Trying to find the language for the loss of a sibling
It is after my brother kills himself and when I am still living in Los Angeles that my dad sends an email saying he is at a bookstore in New York and wants to know if Meditations is by Cicero. It brings me a bit of pride that he asks me, because I know Latin and have read Ovid, Pliny, Vergil, Cicero. He says in the email that I was the only person he would think to ask—me, and maybe his father, he jokes, because his father was the type of person who would know. But his father, like my brother, is not askable, and so he asks me.
I’ve forgotten whether Meditations is in Latin or Greek. I’ve been forgetful lately. I forget my purse everywhere, I forget to hand in assignments, I forget to go to sleep at night, I forget which of my brothers died when I wake up in the morning. In Latin class I feel faintly the pleasure of diving into Cassell’s Latin dictionary to resurface with a new translation of a very old thought. But when Ovid speaks of rape and death, I wonder at how he can move past it so quickly. I wonder at how the mothers grieved, why only one line was devoted to them. I grow angry at Ovid. His stories—transformation, always, from one thing to another, Athena’s petty jealousy of Arachne’s talent and her transformation into a spider, Apollo’s ceaseless pursual of Daphne, who so clearly said no—do they even matter? During class, I sit at the top of our campus in a little alcove in the shade of a large tree, staring at the cloudless sky. It’s beautiful here, I think, and, Ovid didn’t know what it was to have your brother kill himself. Or else he wouldn’t have written so uncaringly about people losing their lives.
My Latin professor takes me aside one day.
“How are you doing?” She is kind.
I look at her wide eyes and feel nothing at all. I try to smile, but her brow creases.
“Don’t worry about the classwork,” she says. “Just come to class, so I know you’re okay.”
I nod at her. “I think I have to drop the class.”
“You can still come to class, even if you don’t do the work.”
“The translations just don’t make sense.” Grief just doesn’t make sense.
In high school, the wooden chair is hard and cold under me even though I’m wearing leggings beneath my jeans. My hands are thin and long and trembling from the chill. My Latin teacher, Mrs. S., sips steaming tea in a dining-hall mug, her face flushed from the walk up the driveway. It’s just us, as usual, because at my tiny boarding school I’m the only Latin student. The wind howls and whistles outside—it’s a New England storm in November; snow is piled high against the door, classes were almost canceled that morning, but most of us live on campus, so we don’t get snow days, exactly. Mrs. S. and I will go over a passage from Vergil’s Aeneid. My hands are so cold it’s hard to hold the pen, and the space heater Mrs. S. brought from home hasn’t started working yet, but it’s fine, really, just drafty; we are lost in sentences anyway.
The verb, squiggly underline. Subject, straight underline. Ablative clause, slashed off. Direct object, enclosed in a cloud like a dream. Accusative, subordinate clauses, marked the way a crescendo is marked in a piece of music.
“Good,” she says.
I lean my chair back on two legs, grinning, trying to think of how to get out of the work for a moment. “So, the Gracchi brothers.”
If I ask her anything about Greco-Roman history, Mrs. S. drifted away from grammar lessons and into anecdotes about Ancient Rome: how ancients lay down at the dinner table; Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus leading plebeian revolts; erotic graffiti preserved in Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
The clock is behind her head, right where I can see it. I am very good at asking questions, and then our time is up, and she assigns only sixty lines of translation for the night, including scansion. Easy-peasy.
In Los Angeles, in a different now, I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress symptoms and “complicated grief.” The symptoms include a physical twitch in my hands and right shoulder. I stare into space a lot. I watch him die four or five times a day inside my brain. It’s sad, but mostly the issue is the numbness, the not-remembering.
In college, the semester after his death, I sign up for an introductory psychology course, and walk out of class in a daze. Words like schizophrenia, suicide, and mental illness cleave through me, inducing the twitch and the reveries. I switch to one of the only other classes still available so late in the quarter, a postcolonial theory class. Words like home, rupture, ongoingness, guilt, violence, and resilience reverberate through the room. The reverberations do not induce the twitch. And I don’t have to memorize anything.
In the postcolonial theory seminar, I learn that the Tunisian antirevolutionary intellectual Albert Memmi says that those who have been decolonized occupy a space between “colonized” and “free” for a long time. The fancy word for achieving that freedom is anamnesis. Anamnesis requires a rereading of the past, a past that becomes more honestly understood as it is rewritten. There’s rarely a sense of catharsis alongside anamnesis. It’s not a synonym for resolution or healing. Rather, it’s a process by which an invasive past is translated into a bearable present.
In New York, three and a half years later, I am learning Arabic. I have not given up on Latin, but it reminds me of a past I don’t always want to remember.
Arabic is a Semitic language, meaning it operates using a tri-letter root system, very different from Latin, and I struggle to make different sounds come out of my mouth for the first six months. The language exists farther back in my native-English-speaking mouth, farther down, with throat muscles I don’t think I’ve used before.
In a senior seminar on The Arabian Nights, I learn about a thing I hadn’t known existed: a two-hundred-year period called the Translation Movement, during the height of the Ottoman Empire, when nearly all existing Greek and Latin texts were translated into Arabic. This is how many of the texts were preserved in the first twelve hundred years after they were written, allowing them to live later as the cornerstones of Western scholarship in Europe. The Arabic translations heavily influenced the European versions; in the process of translation, words slightly changed meaning, philosophers added notes or forgot whole lines. The texts became the basis of Western philosophy because those translators cut a path forward for them to new audiences through new languages.
Must’ve been nice to be able to translate like that, I think. My mind is scattered, unfocused. I can’t even figure out which direction time goes these days.
Judith Butler, in her introduction to Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, asks, “What is lost, what lives on, and how does that living on happen? Is this translation not a way of living on, mournful and strangely persistent?” She writes that while a new language creates a new life for a text, there is an “inevitable lamentation” over the loss of that first language, all its cultural nuance, its phonetics, its untranslatable poetry. Derrida writes, “But perhaps translation is devoted to ruin, to that form of memory or commemoration that is also called a ruin.” Butler, speaking back to him, says, “If ruin is there from the word go, then so, too, is mourning.”
I sit at my desk—back at boarding school, high school, New England—circling the two most important words in my passage from the Aeneid for homework. It is after Aeneas has ordered his ships to get ready to leave Carthage, and he approaches Dido, his lover, telling her he has to go. She begs him not to leave.
I make a note for my translation: there is te at the beginning of her plea, aimed at Aeneas: “Nec te noster amor nec te data dextera quondam nec moritura tenet crudely funere Dido?”: Not our love, nor your right hand once promised, nor the possible cruel death of Dido holds you? And then an eruption of questions, spewing anger and misery at his leave-taking. Her syntax grows more convoluted, mimicking the tortuousness of her pain until, at the end of her explosion, she comes to a small, quiet sentence, a question full of sorrow, the only simple one: “Mene fugis?”: Do you flee me? Te, me. The two words are so far apart.
In New York city, before he dies, I’m walking around Midtown with my brother. I am nineteen, my brother twenty. It is early March. The windows of the skyscrapers are yellow and the sky behind them is blue. Our cheeks are ruddy because it’s cold. Standing outside Grand Central Station, he pauses before he turns to go. “How are you? Really?” I ask him. He looks at me, doesn’t answer, just hugs me softly and makes his way into the station.
I cannot articulate everything. Not in Arabic, Latin, or even English. There are places to avoid going in every language. Like the stories my family used to recount at the dinner table, stories about long drives, holidays, the canoe trip we took in the Pine Barrens one summer, when my brother hit me in the face by mistake with a canoe paddle and my parents kept flipping over with all the dry towels in their canoe and eventually we were wading in the waist-deep water, dragging our boats, laughing, the five of us. We don’t tell this story anymore. It’s a hole that no one wants to fall into.
On the phonetics of words, Derrida points out that we don’t have a sound for the space between words when we talk. We don’t say spaces. I guess the nuance of this is not all that important, but still I return to this notion, curious about the sound of the blank space. What happens in those holes? Have I fallen into another one, between boarding school, Los Angeles, and New York? Is this what it sounds like?
In translation, the goal is to craft a final version. In grief, the finality is sprung on you in waves. With translation, you revisit a moment and remake it anew, and no one thinks you’re crazy for delving into the past again and again. After a loss, we do the same, only there is a pressure to remain in the present, to acknowledge the impossibility of drawing the lost one forward.
At my desk at boarding school my heart is aching for Dido, and for Aeneas, and I am touched that Vergil decided so carefully to put those two words where he did. It makes sense in Latin. It’s hard to figure out how to translate that same construction into English, how to make words forced apart by clauses signify people forced apart by circumstance. Different grammar. Doesn’t work the same way. But the task itself is pleasurable, if impossible. I won’t be able to get it right in English, I know that. But the beauty of knowing it in Latin…I lean back, stretch. It is past midnight at school, and I’m listening to the heavy way the snow falls outside, the quiet that means all the girls are asleep.
In “Translation as Culture,” Spivak asks if it’s possible to translate at all. Can you remake the same text in a different language? Or does giving it a new form change the text fundamentally? Does it matter?
To me, it matters because at some point I had to remake my life using a new grammar and new vocabulary, without the old stories to tell at the dinner table. Of course there are some straightforward, memorizable beginner’s rules: match gender-number-case. (When someone asks about your family, be brief.) But the harder rules are the ones you can learn only by living in a new language for a long time, and I don’t know them all yet. Four years after his death, I still stumble around without fluency, constantly searching for the right syntax, the right register.
In Los Angeles, one year after he dies, I sit on a sun-warmed bench and type to my father, no, Meditations is by Marcus Aurelius, and I remember that of course Marcus Aurelius wrote in Latin, so I add, briefly, that I never read him when I studied Latin, but that maybe I should start. He emails back that he’s picking up a Jewish Bible and Meditations to read every morning. He’s finally stopped reading the Kaddish, as the rabbi had told him to do every morning and every evening for the first year after the death.
Three and a half years later, back in New York City, I’m rethinking Ovid. Transformation, really, was what he wrote about. He sought the moment when a transformation happened and offered an image of a boundary, blurring. That was his point. He wasn’t grieving for the transformations. Just acknowledging that they happen. Just crafting the transition to a new identity, giving the illusion of order in unformed chaos by showing exactly how Daphne’s face looked as bark covered it, that her heart still beat, and her fingers became branches, leaves. Metamorphoses, yes. They do happen.
I am thirteen years old, and we are going night sledding. My older brother, my twin brother, and I. There is beer. And a toboggan. And the other neighborhood kids. It is a Tuesday. It is before boarding school, and even though he’s not dead yet in the now that is boarding school, he’s dead in the now that is New York, and ten years ago the snow is freezing, and wet, and my older brother leads us back up the driveway, pulling the toboggan with one arm and holding his snowboard with the other, and it’s late and dark, the snow heavy, we’ll have to shovel in the morning, but I’m walking along behind him, like I always will.
Brianna Elatove lives in New York City. She holds a BA from New York University in The Politics of Trauma and Translation.
Image: Photo of the author with her brother, 1999.