tube tongues: the language at each end of the line

tubetonguesSometimes someone makes you see something you know well in a new way. Oliver O’Brien’s Tube Tongues  does just that. The UCL scholar mapped all the languages spoken at each London tube stop. It’s fascinating, and great for language learners who don’t have the funds to globetrot – if you can get yourself into London, just pick your tube stop and follow your ears.

The tube is one of the last bastions of reading – maybe it could even lead to a conversation. One of my favourite ways to start making contact with a new language is to download some decent bilingual poetry. I have lived at each end of the Victoria line, so I started with Brixton and Walthamstow. Here are some poems for them, and for a city on the move.

Brixton’s second language is Portuguese. The Poems from the Portuguese website publishes poems written this millennium and translated by Ana Hudson, with the support of the Portuguese national culture centre. A good poem for this stop – before you get your fish from the largest African-Caribbean market in Europe – is Filipa Leal’s The Liquid City.

The city rocked like a boat. No. Perhaps the ground would crack open somewhere. No. It was the giddiness. It was the departure. No. Perhaps the city was made of water. How to survive a liquid city? (I tried to steady myself like a boat.) The birds became wet against the towers. Everything was evaporating: the bells, clocks, cats, ground. Hair and gazes were rotting. Fish stood still on the doorsteps. Solid masts held the walls of things. The sailors invaded the taverns. They laughed loudly from up high in the ships. They burst in to places. People went fishing at home. They slept on the flimsiest surfaces, like rafts. Nausea and cold purpled their lips. They couldn’t see. They made love quickly in the late afternoon. It was the fear of death. The city seemed like crystal. It moved with the tides. It was a mirror of other coastal cities. As it drew closer, it flooded the buildings, the streets. It added itself to the world. It shipwrecked itself. The dwellers who could see it approaching stared at it, at each other, perplexed. They were dying of vanity and lack of air. The ones who were being dragged away held on to what was left inside the houses. They felt guilty. They feared punishment. They had so often wished to untie the city’s ropes. Now they were going with it, inside a liquid city. (I had remained in the exact spot from which it left). A cidade movia-se como um barco. Não. Talvez o chão se abrisse em algum lado. Não. Era a tontura. A despedida. Não. A cidade talvez fosse de água. Como sobreviver a uma cidade líquida? (Eu tentava sustentar-me como um barco.) As aves molhavam-se contra as torres. Tudo evaporava: os sinos, os relógios, os gatos, o solo. Apodreciam os cabelos, o olhar. Havia peixes imóveis na soleira das portas. Sólidos mastros que seguravam as paredes das coisas. Os marinheiros invadiam as tabernas. Riam alto do alto dos navios. Rompiam a entrada dos lugares. As pessoas pescavam dentro de casa. Dormiam em plataformas finíssimas, como jangadas. A náusea e o frio arroxeavam-lhes os lábios. Não viam. Amavam depressa ao entardecer. Era o medo da morte. A cidade parecia de cristal. Movia-se com as marés. Era um espelho de outras cidades costeiras. Quando se aproximava, inundava os edifícios, as ruas. Acrescentava-se ao mundo. Naufragava-o. Os habitantes que a viam aproximar-se ficavam perplexos a olhá-la, a olhar-se. Morriam de vaidade e de falta de ar. Os que eram arrastados agarravam-se ao que restava do interior das casas. Sentiam-se culpados. Temiam o castigo. Tantas vezes desejaram soltar as cordas da cidade. Agora partiam com ela dentro de uma cidade líquida. (Eu ficara exactamente no lugar de onde saiu.)
© Translated by Ana Hudson, 2011 in A Cidade Líquida e Outras Texturas, 2006

At the other end of the line, Walthamstow’s second language is Urdu. You can see and hear the original and translation of a good selection of Urdu poetry at the Poetry Translation Centre website ; it’s a great site for finding a lot of other London languages. Here’s a romantic Urdu poem for travellers at (not to be outdone by Brixton) the longest street market in Europe:

Please Bring a Token Home from Each Journey 
by Noshi Gillani, literal translation by Nukhbah Langah, final translation by Lavinia Greenlaw

Please bring a token home from each journeypleasebringatokenhomefromeachjourney
Along with your worn-out feet, bring butterfly wings

I am writing the story of our companionship
If you can, please bring a noble word

I hope fidelity will not exhaust us
That we can renew this romance

That if in some enchanted place, you are captured
by a moonlit face, you will carve a likeness, bring it home

Your passion for travel takes you away from home
Please do not bring back regret like dust in your pockets

It is strange air that we all breathe
May your eyes fill when you come home

Maybe the next edition of poems on the underground could be in the second language of each tube stop? That could make everyone feel at home, whatever the journey.

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