My students and I have been reading about translation this week. Reading through a special issue of theEuropean Journal of  Women’s Studies, we’ve been considering how it is that we experience language; how language produces us as subjects.  It all began with a fascinating article by Charlotte Burck about living ‘in-between’; that is, of living in the spaces between stable language identities.  How is it, she asks, that those who speak two or more languages (and for whom English is a second or third or fourth language) construct identity in geo-political spaces marked as English, spaces in which English is almost defiantly waved as the essential marker of belonging. For these individuals – and her study included a very diverse group of participants – translation is a way of life. They are, as Burck points out, living in several languages.

We spent considerable time thinking through the politics of language. Is language just words? Is it just grammar? And if it is just words and grammar, then how do we understand “word”? How do we understand “grammar”? Language, for all of us, carries stories that reach far beyond the written or spoken word. Languages carry histories, geographies, politics. They mark belonging and exclusion.

And, as Burck points out, language can powerfully shape the physical body. More than one of us was astonished to discover that  “it is possible for an individual to be simultaneously psychotic in one language and coherent and reflective in another” (362).

Wow. While we all agreed that language shaped identity we had not idea that it could affect us in such very fundamental ways.

On reflection, after class, it occurred to me that this made sense. Many years ago, someone told me that the brain crafts a whole new language centre when one learns a second language (and that after this point, subsequent languages operate between these centres). I have no idea if this is true, but if it is, that could easily explain the psychotic/non-psychotic relationship. It would stand to reason that your different language centres would develop different routes through the brain. Different synapses. Different connections.

And reflecting further, if we agreed that language could be seen as a bearer of culture, it is entirely possible that one experiences oneself differently within different linguistic spaces. I speak French at least half an octave higher than I speak English. I also sit straighter. Speaking Dutch links me to my childhood. For a student’s colleague, language marks the boundaries of relationships.  He associates English with his university work and with his off-campus work in St. John’s. He associates his “mother tongue” with his family. Language thus compartmentalizes different elements of his identity. For another, language has become a subtle marker of class: the status of her family members who speak English with one accent, and the status of another family member who lays claim to a more elite English accent.

In Burck’s article, we’re introduced to a woman who uses her mother tongue to maintain close connections and build kinship relationships with people, but also strategically uses English when she wants to be seen as a sexual equal (even within her own language community). For all of us, language usage is a way of marking spaces of inclusion and exclusion. Some of us can engage in playful subversions of dominant narratives; others, however, are marginalized in the process.

And all of this leads me back to Madame Necker, who struggled so hard to fit into the French elite. As a French speaking woman from the Canton de Vaud in Switzerland, she might have expected (at least superficially) to fit into French culture. But her language, her manners, her custom, and her religious belief all marked her as an outsider. For Necker, language is a form of mother’s milk. It needs to be suckled from birth, or one will remain eternally excluded.

I think about language, too, in the context of the medical letters I am reading. The vast majority are in French. And yes, one could argue that the vast majority of Tissot’s patients were ether French or from the French areas of Switzerland. But many who wrote to Tissot in French were not French at all. They were Russian. Or Italian. Or English.

Today, English is the lingua franca of commerce, of research, of transnational community building. In the eighteenth century, however, French was the language of the elite. Like English, today, French was the language of culture, of breeding, of political expediency. French was spoken at many European courts, from the Russian court of Catherine the Great, to the royal courts in Denmark and The Netherlands.  Frederick the Great of Prussia was a noted Francophile whose entire library – both sets of it – was in French. And looking a bit further back, we can’t forget Charles II, the British king, a noted Francophile who did all he could to emulate Louis XIV.

So where does this leave Tissot’s poor, suffering patients? And how might I read their experiences today? If language is a way of marking political identity, then how one presents oneself becomes very signficant. Dena Goodman has already done some important work on gender and writing in this period. I wonder, too, if we might engage in a close consideration of the politics of translation: what does it mean to write one’s body in a second language? And how might that translation have been read by others?

But there are also practical elements to consider. The act of putting one’s bodily experiences into language is, in itself, already an act of translation. If it is true, as the research cited by Burck suggests, that language can fundamentally shape corporeal and intellectual experience, then it is entirely possible that the translation of one’s bodily experience from one language to another is more than a simple matter of importing text into an online translation program (had they been available), but it could, at a really fundamental level, reshape that bodily experience itself.

Would my wrists, currently overtired and overstrained by inefficient cross country skiing, excessive shoveling and too much writing, hurt differently in French? Would they hurt at all? Or would all the cultural significations associated with pain be so very different in “douleur” and “souffrance” that my bodily experience would be completely differently imagined and experienced?

Just the thought of this baffles my mind.


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