pes­sop­ti­mist, pub­lished in 1974. My divi­sion direc­tor at the time, who had been a com­mu­nist in his youth, suc­cumbed to the zeal of con­verts and reject­ed the idea because of Habiby’s polit­i­cal views. But lat­er he changed his mind, for the sake of the good old days. So, I made it to Tel-Aviv with the TV crew to con­duct the interview.

In 1974, I had pub­lished two col­lec­tions of poet­ry, in Hebrew and Ara­bic, respec­tive­ly, so I fool­ish­ly enough decid­ed on a whim to give a copy of the Ara­bic book to Habi­by when we met. Some months lat­er, our mutu­al  friend Shi­mon Bal­las, men­tioned above and who was at the time the chair of the Ara­bic depart­ment at Haifa Uni­ver­si­ty, orga­nized a con­fer­ence about The Pes­sop­ti­mist, at which Habi­by was sup­posed to give the keynote speech. Hav­ing had already bro­ken the spell, I trav­eled to Haifa with my TV crew to pre­pare a report on the con­fer­ence. I was sit­ting in the back of the  amphithe­ater, next to the cam­er­ap­er­son, and Habi­by start­ed his keynote in Ara­bic, total­ly obliv­i­ous of my pres­ence. “Before I talk to you about my work,” he said in his sin­gu­lar bari­tone, “let me first read to you a poem by a young Pales­tin­ian so-called poet, just to show you the kind of ridicu­lous and hol­low stuff writ­ten these fate­ful days by our young gen­er­a­tion, those who have no val­ues and no cause to fight for.” Then, in a hilar­i­ous mock­ing tone which only he could mas­ter, he start­ed read­ing a poem from my book that I had giv­en him, sav­ing me the embar­rass­ment of iden­ti­fy­ing me by name. I pre­tend­ed that I didn’t care.

I was telling the sto­ry to Habi­by now as we sat for the inter­view, more than twen­ty years lat­er. Three years before that, in 1990, he was award­ed the very pres­ti­gious Al-Quds Prize for Lit­er­a­ture, by the book-chal­lenged Yasir Arafat him­self, and two years lat­er, much to the cha­grin and out­rage of Habiby’s fans in the Arab world and then Israeli prime min­is­ter, book-chal­lenged Yitzhak Shamir, he was award­ed the pres­ti­gious Israel Prize for Literature.

He clutched his bowed head with both hands in dis­be­lief and said,“Oh my god, all these years that we have known each oth­er, I was hop­ing you would nev­er remem­ber that shame­ful episode.” Twist­ing the knife, I told him that when he finished read­ing my poem that day at Haifa Uni­ver­si­ty, I kept think­ing to myself, What would be the per­fect revenge? And you know what, I added less than half-jok­ing­ly, I decid­ed to trans­late your work into Hebrew, hop­ing that one day you might be award­ed the Israel Prize for Literature.

That was my per­fect revenge.

The very juicy, mean­der­ing, elab­o­rate, mul­ti-lay­ered, and col­or­ful Ara­bic curse he pro­duced was yet anoth­er untrans­lat­able masterpiece.



In con­clu­sion, let me go back to Hei­deg­ger and see if one of his dis­cus­sions on build­ing and dwelling could give me a prop­er metaphor for what I have in mind. Mind you, while I like anec­dotes, I cer­tain­ly don’t like metaphors, because I think they seem at first to beguil­ing­ly offer us a neat way out, a tan­gi­ble embod­i­ment of an idea we have, then after a while things fall apart, the metaphor col­laps­es, and we are left in more puz­zle­ment and con­fu­sion than we had been in before the metaphor showed up. Frus­trat­ed read­ers of Benjamin’s metaphor-rid­dled essay “The Task of the Trans­la­tor” would get my drift.

I’m quot­ing at length from the sec­ond chap­ter of Heidegger’s “Build­ing Dwelling Thinking”:

A bridge may serve as an exam­ple for our reflec­tions. The bridge swings over the stream “with ease and pow­er.” It does not just con­nect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge cross­es the stream. The bridge designed­ly caus­es them to lie across from each oth­er. One side is set off against the oth­er by the bridge   It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neigh­bor­hood. The bridge gath­ers the earth as land­scape around the stream. Even where the bridge cov­ers the stream, it holds its flow up to the sky by tak­ing it for a moment under the vault­ed gate­way and then set­ting it free once more. The bridge lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mor­tals so that they may come and go from shore to shore.

There might be some­thing in this image of a bridge-long quo­ta­tion that could offer a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of look­ing at bilin­gual­ism as the bridge that con­nects two lan­guages. How­ev­er, the bridge of bilin­gual­ism does not only con­nect the two banks that are already there, but rather it makes them emerge as two lan­guages when it cross­es the river.

But then again, bridges are hard to build, and some­times they fail to reach the oth­er bank, and some­times they col­lapse; rivers run dry, and metaphors fall apart, lead­ing us to nowhere.

And we can­not speak.

… But we keep trying.


This essay first appeared in the Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly Review, Vol 61, No.2, Spring 2022, as “Can the Bilin­gual Speak?” and appears here by spe­cial arrangement.


Anton ShammasArabicBeckettbilingualismEmile HabibyHebrewPalestinian citizens of Israel

A Palestinian writer and translator of Arabic, Hebrew and English, Anton Shammas has been teaching Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, since 1997. He is the author of three books of poetry (in Hebrew and Arabic); two plays; many essays in English, Hebrew and Arabic; and a novel, Arabesques, originally published in Hebrew (1986) and translated into eight languages. Upon its American publication in 1988, Arabesques was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of that year's best seven fiction works. Shammas' essays, on the current cultural and political scene in the Middle East, and on his linguistic autobiography in between three languages, have been published in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine. He has translated from and into Arabic, Hebrew and English, playwrights, writers and poets such as: Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, Dario Fo, Emile Habiby, Mahmoud Darwish, and Taha Muhammad Ali.