I recently decided to learn Persian. I have always been fascinated by it so I enrolled in Persian classes, after figuring that Rosetta, Duolingo and such like would not really help me. I wanted to learn the script and do it properly, the old fashioned way. I have an old Persian grammar that belonged to my father, who travelled to Iran in the 1930s. Finding it among my books together with a primer of Sumerian, also my father's - ok, he had unusual interests- gave me the stimulus to get started (only on the Persian, not on the Sumerian). The grammar, with its Key to the Exercises vol.2, is an antique of sort, published in 1923 and authored by the Rev. W. St. Clair-Tisdall. The prose is rather quaint, I have to say. I like the Preface written by the Reverend which introduces Persian as the "Italian of the East" and "the most euphonious, expressive and important of the Oriental languages". Amen.
Of course Persian (Farsi) is not easy to learn and the first hurdle (for me) is indeed the script, which is borrowed from Arabic. I feel totally illiterate, not being able to read, an occurrence which gives me much anxiety. In my time I studied ancient Greek then Russian, even attempted some Sanskrit, so I have experience of learning a different way of writing, but the Arabic script is very challenging. So many squiggles, I am really struggling. I realised in no time that I had to practise letter recognition from day one, so now I am doing a little everyday, using flashcards to write my letters while watching YouTube tutorials and attempting to read simple words. You must write on the line is the constant exhortation. I even use an old fashioned fountain pen. It brings back memories of elementary school and joined up writing. I am failing miserably.
Being a beginner always sucks. But the good news is that I don't have to take exams or pass tests or anything of the sort. Just learn for the sake of learning. Which does not mean I nurture no ambition of great fluency... As we know the latter is achieved by commitment, tenacity and practice - as I write I can hear my teacher from my high school days telling me 'practise, practise, practise' (I used to struggle with Greek verbs paradigms).
I am fascinated by languages and even more by the process of language learning. I speak a few languages already and studied more than I can actually speak - languages have to be used frequently, or you just forget them. I tested myself on my French just the other day by doing an AS paper - you can download them for practice. I thought I would sail through it but no, my grammar has become rather shaky and those French words which I was once able to speak so fluently now mix themselves with English. Damn, I hate losing a language.
My attempts at writing
I dream of the day when I will be translating from literary Persian - I aim high, obviously. Dreams such as this cannot hurt anyone, though it will be some time before I can accomplish this feat.
And while talking of translation and language learning I have something very relevant to add to the discussion. Over the weekend I discovered the work of Pulitzer prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, an American writer of Bengali origin. I knew about her, I just had not read her work before - though I was strangely convinced I had one of her books at home and spent nearly two hours taking all my books off the shelves, only to realise I had confused Jhumpa Lahiri with another writer. Never mind.
In 2011, at the height of her success, Jhumpa embarked on an unusual experiment. Already a prize-winning author, she went to Italy and decided to write her next novel in Italian. The result is a book which has now been translated into English, not by her, but by the amazing Ann Goldstein who among others has translated Leopardi, Pavese and more recently Elena Ferrante - Jhumpa Lahiri. you are in great company. The book, entitled 'In Other Words' is available in a bi-lingual edition, the English text alongside the Italian.
I love it. Lahiri's Italian is beautifully terse, devoid of 'the dilated rhythms of a baroque and sensual narration' (I am here borrowing writer Dacia Maraini's words) more commonly found among a great many Italian writers. Lahiri's Italian writing is honest. It also reveals the painful process of being reborn as a writer through a language that is not one's own.
Lahiri is not alone in this endeavour. There have been other writers who have made a foreign language their own and created extraordinary works of fiction in their adopted tongue - Nabokov and Conrad come to mind. But Lahiri's is a declaration of love for the Italian language. Writing in Italian, for her, is cathartic in a way that writing in English, for Nabokov and Conrad, was not.
As I read Lahiri's book I have the audacity to wonder if I will ever be able to do this in Persian.
Long pause. Realistically, I may need more than a lifetime to make this dream come true.
But what's the point of dreaming if you do not dream big?