Paul McQuade. Current location: Glasgow, Scotland.
There are some people, still, who are surprised by multilingualism. They believe that language is a countable noun, that its borders can be defined by syntax, phonology, and a national boundary. To these people, language is a medium. Mind, breath, and meaning travel on its surface. A message written on a paper plane that flies from the mouth, deciphered by the listener, who finds it jammed in their ear canal.
To these people, it is quite normal to ask: In what language do you dream?
How can I answer this question?
I dreamt a wall of white plastic, once. The same kind they use to make light boxes. The skin on my palms could barely grip it as I climbed its surface, hauling myself to the top, where there lay a small plateau before a long drop on the other side. In this dream, I knew the name of the wall was imitobuwōru. In this name lies three Japanese words: imi, tobu, wōru. Meaning, flight, wall.
A wall on which meaning flies. A sheer surface up which meaning travels. Perhaps. But also a block in the flow of meaning. Sometimes forever in the way.
In the expression imitobu I hear also the word mimitabu, meaning earlobe. To foreign languages, the earlobe is also a kind of wall. They crawl up its surface in an attempt to gain entry. Unable to understand what the words mean, the earlobe remains unfeeling. Foreign words have no passports or visas. Their entry is entirely dependent upon whether or not the ear is open, if the border there remains closed.
If they gain entry, the words fly into the vocabulary of the ear: cochlea, tympanum. These words forget themselves. In their origin they mean the shell of a snail and the skin of a drum. Meaning must travel a long spiral before it can sound. To those who cannot decipher its mystery, language remains music. Its notes, like a diaspora, scattered across the stave.
In what language do you dream?
The question follows the path of a shell: it curves its way inward, seeking a centre. The polyglot mind is a riddle. Each tongue adds another spiral to the puzzle. To solve this maze, it seems, one must dismantle all the languages in the way. In the depth of the otic capsule, in the heart of the labyrinth, one would find there, slumbering, the muscle called the mother tongue.
Do we dream in the mother tongue? I find this question difficult to answer. I do not dream in English, nor do I dream in French, German, or Japanese. I do not even dream in Glaswegian, though its music is written in my heart.
English, French, Japanese, German. These languages appear on the map. They are units, nations, linguistic communities. When I learned my languages, I learned to speak like the French, the English, the German, the Japanese. Forever in imitation. I do not belong to any of these communities and yet their tongues live in my head. When I dream of words in German, have I stolen a dream from a woman sleeping in Berlin? At what point do these words become my own?
I once dreamt of a French man called Dolmetier. His name seemed significant but meant nothing to me in French. It was only when I woke that I realised the German Dolmetscher had been hidden in his name. Dolmetscher, an interpreter, grafted with the French métier. I dreamt of someone capable of interpreting for me, of making me make sense, at once, and finally. I think this is a dream common to those who find themselves struggling to be understood – in their own language or in others, in tongues broken or unbroken – and those who find themselves, increasingly, under question today.
Polyglots spend their lives explaining. Who they are, why they are, what roots their languages take. Was it your mother or your father, war or poverty, a boat, a plane, was it greed, was it crime – what divided you this way? What tangled the borders and left them knotted in your tongue?
In what language do you dream?
Sometimes I wonder what kind of world it is these people dream of, the people who ask this question. They seem to see a sphere whose surface is divided by longitude and latitude, countries with clear demarcation and national language. They dream of an earth with a mapped surface. They dream of the globe and globalisation, and that travel and translation mean simply the movement from A to B.
And yet the majority of the earth’s surface is covered by water, just as our bodies, too, are made predominately of this uncountable noun. The globe has depth, chasms, fissures. Places where the light cannot reach, like the Mariana Trench – a crescent-shaped scar in the Pacific Ocean.
Do we not also have depth, chasms, fissures? Places where even language cannot reach? Is this not where we would find, not the mother tongue, but the place of the dream itself? A scar inside us, shaped like the moon.
Each dream would carry the sound of this wound inside it, the way a shell carries the song of the sea. Each night, it seems, we lay our ears to this place and listen to what speaks inside us. From the depths.
The dream comes like a sentence to be translated, but without passport or visa, it must remain at the border. Music sounding at the wall of meaning. Strange and beautiful in its strangeness. The monolingual and the polyglot alike, before the dream, become ein Dolmetscher or Dolmetscherin of a language they cannot speak. In this way, a dream is always an experience of multilingualism. From a crack in the globe, it comes to tell us: we are all foreign to ourselves.