When I was young, I listened for hours at a time as my mother and grandmother spoke in Slovenian over cups of coffee in the living room. Pretending to tend to one doll’s braid and another’s teacup, I imagined I knew what they were saying. There was a harshness to the rolled r’s and strings of consonants, but also a light melody. To my monolingual ears, it sounded equally possible that someone beloved had just died—or that my grandmother was poking fun at one of us. In the space between listening and hearing, I made up the rest.
My grandmother made things up, too. That was her specialty. She spoke to me in trilled English, replete with verb conjugations of her own making and v’s where w’s should be. Every story began, “Back in Yugoslavia…” and captivated my entire being. There was the tale of her First Communion, when her father and grandmother prepared homemade ice cream on the family farm in her small village, during a reprieve from World War II. There was the complaint that her stepmother did not let her have an apple but readily gave one to her younger sister. There was the night when, in the moonlight, she and her brother and older sister slid down a hill using pots and pans as sleds.
“Really?” I breathed, stunned at the idyllic beauty of her description. I ran to reenact the scene, to feel it more deeply, dragging my younger sister to sit with me in our mother’s best pans on the living room carpet.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked when she saw us.
Before we could answer, my grandmother sold us out: “Who knows? They look crazy.”
The more neatly tied together the story, the better the chance it was false, or that she was taking creative license. When I visited her farm years later, I saw no hill.
This was the way of my grandmother’s stories. I could never tell what was fiction, what was an outright lie and what was simply a mistranslation—of culture, of language. This was also their delight. Her accent was thick and her means of connecting words creative, and when she spoke, store clerks and waiters often turned to me in anticipation of a translation. She was not ashamed. She understood at least four languages. Her spoken English was good enough for those willing to listen, and if they weren’t—well, she was the ultimate trickster. There was no telling what she might try to get away with if she realized you thought she was a sweet old woman who didn’t understand English.
I loved everything about my grandmother’s stories: the setting, so far away and mysterious; the details, true and false; the tone; her delivery. I wanted to be a writer, but in college I felt young and unsure, like I had nothing meaningful yet to say. But my grandmother did. Whenever I sat to write, I heard her voice in my mind, propelling me forward. I tried to write down every single detail from memory, blending my voice with hers. She gave me her blessing, and I called it all fiction.
Still, I felt cracks in the understanding between us. I yearned to learn her language to connect to her, to her past. It felt like there were missing details.
The summer after my first year of graduate school, I took a plane to Ljubljana and enrolled in a month-long intensive language course. Maybe I was leaning into it with too much of a dramatic flair, but every word I learned felt familiar, like a recovered memory. I immersed myself into study so deeply that I began dreaming in my meager Slovenian vocabulary. I felt certain that, sometime soon, I would claim my linguistic inheritance.
“I speak Slovenian now!” I told my grandmother when I got home.
“What?” she said in English. “I no understand. Your accent is too thick.”
I was crushed. What about all those classes? What about all those words I’d memorized, all those situations I’d begun navigating without English?
Then she began to laugh: a deep, full cackle. She sounded like a witch when she’d really gotten you good. I flushed but plowed ahead and tried to chastise her in Slovenian. Through her laughter, she responded. We were speaking Slovenian.
I returned the following year to live in Ljubljana on a Fulbright grant. I attended language classes four hours a day, five days a week, in every session the Center for Slovene offered, and spent the rest of my time running around the city with a notebook, knowing I would remember experiences more than vocabulary lists. By the end of my time in Ljubljana, I had passed the Slovenian language exam at the basic level. I carried my certificate home with pride to show my grandmother. Now we could have a real conversation.
It’s been more than 10 years since I lived in Ljubljana, but I’ve kept at it: eight more semesters of language classes via a distance arrangement; two semesters of Slovenian literature and translation. The more I learn, the less confident I become. I fear I’ll always mess up case endings. I know I’ll always have an accent. Though I love literary translation and know to ask native speakers for assistance when I need it, I sometimes feel like an imposter when I take on a project, because there is always something in the pages that I do not understand.
But in those moments when I begin to lose confidence, I think of my grandmother and how she shuttles between languages, intent only on telling a story, and how she gifted me those stories, even in her imperfect English, and I think: Imperfect is enough. Sometimes it’s even beautiful.
Reardon is director of the intensive writing program at Amherst and a lecturer in English and education studies. She also directs the Summer Bridge humanities and social science program.
Illustration by Sofia Figliè