Here are two extracts from two very different writers exploring their relationship with language. Both begin with a discussion of the art of translation, but both develop into a much deeper meditation on the nature of language itself, and on the craft of writing.

The first extract is from an essay by the writer and critic John Berger, in which he argues that a language cannot be thought of as merely a stock of words or phrases but is rather a ‘living creature’ whose ‘home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate’. The failure to understand the relationship between words, ideas and being, Berger argues, has today impoverished our intellectual and political lives. (As an aside, I hope one day that I am able to begin an essay, as Berger does, with the line ‘I have been writing for about 80 years’.)

The second extract is from an interview with the Turkish novelist Elif Şafak, published by English PEN. Şafak writes in both English and Turkish, a fact that appears to puzzle many. For Şafak, it is a means of reworking identity in a world in which so many constraints are imposed upon our sense of social being. Where Berger digs beneath words, Şafak looks beyond the boundaries.

Last week I published extracts from speeches given by Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin in which they explored the responsibilities of a writer, to the reader and to the craft.The extracts from Berger and Şafak complement those from Pullman and Le Guin. I am not sure that Berger and Şafak would fully agree with each other about a writer’s relationship to language. Şafak, for instance, is more wary of the constraints that the concept of the ‘mother tongue’ can place upon a writer’s vision than Berger appears to be. But both express beautifully how, as writers, they relate to their words, and how those words express something much deeper about what it is to be human.

rothko no 8 black

John Berger
‘The home of a language is the inarticulate
as well as the articulate’

True translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

This practice reminds us that a language cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases. Nor can it be reduced to a warehouse of the works written in it. A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate…

Words, terms, phrases can be separated from the creature of their language and used as mere labels. They then become inert and empty. The repetitive use of acronyms is a simple example of this. Most mainstream political discourse today is composed of words that, separated from any creature of language, are inert. And such dead ‘word-mongering’ wipes out memory and breeds a ruthless complacency.

What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself as a stop-gap man rather than a consequential, professional writer.

After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognised and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them.

So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins. And it goes on like this until there is a low murmur of provisional consent. Then I proceed to the next paragraph.

Another confabulation begins …


(Excerpted from ‘Writing is an offshoot of something deeper’, Guardian, 12 December 2014)


Elif Safak
‘We can dream in more than one language’

Like a child who plays with Lego bricks, I play with alphabets. It amazes me to see how a limited number of letters can create endless meanings, infinite stories. I am in love with words and they are never enough. We keep moving, expanding, travelling together. By nature, I am always aspiring to go beyond the boundary drawn in front of me, curious to know what lies beyond.

That said, there are things I find easier to express in Turkish, such as sorrow and melancholy. There are things I find easier to write in English, such as humour, irony and satire. It is less a linguistic difference than a cultural one.

‘But if you are writing in English first, how can we call you a Turkish writer anymore? You are now one of them, not one of us,’ a critic said to me in Turkey last year.

The truth is, I don’t believe in this artificial duality between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  As much as I respect writers and poets, such as Mahmoud Darwish, who claimed their mother tongue was their homeland, I also sincerely believe that there can be, and are, other paths in the world of creativity and storytelling. Some writers are just nomads. I happen to be one of them.

I wish I could write in Spanish as well. And in Russian. Or Japanese. But I have no such talents. What I have is two wonderful, beautiful and magical companions of the road. The English language with its grammatical suppleness and immense and ever-green vocabulary and the Turkish language with its agglutinated masses of microparticles and inverted sentences, like the serpentine streets of Istanbul. I love them both and in very different ways and for very different reasons.

Today, as more and more people are becoming displaced and replaced all around the world, our need to question static identity politics is also growing per day. Rather than a pre-given, fixed, monolithic identity, we can have multiple and fluid belongings. We can even love more than one person. Our hearts are wide and deep enough to do so. And yes, we can also dream in more than one language.


(Excerpted from ‘But why do you write your books in Turkish and English?’, Elif Şafak interviewed by Tasja Dorkofikis, English Pen, 28 November 2014)


The images are Pierre Soulages, untitled; Mark Rothko, No 8 Black; and a Hans Hurting lithograph.


  1. ngir

    slightly off the deeper point of this post, Kenan, but of whom (or what) is Berger the ‘son of a bitch’ (Last two sentences of the article as printed in the Grauniad) – I know about DHLawrences’ characterisation of Success as the Bitch Goddess, but I do not see that a pursuit of Success would apply to Berger – so….?

  2. Safak’s comments remind me of a woman I knew who spoke Polish, English and Spanish. However, her feeling that she could express certain ideas better in one language than another she related to personal history rather than to the language itself. She had learned Polish at home, English in school and Spanish in the neighborhood. I wonder under what circumstances Safak learned English and Turkish.

    I learned French as an immigrant and it was only after I returned to my home country (I was a failure as an immigrant) that I began to lose the association of insecurity that I had with the French language. If you told me twenty years ago that one day I’d actually enjoy speaking French, that I could be chatty and friendly, I’d have been surprised.

  3. Really liking these insights. Please keep them coming.

    As Orwell said: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.“ (

    Of course this presupposes a mentalese (as Pinker describes it), a brain language that precedes our chosen tongue, but that seems kind of obvious to me, given the amount of times I find myself not able to put a feeling into words.

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