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512 weeks ago @ Literary Magic - The Sphinx of Tongue · 1 reply · +2 points

Review by Geoff Anderson of “The Sphinx of Tongue”

I gather from the opening paragraph that this piece is the author's Preface to a volume of his own translation of his Bosnian poems into English in 1982. He understandably feels the need to reflect on the challenge that such a task presented.

Being a poet, his prose inevitably touches on the poetic, but I also feel this is appropriate when trying to analyse something as delicate and indefinable as the differences between languages in their attempts to convey a philosophical concept. I have done serious works of translation myself, from medieval French and from 17th French, so I know that ultimately all translation from one tongue into another is an approximation, for within every word in a nation's lexicon there lies buried the machinations of that nation's history, culture, and even geography. The author of this piece makes a brilliant attempt to convey this challenge by analysing how three different tongues (French, English, and Bosnian) try to convey the Absence of Presence.

I found this essay intriguing and quite beautiful. It is about the primacy of one's mother tongue on the one hand, and on the other hand the primacy of Language - in whatever tongue it may be. He takes as his example 'rien' / 'nothing' / 'nista'. He draws subtle distinctions at a philosophical level between the meanings conveyed in the three languages' attempts to convey Absence of Presence, which can itself suggest a presence, just as 'midnight' can be seen as both an ending and a beginning.

I think he's suggesting that French 'rien' teeters towards a nothingness that is so powerful it is almost a presence; he compares it to a stillness paradoxically conveyed by a gesture that leads to Creation, as in a violinist's hand about to sweep a bow across the strings. Whereas English 'nothing' denies the existence of something - period. Bosnian 'nista' is somewhere between those two concepts: it has the real Presence and Potential of a millstone, but the water to drive it is missing - a brilliant image. Bosnian 'nista' exists and yet doesn't - it is an effect without a cause.

The author's love for his own Bosnian tongue comes across, along with a deep respect for all tongues, which Language towers over. Indeed, this piece could have been entitled 'There are no small languages, only small senses of Language.' Instead we have 'The Sphinx of Tongue' - which I suspect is the title of his collection of poems - which perfectly conveys the paradox of words, for they are pregnant (another image he uses) with meaning and yet are nothing but print on a page or breath swept through a larynx of strings; likewise the Sphinx is massively pregnant with meaning but ultimately is just a huge lump of rock, saying nothing.

And finally, 'Tongue' in the title may ironically be what an English speaker would consider a mistranslation, for the author probably meant to say 'The Sphinx of Language'. But then again, such a mistranslation, if such it be, perfectly illustrates his point!