The Third Language

In New Hampshire Humanities’ "Year of New Voices" project, Ewa Chrusciel will serve as one of the professional writers partnering with English learners to share their poems or stories in public readings. Here, Ewa reflects on her linguistic journey in Polish and later English and her upcoming role as mentor of new bilingual writers. – the Editors

Perhaps we – non-native speakers – do not even write in a second language. We write in the third language...

In Lost in Translation, a Life in a New Language, E. Hoffman claims that we can have a new beginning in a new language. We can be free of constraints and native inhibitions. For me, writing in English was liberating. I remember feeling free of the constraints of my native Polish language and inhibitions; free of fear of making errors. It was fun to experiment with new material.

Now in New Hampshire I am about to work with English learners in the Connections program’s Year of New Voices project. For me, doing this work feeds my desire to give back, but also to learn from the new voices. I might even discover that I have needed them more than they will have needed me. It will refresh my vision and bring me back to the source of writing, to my roots of writing: As I prepare to work with writers whose first language is not English, I have reflected on my first experiences with English after writing several volumes of poetry in my native Poland.

Sixteen years ago I came to the U.S. and today I still switch between Polish and English or superimpose them in various linguistic collages. It was one creative writing class I took with Lucia Cordell Getsi which opened me up to English. It was through her openness to me, a foreigner, that my new voice in a new language emerged. Without that initial encouragement and constructive feedback, I would have not proceeded.

Writing in two languages creates bewilderment for us and for our readers. It changes us. It transports us to new places. This miraculous transporting, this bilocation, is the theological meaning of translation. In theology, translation implies the act of miraculous displacement, just like in Nicolas Poussin’s 1630s painting "The Translation of Saint Rita of Cascia." Saint Rita was miraculously transported to a place she desired to be. Perhaps writing poems is always an experience of migration, if not exile. It is, after all, a way of being in two places at once.

Perhaps we – non-native speakers – do not even write in a second language. We write in the third language, a blend of the original and non-native language, a space that shuffles between these two different conceptualizations of the world.

My first book in English, Strata, tries to inhabit this third space which incorporates letters and poems, as well as investigates the issues of identity, mediation, protest, Central European politics, and the Sublime.

Out of two shifting positions, the third space emerges. It is woven out of bewilderment. To paraphrase Fanny Howe, we are victims "of constantly shifting positions, with every one of these positions stunned by bewilderment." Howe defines "bewilderment" as a loss of one’s sense of where one is. As Howe writes, "Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability. She quotes a Muslim prayer: "Lord, increase my bewilderment."

Writing in the third language is disorienting, sometimes disturbing. It recognizes the insufficiency of native or second language, the human desire and inability to express the ineffable. It saves us from idolatry. It teaches us humbleness, as we are perpetually in a state of mercy and adaptation. Perhaps we should all try to live as a foreigner who cannot take anything for granted. Or, as a stranger, who in the Hebrew Bible, is always mentioned in conjunction with the orphan and the widow.

An image of a canary in the mine comes to me. Helping a new immigrant find voice is helping one sing again, despite the fact that the conditions where they came from or where they are now, with all the accompanying hardships, might have been lethal or might have stifled their voice. The Year of New Voices will encourage bilingual writers to create in a new language, which means, in a sense, to create their world anew.

- Ewa Chrusciel, bilingual poet, translator, and Associate Professor of Humanities at Colby-Sawyer College

The "Year of New Voices" is presented through Connections, New Hampshire Humanities’ adult literacy program. Connections works with more than 500 native English speakers and new Americans to promote language skills, family literacy, a culture of reading, and civic engagement. We work in partnership with adult basic education and ESOL classes, refugee resettlement organizations, services for adults with developmental disabilities and state and county prisons. For more information, visit www.nhhumanities.org/Connections.