We’re preparing for our Friday night reading at the Poetry Society in London and Niels asks me how to pronounce various words from the English translation of his first column: ‘parentage’, ‘nuance’, ‘mediatory’. I hesitate over the last one – my vocabulary is wide but page-bound, so that every few months there is always some word to flabbergast my boyfriend when I mispronounce it. “That’s what happens when you prefer reading to socialising,” he smirks. My best guess to Niels is Meedia-Tory, but I suggest he asks Priya, who says it’s medee-A-tory.
It’s not just Received Pronunciation that trips me up. For the past few years I’ve had a problem telling people which city I live in: Newcastle, or as it’s said locally, newCassel. But accent – with its pointers to class, regionalism, ethnicity – is difficult to convey accurately in writing, let alone translation, so that all the complications that accrue each time I open my mouth to speak are, to some extent, erased. Some things are simpler in translation. In London, when asked where I’m from, ‘Hackney’ was never deemed a sufficient response and I’d have to recount my family history. In Newcastle, I can just say I’m from London. And if I get on a northbound train for the 1 hour 30 minutes journey to the next city, Edinburgh, it gets even better because I have crossed the border into Scotland, where I become English.
Translation escalates this simplification. Just as I would never refer to myself as English except in French at school (where everyone was equal in parroting ‘Je suis Anglaise’), at the Poetry Society I hear myself answer a question on cultural diversity by claiming I am never so British as when translated into Dutch.
All this consolidation of identity falls apart when I arrive in The Hague for Crossing Border and check in to the hotel, where it’s back to my usual guise of ‘foreign girl with unpronounceable name.’ The clerk tells me there’s no reservation, even though I’ve spelt my name twice. “I don’t know what other name it would be under,” I tell him, and spell it again. Third time’s the charm and he finds it. “I have a difficult name too,” he sympathises. Later, I have supper in the hotel bar with Priya and violinist Ruth Palmer, who I’d met that afternoon at Amsterdam Schipol airport, while we waited for a smiling clarinettist to complete our minibus ride to the hotel. He tells us his name and he’s lovely and probably hideously famous but all I can hear is ‘Barbarous’ or ‘Barrabas’ and now I’m the one who can’t say names. After supper, Ruth points to my surname as I sign my room receipt. “Why,” she asks, “have you missed out the ‘I’?” I look, but the ‘I’ is there – I haven’t suddenly lost the ability to spell my own name – it’s just a little hard to read. Back in my room, I look up ‘I’ in one of my two new Dutch phrasebooks and practice saying Ik ben.