I have just finished editing the translation of my book, Mother Tongue, into Serbian.
By the close of the last chapter I was sobbing.
Those last few pages made me dive deep into emotions that I now want to share, but find almost impossible to do in English. For the first time, I get—very, very deeply—what it means when you say that something is “impossible to translate.”
Throughout my book, I talk about the fact that I never had a name for the language I spoke with my mother. It was just called speaking po našemuor “our way.” It’s the reason that, absurd as it sounds, I never knew precisely which language my mother and I spoke, or why.
When I traveled recently through the countries that once made up my homeland, I learned that the language I spoke with my Croatian mother was Serbian. Why didn’t we speak Croatian? At first I couldn’t say. Upon further reflection, I’ve come to believe that it was because Mama first learned to talk in Serbia. Although her parents were Croatian, the languages are not different enough for a child’s mind to differentiate between the two.
In my book, I write about some of the consequences of growing up multilingual. Mostly I recall funny anecdotes about my mother’s use of English. A whole chapter is dedicated to the word the, and ends with Mama calling my first boyfriend “the Greg.” If I had enough time, I could convince you that the article the is unnecessary; so unnecessary, in fact, that it doesn’t even exist in Serbian. That’s why Mama had so much trouble with it.
Now imagine translating a chapter about that word—the—into a language where it doesn’t exist. That was what I had to do while translating Mother Tongue into Serbian, and it was almost impossible to do in a way that preserved both the logic and humor of the original English. I am sure readers who do not speak English will shake their heads and move on.
This morning my translators sent me an unexpected email. It turns out that “Tania Amochaev” just doesn’t work in Serbian. I have to decide on an alternative—and there are many from which to choose.
Татјана Амочајев is on my Yugoslavian birth certificate, now presuming citizenship in any one of six (more or less) countries.
Tatiana Amočajev is how the official government English translator in Belgrade wrote it.
Tatiana Amocajev was issued a Green Card by the United States of America immigration services.
Tatyana Amochaev was registered as a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Татьяна Амочаева graduated from the St. Cyril and Methodius Russian high school in San Francisco.
Tania Amochaev, my wedding certificate confirms, married Harold Hahn and retained her given name.
Tania Romanov, or Tania Romanov Amochaev, is the author of my first book, Mother Tongue.
And that brings me full circle.
Before my mother died, dementia made her forget her other languages. She spoke Serbian and assumed everyone should understand her. I’m reminded of a Serbian proverb she taught me: “govori po srpski da te ceo svijet razume”; or, “speak Serbian so that the whole world will understand you.”
I ended Mother Tongue by thanking my mother for teaching me the language that allowed me to tell her, po našemu—in our way—that I love her, wherever she might be.
When the translators finished their work, they came up with the perfect name for my book. I don’t know if it will withstand critical scrutiny but, for me, it expresses everything: my relationship with my mother and the exclusivity of our language; my connection with the countries of my birth; my relationship with my mother tongue; challenges, adversity, and sentimentality; nurturing and love. My universe.
Coming soon to a bookstore near someone:
Po Nashemu: A Saga of Lives Interrupted by Exile, by Tanja Romanov Amočaev.