by Nicky Gluch
I had forgotten that we had started our philosophy classes with the subject of ‘Babel’. On Tuesday afternoons our Hebrew University lecturer known as Jack would pace around his classroom, expectant … I sit here, writing a book to be titled, ‘The Universal Language’, remembering so much of what came after ‘Babel’ and believing that it is the ‘after’ which influenced where I am today. I’ve been musing, as I do almost perpetually, on language and conversation and why some of us can speak without words. Yet the fact that our philosophy class sat on the hills of Mt Scopus discussing that fateful tower had slipped into some recess of my mind from where, in guilt, I must now retrieve it.
Let’s speak in three languages just for a moment – Migdal Ha’Bavel, La Tour de Babel, The Tower of Babel – and think about the origins of translation.
Back in Sydney after my study period in Israel, I found myself missing the Hebrew language. I ventured up to the seventh floor of my university library and, expecting purely academic texts, discovered that Amos Oz had once made it onto the syllabus.1 His hardback books, jackets removed, were like a deliverance: the characters’ flaws in keeping with my own, the same brown bread comforting, the same love of nature and political confusion writ onto the page. Such is his divisiveness that for a reader to like Oz, I have since learnt is, from his dissenters, to be clichéd or, from his supporters, to find immediate friends. I shy away from both sides. My encounter with Oz was chance, his books, deeply personal to me. When I need them, they are a great comfort. At other times, I cast them aside, the words slipping under my skin and taking hold of my greatest insecurities.
Once, I took his books to my biochemistry labs, for entertainment while the chemicals we obediently pipetted did what they did, with the same lack of understanding as we had about their function. My classmates sat on their phones and so I read, and at one point I remarked on an oversight in the translation and they looked at me, dumbfounded.
I realised that to them, Babel had never fallen. Words were simply ‘in other languages’. But it is in translation, as George Steiner points out, that understanding occurs. Steiner, with whom those philosophy classes began, before …, though his book was called ‘After’. After Babel – what rises from the chaos? The beauty of understanding, I Nicky Gluch 2 IMPRESSIONS 3 the pain of mis-understanding, or the destruction of not understanding. Our supplanting of English onto everything is is not convenience, but denial.
To Steiner, Babel babbles as he contemplates language in its infancy.2 And our own language? When does language start to shape us? When our tongue begins to form sounds, or before? As we sit in the babbling womb, or before? Is language coded into the four letters of our DNA?
To me, Babel is one step from bible. Some Jews believe that darkness descended upon the earth for three days when the Torah was first translated. Why? Not because we fear the vernacular. We are instructed to learn the language of any place we live. No, it is believed because it permits the thinking that: ‘Bereishit barah Elohim et ha’shamaim v’et ha’aretz’ is ‘Au commencement, Dieu créa le ciel et la terre’ is ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. But they are not the same, and it is impossible to talk about religion until we accept that. And yet we do, every day…
Jack would talk as he walked. His kippah askew, he perched on tables, window ledges, expounding ideas and pointedly asking questions to which he did not want the answer. You’d try to speak, sweating as all eyes turned to you, until you learnt that nothing was ever correct, nor wrong, and from shuddering, you’d learn to sit in awe. The third stage was feeling permitted to question.
Jack did not encourage fraternisation. His classes were without interval – one-act plays that demanded your full attention. After an hour and a half, the curtain would go down and we’d spill out (the actor did not like to discuss his performance), sometimes talking with all our bottled energy, other times preferring contemplative silence.
One afternoon, I walked home with a French-Canadian classmate. Classical music and cups of tea … From her window we watched the sun set over the Dome of the Rock. Kisses, ‘we should do this again,’ – then I went back to my apartment. But we never did it again, the singularity of Jack’s lessons almost forbidding repetition.
In the second week, Leanora joined the class. At first, a jealousy raged; Jack was mine! But slowly this claim revealed a deeper truth; I was afraid to let others see that which affected me. In my youth, I had been a brain, my heart buried beneath others’ expectations. Leanora, open, emotive, gave me no space for privacy. And so our souls became entwined with a platonicity that made it pure, the warmth still easily conjured after all these years.
In our apartment, on the low blue couch, we’d discuss the readings, and Leanora would tell me of Rilke and Foucault and love, always love. It was only later that I had ideas to share … and when I did, she listened. Leanora worked in common spaces, I in my room, pages everywhere. A friend’s gift Bible sat on my bed as I searched its English pages to make sense of Steiner, who was born French.
And by this time, we’d moved on to Jacques Derrida who writes so wisely of the Hebrew God, “He at the same time imposes and forbids translation.” 3 But this was still ‘before’. Before what happened which led me to sit, today, writing a thesis on simultaneity … before what made me contemplate why it matters that ‘Bereishit barah’ is not ‘Au commencement’ is not ‘In the beginning’. Because when I studied ‘Babel’, I was a scientist, I was to be a doctor. Yet I was working in Hadassah Hospital, finding that I could speak without words. That being kissed by an Arabic grandma after you’ve put on her socks needs no translation and that death has its own particular sound.
‘After’, I ended up in London; I went to Morocco; I read Elias Canetti. And sitting in Hampstead, where Canetti himself used to live, I read these words:
What is there in language? What does it conceal? What does it rob one of? … in Morocco I made no attempt to acquire either Arabic or any of the other Berber languages. I wanted to lose none of the force of those foreign sounding cries.”4
The beauty of the chaos, a search for understanding. It all began with ‘Babel’, the knowledge that language is a part of us: la langue, the tongue. Let us not be the ones to cut it out.
My memoir, due out next year, is set in Israel in 2013-14. It will explore how the experience of living and studying there led me to pursue a musical career. Writing in chronological ‘vignettes’, my aim is not to take sides in any political argument but rather to present the complexities of what I witnessed. I was nineteen, a student, a volunteer, a young woman and a Jew – and these multiple identities all played their part. Mostly, however, this will be a book about what binds people together and how I came to see music as one way to transcend difference.
1. Amos Oz, To Know a Woman, London: Vintage, 1992.
2 George Steiner, After Babel, London: Oxford University Press, 1975.
3 Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’, trans. Joseph F. Graham, Difference in Translation, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
4 Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakech, trans. J.A. Underwood, London: Penguin, 2012.