The Sphinx of Tongue

Posted on: January 21, 2010
3 comments so far (is that a lot?)

The Sphinx of Tongue
By Melika Salihbeg Bosnawi

a w o r d a b o u t t r a n s l a t i o n



This word … came into existence from blood, from each drop of blood, from each red drop of blood flowing through my veins in the course of writing of the greatest part of my poems. The first winter of One Thousandth Nine Hundred and Eighty Second year, why shouldn’t I say, just as it was happening, a January and February chill; a rheumatic fragility of the attic’s floors; twenty two degrees centigrade over my hands, and only thirteen beneath my feet; nowhere a living creature, but a certain plenitude in my bosom, perhaps the word fullness is more full, there is probably too much pain not to be knowledge, the suffering is the birthplace of every learning, and lo! It is being written out, this collection, each of my poems knowing more than I, and that knowledge, knowledge pouring out like a torrent, while only somewhere towards the end it struck me: that is it, that Word, that miracle of Creation, only now completely animated, sensual, and just from my, just from my maternal, just from my mother tongue. Here it is, from that miracle, this word about translation, one would almost suspect madness because of it, but then I came to know that the science of linguistics found the same. However, until it comes over here to us, I shall remain a bit mad.


Rien. I do not dream rather entirely conscious search: which word from my mother tongue would take refuge in that summary of absence (in the presence) of the French rien? One should not immediately stop. One should not mistrust common sense. One should remove that fatigue of pre-fixation. One should repeat with me (mistrusting not, of course, common sense) that French rien. That absence, which is almost a gesture. The move of a hand by which one removes a picture. Nullifies an unwanted, insufficient or wrong scene. A gesture by which one returns to the beginning almost to the very start of Creation. A gesture resembling the pause of a hand in the air with the fiddle-bow which is about to embrace a virgin greed of the strings. It already vibrates, that string, in the presentiment of Thanatos, which reposes in tiredness of pre-fixation.


Should I obey philologists, then rien is the ništa of my language. But this ništa is not absence. Nor is it the nothing, carrying in itself the vanity of a notion. That French stands in front of Creation, this English annuls the resistance of Being. But this ništa of my Bosnian? It is amidst. It is a millstone stripped of the motive power of waters. Robbed of the efficient cause, stopped at once by the strength of an instant.


What therefore do the philologists know? Perhaps ponoc (midnight) of my mother tongue is that French rien. That entire absence which can always be the presence, and beginning, and end. Or, simply, majka (mother), whose belly just got rid of its burden by a swift gesture, a jerk, however still fertile. Or … I should trace for long in order to find, for that rien, a due semantic equivalent in the heart of my mother tongue. Habit and comfort may mistrust my common sense, then I would spend too much of myself to convince them. A word speaks the same even when we do not understand it. A word lives out its life even when we do not hear it out. Words do pair, in Cosmos, through sympathies differing from the one of ours – philological.


Il n’est plus, says a Frenchman after one’s funeral. It is the question of good taste whether to translate it at all. For, ‘he died’ reveals a vulgar. Or, again, ‘nema ga više’ a virtual ignorant. Or… So yes, entirely awaken, I do ask how to translate, with what, and whether to do rendering at all? I remain ashamed before Language whose one stream seemed to me once worthless. Small. Ignorance somehow, knowledge by no means justifies a sin. I apologise first to my mother tongue. There are no small languages. There are only small senses of Language. I praise today my maternal one with the right with which praises his own the possessor of the rien and that of the nothing (cold as a sphinx).


There is a linguistic instruction in the rule according to which Islamic prayer is to be done. In whichever part of the World performed, it is valid only if said in the language of the Holy Book. Indeed, how much there would be recognizable at all the meaning, transferred from the word (and it is both sound and gesture, warp and woof, a sense above all) of the Arabic language into another semantic environment, after centuries of philological renderings? Unless perhaps in the manner of our comparison of the ništa, rien and nothing, decipherment of the Secret of Language wise as a Sphinx.
Sarajevo, February 1982.


3 Responses to “The Sphinx of Tongue”

  1. LitMagic Says:

    Review by Geoff Anderson of “The Sphinx of Tongue”

    I gather from the opening paragraph that this piece is the author's Preface to a volume of his own translation of his Bosnian poems into English in 1982. He understandably feels the need to reflect on the challenge that such a task presented.

    Being a poet, his prose inevitably touches on the poetic, but I also feel this is appropriate when trying to analyse something as delicate and indefinable as the differences between languages in their attempts to convey a philosophical concept. I have done serious works of translation myself, from medieval French and from 17th French, so I know that ultimately all translation from one tongue into another is an approximation, for within every word in a nation's lexicon there lies buried the machinations of that nation's history, culture, and even geography. The author of this piece makes a brilliant attempt to convey this challenge by analysing how three different tongues (French, English, and Bosnian) try to convey the Absence of Presence.

    I found this essay intriguing and quite beautiful. It is about the primacy of one's mother tongue on the one hand, and on the other hand the primacy of Language – in whatever tongue it may be. He takes as his example 'rien' / 'nothing' / 'nista'. He draws subtle distinctions at a philosophical level between the meanings conveyed in the three languages' attempts to convey Absence of Presence, which can itself suggest a presence, just as 'midnight' can be seen as both an ending and a beginning.

    I think he's suggesting that French 'rien' teeters towards a nothingness that is so powerful it is almost a presence; he compares it to a stillness paradoxically conveyed by a gesture that leads to Creation, as in a violinist's hand about to sweep a bow across the strings. Whereas English 'nothing' denies the existence of something – period. Bosnian 'nista' is somewhere between those two concepts: it has the real Presence and Potential of a millstone, but the water to drive it is missing – a brilliant image. Bosnian 'nista' exists and yet doesn't – it is an effect without a cause.

    The author's love for his own Bosnian tongue comes across, along with a deep respect for all tongues, which Language towers over. Indeed, this piece could have been entitled 'There are no small languages, only small senses of Language.' Instead we have 'The Sphinx of Tongue' – which I suspect is the title of his collection of poems – which perfectly conveys the paradox of words, for they are pregnant (another image he uses) with meaning and yet are nothing but print on a page or breath swept through a larynx of strings; likewise the Sphinx is massively pregnant with meaning but ultimately is just a huge lump of rock, saying nothing.

    And finally, 'Tongue' in the title may ironically be what an English speaker would consider a mistranslation, for the author probably meant to say 'The Sphinx of Language'. But then again, such a mistranslation, if such it be, perfectly illustrates his point!

  2. L. D. Says:

    Let me first say how much I appreciated this piece and the review that came after. I have read Melika (the Queen)'s writings for some years now.

    Her piece was indeed, both beautiful and inspiring to me. A "Word" (as mentioned in another piece on this site..
    Rose of Darkness: Word… (Rose of Darkness: Word)
    is about the "word" and the form it takes.. in all languages.. and however it is interpreted… albeit to say.. her words… always inspire and intrigue me (coming from Montreal, Canada I am limited to English and French.)

    Here are a few small comments (or words) that I was inspired to write in reaction to the review.. hopefully not taking away from the actual piece.. which is the all important message:

    1) I am not altogether in agreement with the comment that she used the word "tongue" instead of "language" because, as the reviewer said, English was not her language. The word "tongue" of course is used often to mean language… such as "French is her mother tongue" or "he spoke in a foreign tongue"… so her use is correct.. and also gives an interesting double entendre to the title in my view.

    2) it is funny that the reviewer assumed she was a man (but very common of course..) but here is a little personal comment about the word "lady" in her response… I usually prefer to use the word "woman" because "lady" has certain unspoken connotations sometimes, and is often used in an attempt to make the gender the "weaker" of the two… it conjures up images of a "lady" serving men tea and cakes in a pretty frilly dress… or a gender that needs taking care of because they are fragile… that is how it is commonly used (at least interpreted silently) in the everyday language.. but of course, her words are hers to use as she wishes, that is just something I was not sure she was aware of.

    Ahhhh Words… often fragile, delicate and misinterpreted but also useful, in situations like this.

    Thank you for your site.

    I enjoyed your piece Melika. Thank you.

    Lyne Dee

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