Words in the Head and Words in the Sentence | Herta Müller | Granta

Words in the Head and Words in the Sentence

Herta Müller

Translated by Philip Boehm

When we are experiencing something that really matters, when a great deal – pretty much everything – is at stake, we often have no time to think of the words we actually need. They just pop into our mouths of their own accord, guided only by chance. And we have no idea what chance really is up to, even within our own selves. Because these accidental appearances always lead to something else, as the words make pathways inside our head – thin filaments forged by breathless decisions, then the haste of distress and, afterwards, the never-ending consequences of a snap response.

The least amount of time I ever had to find the words I needed was while being interrogated by the Securitate – the Romanian secret police. In that situation the words that chance placed in my mouth always went plunging into the unknown. The interrogator asked one question after the other. I never knew whether my answer would trigger a burst of hysterical laughter or an outburst of rage or a slap in the face. And even though I took pains to keep my thoughts precise, and to speak concisely but fluently, neither saying too much nor too little, when I repeated my sentences in my head at home in the days that followed, they never seemed right. Were they inherently not right? And were they not only not right, but actually wrong? Today I see that it was the interrogator who was playing the decisive role. What mattered was what he had planned for me, his overall intentions, his mood. My answers merely belonged to the ritual of power – the power he held over me. When I left the room I was every bit as suspicious in his eyes as before. I always remained the same enemy of the state. And there was not a single word that could have changed that.

When it comes to language, an interrogation is the least transparent situation there is, as well as the place where words carry the greatest weight. During an interrogation speech glows hot in the mouth, and what is spoken freezes.


Once, my interrogator left his desk mid-sentence and came toward me, holding out his hand. I expected a slap. Instead he plucked a single hair off my shoulder and held it in the air between his fingertips. This frightened me in a different way, perhaps even more than the thought of being slapped. Put that hair back, it’s mine, I blurted out, faster than I could think. My tone at that point was like an order. Now I had even frightened myself and was expecting several slaps instead of just one. I bent my neck in fear. The interrogator placed the hair back on my shoulder very deliberately, as if in slow motion. As if his hand had a mind of its own. But then he suddenly turned his back on me and stepped to the window with large strides and began laughing hysterically. There was a tree outside the window. He fixed his gaze on the green foliage and I felt my heart beating straight into my head.

Chance chose which words dropped from my head into my mouth – in one more plunge into the unknown.


Ah yes, the words in the head and the words in the sentence. And the sentence in the mouth. The sentence in the mouth can be curt – in German we say kurz angebunden – on a short tether. A whole person is said to be kurz angebunden when they are impatient in conversation. I always understood the phrase differently – I took it more literally. I really was tethered to the words, as though leashed to a pole. The leash was short. The words were urgent. They didn’t make any fuss, because they didn’t have time.

Short time, short leash. And words like shortbread, quick to crumble since what is said is of no use whatsoever.


Every time I came back home late after an interrogation, after I’d talked for so long, after all my pointless responses, I would speak oddly consoling phrases to myself, placing the words in my own mouth – phrases such as:

Time is a village, and fear has the shortest sight.
Vereinsamt (isolated or lonely) doesn’t come from Samt (velvet).

The Securitate man often said: ‘You’re in luck with me, we’re treating you with velvet gloves.’ Maybe luck is something that brazenly switches sides, I wondered, something quick to ally with the side of power. Just like the velvet in his gloves. He said I was in luck but I certainly didn’t feel lucky – quite the opposite.


The velvet of power, I thought, is beyond measure. The regime had more and more velvet – so much it could suffocate you. The entire country was locked up in velvet. The word for velvet in Romanian sounds very soft: catifea. Unlike the German word, Samt, it’s feminine. I teetered in my head between these two languages as though I were rocking from one temple to another. And I thought that being vereinsamt, alone and isolated in the dictatorship, probably does come from the velvety Samt.


When the Securitate interrogator became furious, he would shout: Who do you think you are? O nimica toată – a complete nothing.

I said: I’m a person, like you.

To which he said: So you think. We decide who you are.

What is a complete nothing? Why was a complete nothing worth all these hours of talk? Is a complete nothing less than a half

In such situations I believed that the same words weren’t really the same words at all, except in the moment they were uttered. I asked myself if any given word could possibly be considered my own, since each one could switch sides and turn on me. I thought that maybe no word in this country could count as a right word unless it had switched sides and turned against me, since I was on the wrong side. But for me the wrong side was the right one.

I also believed it would be best if words were kept solely in the head, and not in the mouth. And that in the moment of the actual experience, there’s usually no time for words at all. It was only during interrogation that chance toppled the words from the head into the mouth and they crystallized. Inescapably, and terribly, and sometimes forever.


Once the interrogator said: ‘He who wears clean clothes will not enter heaven dirty.’ In itself a beautiful sentence. But from his mouth it was a murder threat.

Whenever I had to report to an interrogation I would wear my nicest blouse, put on makeup, and take my bright red lipstick. That gave me the semblance of courage. Meaning that it gave fear, which is what I felt, a semblance of courage, which I did not feel. I also kept a small towel and a toothbrush in my purse, in case I wound up in prison instead of being allowed to return home after the interrogation. Fear and courage are probably to some extent one and the same thing. For me they were never complete opposites. How often I wanted to take my mind off what I feared and once again experience joy, the sooner the better. But when I made my way back home it was only relief I felt, never joy.


What I felt was the burden of a hollow freedom. It had cold eyes and white paws and it left tracks. I asked myself, is fear the animal, or is it only the paws of an animal, which keep going even without the animal itself? Just as I kept going, and the surveillance kept going. Time here was a village. Just like in my childhood, they constantly saw what I was doing, anywhere and everywhere. I was stuck inside this hollow freedom until the next interrogation – after all, I hadn’t been arrested. Hollow freedom means that wherever you go you realize what true freedom could be, since you don’t have it. Hollow freedom hurts and saddens. Hollow freedom produces sentences in the head such as:

Time is a village and fear has the shortest sight.
Vereinsamt doesn’t come from Samt.

I didn’t want to know what these sentences were supposed to mean, but they gave me a semblance of certainty and self-control, a sense of calm that reached from my head down to my toes. Each of these phrases sounded so self-evident, so natural. I needed that. It reassured me that I belonged to myself, even with the burden of my hollow freedom. That I may have had cause to despair of the state, but not of myself.


Romanian fairy tales don’t begin with ‘Once upon a time’, but rather with ‘Once upon a time, the way it never was’. Generally speaking, the whole country was the way it never was. And not because of some act of make-believe, but on account of the lies. All the accusations I was up against – no, which were up against me – were based on plainly fabricated allegations, slander and lies.


One charge that constantly came up in the interrogations was that I was a spy for the German secret service. ‘Ţi-ai vîndut ţara pentru un blid de linte’ – I had sold my country for a dish of lentils, they said, the proverbial mess of pottage. Since German was always in my head next to Romanian, just as my Romanian was always next to my German, I immediately thought of the German equivalent, ‘für ein Linsengericht’ – where ‘Gericht’ means a court of justice as well as a dish. I stripped the dish of its metaphor, and all of a sudden the phrase no longer meant a cheap, vile payment for a betrayal. It now denoted what was being done to me by a cheap, vile court. Because during the interrogations I always felt like I was on trial. The lentils in the dish switched sides. Like the velvet in the glove. They showed what was happening to me.


I felt at home in all this side-switching of words. But feeling at home didn’t make this language a homeland. In order to escape I conversed with the words on paper. The paper held them securely, so that they would no longer switch sides. Or really so that they would stand by my side when I lost my footing. Writing became an act of self-affirmation. I spoke with the words and the words spoke with me. Every day I said, putting the words consciously into my own mouth:

When you speak it is always now, otherwise it is not.

And I thought about this sentence by Jorge Semprún:

‘Language is not our homeland: rather home is what we say when we speak.’


Photograph © Valentina Conde

Herta Müller

Herta Müller was born on 17 August 1953 in Nitzkydorf (Banat/Romania). Her parents belonged to the German-speaking minority. Her father was a lorry driver, her mother a peasant. She attended school and university in Temeswar. After refusing to work for the Romanian secret service, the Securitate, she lost her job as translator in a machine factory. Nadirs, her first book, lay around at the publishers for four years and was heavily censored when it was eventually published. The manuscript was smuggled to Germany and published in 1984. In 1987, she emigrated to Germany and has lived in Berlin ever since. She has a string of literary prizes to her name, including the Aspekte Literature Prize (1984), the Kleist Prize (1994), the Prix Aristeion (1995), the Konrad Adenauer prize for literature (2004) and, the Nobel Prize for Literature (2009).

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Translated by Philip Boehm

Philip Boehm has translated numerous works from German and Polish by authors including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, and Stefan Chwin. For the theater he has written plays such as Mixtitlan, The Death of Atahualpa, and Return of the Bedbug. He has received awards from the American Translators Association, the U.K. Society of Authors, the NEA, PEN America, the Austrian Ministry of Culture, the Mexican-American Fund for Culture, and the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in St. Louis, where he is the artistic director of Upstream Theater.

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