I grew up multilingual and learned in earliest childhood to switch effortlessly between languages. Even today, I find myself going back and forth, sometimes even in the same entence-say. You’ll notice that I did it just en-thay. Because I am aware of how frustrating it is when people drop foreign-language expressions into their speech and expect the listener to understand, I will translate: entence-say, in English, is the singular noun “sentence,” and en-thay is the temporal adverb “then.”
The earthy, untrammelled, and lyrical other language that I’m referring to was derived originally from Latin, hence its common name, Pig Latin. Among linguists, it’s known as Demotic Ay-speak, for the sake of precision, and to remove any allusion to pigs (which have nothing to do with the language). Other members of my linguistic community will tell you that I’m fiercely proud of my fluency and stand up for the language whenever it is misused. I even prefer to read novels in it, because it makes me feel at home. I first encountered the P.-L. version of olstoy-Tay’s “anna-Yay arenina-Kay” in the abridged translation done by Mrs. Erwin’s fifth graders. The principal translator, Billy Nolan, was a fully proficient speaker.
Recently, I returned to the novel, this time in its unabridged original form, translated by Evelyn Hummel, who apparently is an adult. Much of the childlike joy imparted to the text by Nolan and his fellow-translators has been lost, I’m sorry to report. Mr. Hummel begins the first chapter ponderously: “All-yay appy-hay amilies-fay are-yay alike-yay. . . .” Nolan, in contrast, had chosen to leave out that sentence entirely and substitute one about how his “ad-day” (“dad”) was an “ofessional-pray estler-wray” (“professional wrestler”). (Nolan’s father did, in fact, wrestle professionally, under the ring name The Genius.) When questioned about opening the novel in this way, Nolan fils said that he felt it was the duty of the translator to convey the spirit of the original rather than hide behind word-for-word literalness—and I would agree.
Strangely, I never heard my own parents speak the language, although I now think that they must have understood it. How I picked it up while being raised by two monolingual English speakers, I have no idea. My brother and sister and I spoke it freely among ourselves. If our parents somehow figured out what we were saying, we could switch to Op-Talk, Backward Talk (also known as Yoda Talk), Pirate-Speak, and so-called Repeating Talk. (Parents: “Cut that out.” Us: “Cut that out.”) I’m afraid that our polyglot skills confused and frustrated them terribly.
In my professional life, I became a writer, but I never forsook my childhood languages—although English, the tongue of the oppressor-parents, was to be avoided. I wrote my first memoir entirely in Pig Latin and never felt so free. When I completed a manuscript that I was happy with, I hired an expert to translate it into French, a language I do not speak. Wanting to publish the book in both the U.S. and the U.K., I then translated the French version into English on my own by simply guessing at the meanings. As well-informed readers will recall, the work that resulted went on to win many prizes. What interested me even more was the velocity and refraction achieved by looking at a text through these differing lenses.
As for Mr. Hummel, he compounded his offenses by writing a screenplay of the novel he translated. He should have stuck to English; the results were distressing. (Full disclosure: as a leading Pig Latin linguist and scholar, I was hired as the intimacy coach for “anna-Yay arenina-Kay” ’s love scenes.) Unfortunately, the film’s actors were not up to the challenges of Hummel’s script. To provide the correct lilt to this musical tongue, you must practice the crucial “ay” phoneme, so that you make your sentences sing. If you don’t master it, you’re at a disadvantage speaking dialogue in which literally every word ends with that sound.
My real fear, of course, is that one day Pig Latin will die out. I can’t imagine that this movie will make people more inclined to learn it. Recently, I saw a map that showed where the language is still spoken. In most of the world outside the U.S., it exists only in very tiny pockets, if at all. According to studies, the higher a person’s I.Q. , the less likely that the person will be familiar with Pig Latin—the exact opposite of what one would expect. In tsarist Russia, the business of the court was conducted entirely in French, and the upper classes communicated only in that language. I dream that one day the élites of both coasts in the U.S., and of all the major cities worldwide, will, in a similar way, develop a special language among themselves that only they are able to understand. Why not give Pig Latin a try? ♦