Astrid Alben on language, childhood, photographs and translation.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
I have yet to come across a trace image or residual synaptic impression of myself in motion; I have no memories of me climbing over a wall, boarding a flight, trying to maintain my balance on a surfboard or trance-dancing with the crowd in Mazzo in 90s Amsterdam. My gaze on my past is immobile, paralysed – photographic. Luigi Ghirri described photography as inescapably fragmentary by its nature. In his short essay, ‘f/11, 1/125, Natural Light’, he describes how – even without a pre-established narrative, or even one conceived randomly – a sequence of photographs will invite interrelations between images, in what could be taken to be memories, data or information immersed and stored visually in the brain.
I am ten and standing on our freshly laid lawn looking out across the fields behind the new house. I want to be an ornithologist. I don’t know that word, yet. I have given it my own word: I say, I want to be a birdologist. I don’t know that word yet either, because when I am ten and standing on the grass looking out across the fields behind the new house, I do not yet speak English. We have moved to England from Lagos in Nigeria and I am learning the new language. I speak enough to start school, but none of these sentences I am currently tapping out on my keyboard are yet a possibility. My vantage point is from behind and above at a leaning-in angle, as if I am a giant cat poised quietly on its hind legs and I am staring at the improbable, strange girl looking out across the fields behind the new house, as if I have come across her image on a discoloured postcard stowed into a small ashen-grey wooden crate serving as a sales box propped up by the exit of a second hand bookshop. A vaguely familiar image, not mine or me, entirely.
Indeed, this might be the reason that some of Ghirri’s most captivating and puzzling photographs are of people photographed from behind: a family of four studying a map of the ski slopes of a Swiss winter resort; a couple rambling away from the camera in the foothills of the Alps; a mother, her two children and a grandmother leaning against the railing, staring out at a Mediterranean Sea that you can’t quite make out in the photograph but know is shimmering underneath. Ghirri says of this:
‘I have always been more interested in delineating a world that focuses on attentiveness and a sense of belonging […]. I was interested in all those situations in which the illusory, transient and apparently less codified aspects of human life come to the fore, such as moments of leisure and recreation – not least because they bear similarity with the act of taking photographs.’
My memories of me are on no occasion face-on. I am seen – I see myself – only from behind: the shoulder blades stiffened, the back of a nondescript T-shirt, nape of the neck. I want to see her face, I want my spectator-self to see her in this postcard-memory, and I am giving myself the promise of seeing her with this specific rendering, yet there is also this refusal. She, the she of my memory, is not going to let me see her face. I am subject and photographer of my own memory archive. The brain (if that can be the darkroom in this analogy) develops a faded yet hyperreal abstraction that can’t be understood in isolation. There is hyperreality and undiluted abstraction at the same moment, like a filter function that gets added to the alchemical mix of perceived and perception. Ghirri describes this hyperreal-abstraction dyad as the disappearing act of the photographer so that he is never the author, chronicler or director but indistinguishable from those he photographs. As with language, it is through superimposition and interrelating with something else that depth and meaning are given: cohesion is context.
I, that is the ten-year-old standing on the grass of the new house looking at the fields, am learning to master this new language. After the initial hesitation, that moment of vertiginous paralysis – as when you stand by the edge of a swimming pool with the depth and temperature of the water unresolved, wobble, regain your balance, breathe in deeply, and, steeling yourself, lower yourself cautiously like a glass filled to the brim to the table, only in this case entering not the crystal clear, characterless water of the swimming pool, but lowering oneself into the diaphanous, dark void of a new language – like so, I immersed myself in the fluidity of as-yet-atonal sounds, contortionist expressions, misfiring idioms and fidgety prepositions; a new linguistic network that, as I begin to take ownership, incrementally, will help form complex constructions. It is inevitable that you become discretely plausible yet different versions of yourself in the new language: we will be as two superimposed negatives of the same sky photographed seconds apart.
I want to be an ornithologist. I treasure, dearly and possessively, a book on the migration of birds, Trekvogels, by Jaap Taapken and D.A.C. van den Hoorn. I have fallen into the habit of sleeping with an English–Dutch dictionary on the floor beside my bed because in the new house I will dream in words as yet unfamiliar and I will wake myself to look them up. So I lie in bed before falling asleep, mulling over how ‘trekvogels’ best translates as ‘pull’ or ‘trek’ birds in English because this is what migrating birds are in Dutch, birds that are pulled or drawn like small magnets from one place to another through the sky across continents and oceans. Even blackbirds, depending on how far north in Europe they are from, will migrate to countries like Portugal and Morocco. Storks migrate. Geese migrate, as do nightingales, pintails, black-tailed godwits, spoonbills, great shearwaters, oystercatchers, even the territorially patrolling robin, cranes, swallows, goldfinches, avocets, redshanks – in fact, let me save you the trouble by saying that most birds migrate, as of course starlings are drawn through the sky, in their swarming murmurations. I too am the accumulative product of migration: from the Netherlands to Nigeria and now here, England, with its freshly laid lawn extending into the fields.
My focus is on the memory that presents itself as a photograph of a girl standing with her back to me. She doesn’t know I am there. I want to come face-to-face with her but the laws of physics confound this. My vantage point is as of a ginormous cat upright on its hind legs behind her. I am also staring at that which I can’t describe were I to relate it in the language I do not speak yet as well as I will need to, if I am to thrive. As a gift, a welcome gift to usher me into the new family home but more likely simply a bribe of appeasement, my mother and stepfather have presented me with a copy of a 1966 revised edition of the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds: The Complete Identification Book, Over 1000 Illustrations with 600 in Colour, by R. S. R. Fitter & R. A. Richardson. Funny, how one remembers emotions more distinctly and undiluted than one’s own face. But I do remember most vividly my initial joy at receiving what was evidently a bird book and how my joyful expression melted like a waxwork thrown onto the fireplace the moment I realised the names of these birds were unknown to me. I thought at first it must have been some sort of mistake. These birds depicted in the plates all had the wrong names. How can birds be in two languages? Another word for ‘eyelash’, yes. ‘Biscuit tin’, ‘doorframe’, ‘backstroke’, ‘stamp’, ‘egg yolk’, all of them, yes. Birds? No. Birds were my domain. I had devotedly memorised them and their taxonomy, from the narcissistically detached, cold-hearted heron to the toucan with its monstrously flaming beak of orange, magenta and violet with streaks of green and yellow and pitch black. The pictures in this Pocket Guide to British Birds – some in colour, others, like the cormorant and guillemot, glaring back at me in alienating gradations of grey – I was lost to them. What had become of the meeuw, de patrijs, de uil, de lepelaar, de kievit, reigers? These British birds were unrecognisable, not mine, not mine!
Do only the things we can name exist? There is anecdotal evidence to support this theory, beside my childhood trauma. In 2006, the Dutch physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, reputedly one of eight people to understand string theory, wrote a column in the NRC Handelsblad that tells of how anthropologists showed members of an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea an hour-long film of Manhattan. Throngs of people, skyscrapers, electricity cables crisscrossing the skyline, steam escaping through the subway vents, yellow cabs crossing the Brooklyn bridge, airplanes overhead. The tribal members, who had never ventured out of the jungle, were asked to talk about what they had just seen. The only thing they commented on was the chicken. Chicken? What chicken? It was only when the anthropologists inspected the film, frame by frame, that they spotted in one of the shots, briefly, miraculously, a chicken.
My birds. My anchors-in-the-sky; my bond and pact with knowledge as a means of belonging, profoundly to this earth; my soaring tokens of explicit beauty and restoration. Their names rendered meaningless and frivolously random like loose sand. The new language had exposed itself as an irruption of the inadmissible. I could no longer claim ownership of my area of speciality. Access had been denied. I had been cheated. I had been robbed. The unity between my identity (my intelligence and personality) and analogy, that is, my means of communication, was under attack as if, like in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the birds had turned to dive-bomb me. I – that is, my ten-year-old self stood on the grass blinded by a hatred for my new language. This book with its ‘over 1000 illustrations’ is testament that I do not belong. A clattering of jackdaws in the field in front of the new house caws and I want to kick their tail feathers. The consoling words of my mother, as my hysteria continues to swell like a volcano in my pumping heart, her well-intentioned but ignorant observation that learning the scientific, Latinised names of birds could settle all future misunderstanding and confusion, enraged and panicked me further. Another language?
There are no limits to the dangers facing migrating birds on these journeys: redwings ram themselves to death against isolated lighthouses; light beacons at sea attract passing birds; trading vessels have to be scrubbed top to bottom after they have been blitzed by the faeces of thousands of starlings. Annually (illegally, and hence clandestinely) in the southwest of France, from Bordeaux to Toulouse, many tens of thousands of song thrushes are processed into tinned paté de grives, and pasties are stuffed with blackbird, lark or ortolan. In the north-east of Italy, there are roccoli, which are large catchment gardens, often laid out long ago and usually located at favourably and slightly higher points in the landscape, in which whole trees are decorated with sticks dipped in vischio – bird glue – that can be swung down like flagpoles to bring in the loot of sparrows and wagtails. Hunters use tape recorders with decoy sounds to lure songbirds that are sold at bird markets in Cyprus. Malta has a particularly strategic position geographically, and 300 types of birds will use the island as a stepping stone in the sea between Africa and Europe. 20-metre-high nets are erected in spring, when exhausted orioles and turtledoves return.
When receding lines in a photograph, or a landscape, appear to converge or even appear to be disappearing altogether, this is a vanishing point, in the way in which a memory fades gradually into the murky background of time and space, or how railway tracks thin out on the horizon. And so the ten-year-old standing on the freshly laid lawn looking out on the fields in front of the new house is making attempts at addressing, calculating ways in which to negotiate her disorientation with the new paradoxes that emerge when existing within and between two languages, of what will be a bartering system of identity and prospective, credible narratives that are unfolding as part of a landscape she realises she is seeing for the first time. I know this now because I am standing right behind her, and I observe that this vertigo is a maelstrom of love and violence that accompanies the mastering of a new language as it is illogically and extravagantly pitted against the unrealised yet potential murder of the old, the first language – this vanishing point, against the optical laws and physics, a point of emergence, is the point where I belong and unbelong, where I am being looked at and am the onlooker, the translator and the translated, the chicken finding its way through Manhattan.
Astrid Alben is a poet, editor and translator. She is the author of Ai! Ai! Pianissimo, Plainspeak, Little Dead Rabbit and Klein dood konijn. Her translation of Anne Vegter’s Eiland berg gletsjer/Island mountain glacier received an English PEN Translates award and was published by Prototype in 2022. She is Chair of Poetry London and initiator and curator of Salon A:, a writer and artists reading and performance series.