• Writers Who Switch Languages

Blessing Babel: Writers Who Switch Languages

Thomas Mann“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” wrote Thomas Mann. How much more difficult would writing have been for Mann himself if he had attempted to write his fiction in English rather than his native German. Exiled to southern California while the Nazis were in power, Mann did not abandon German to write his formidable novel Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (1947; Doctor Faustus). Nor, though living in Princeton, New Jersey, did Hermann Broch switch to English to compose his final novel, Der Tod des Vergil (1945; The Death of Virgil). Ernest Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation of American expatriates who converged on Paris in the 1920s did not write their books in French.

“There is nothing to writing,” wrote Hemingway. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The hemorrhaging is more profuse when done in an adopted tongue. In fact, according to George Santayana, it is impossible to write great poetry except in the language of your mother’s lullabies. Thomas Jefferson, who claimed proficiency in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, concurred. He insisted that: “No instance exists of a person’s writing two languages perfectly.” It is reasonable to claim that no instance exists of a person’s writing one language perfectly, but it would be hard to deny that Petrarch wrote passably, if not perfectly, in both Italian and Latin, Mendele Mokher Sforim in Yiddish and Hebrew, and André Brink in Afrikaans and English.

Many Americans suffer from the monolingual malaise, but most people in the world are at least bilingual. Some nations (e.g., Belgium, Canada, India, South Africa, Switzerland) grant official status to more than one language, but, regardless of official linguistic policy, people in Luxembourg, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore, and Taiwan find it a practical necessity to be conversant in two or more tongues. Robert FrostSo it is probably safe to assume that, even if most people are not writers, most writers speak more than a single language. However, because writing well in one language is difficult enough, most writers stick to the language they know best, the language of the mother’s lullabyes. Writing in a second or even third or fourth language is adding an additional handicap to a task that is already arduous. Robert Frost quipped that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net, but writing in an adopted tongue is like trying to serve with a racquet weighing thirty pounds. At the peak of a career that established him as one of the greatest of all basketball players, Michael Jordan abandoned the sport in order to try to make his mark in major league baseball; failing, he returned to further glory in basketball. It would be foolhardy for Yo-Yo Ma to give up the cello and take up the saxophone.

Yet both Michelangelo and William Blake expressed their geniuses in both poetry and painting. And translingual writing – by authors who write in a language other than their primary language or in more than one language – is not uncommon. The tradition of authors who struggled to mine the ore of an alien tongue extends at least as far back as Latin literature, which is said to have begun with Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave who wrote a Latin version of the Odyssey.  The Latin canon was in no small measure the creation of men who adopted the language of Rome even though they were, like Seneca, Quintilian, Martial, and Lucan, from Spain, like Ausonius, from Gaul, or like Apuleius, Terence, and Augustine, from Africa. Long after Latin ceased to be spoken even in Rome, it was the literary medium of René Descartes, Erasmus, and Thomas More. At various moments, Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit have been also served as imperial language and mandatory literary medium.

The most eminent translingual authors of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir Nabokov, each represent a different version of switching literary languages. Born into a Polish-speaking family in what is now Ukraine, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski also became fluent in French. After two decades at sea, he retired to England, where, under the name Joseph Conrad and with only a shaky command of the local tongue, he pursued a literary career, exclusively in English. By contrast, Beckett began his career by publishing brilliant poetry and prose in his native English before switching to meticulous adopted French. Nabokov, who was tutored in English and French within a wealthy Russian household, became a major figure in both Russian and American literatures.

Examples of writers who, like Conrad, switched to another language and wrote exclusively in that language include: Tristan Tzara (Romanian to French), Wole Soyinka (Yoruba to English), and Elias Canetti (Ladino to German). Examples of writers who, like Nabokov, excelled in more than one language include Fernando Pessoa (Portuguese and English), Muhammad Iqbal (Urdu and Persian), and Prem Chand (Urdu and Hindi).

Translinguals are among the most prominent contemporary writers in the United States – an abbreviated list might include André Aciman, Rabih Alameddine, Daniel Alarcón, Julia Alvarez, Louis Begley, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Ariel Dorfman, Cristina Garcia, Olga Grushin, Ursula Hegi, Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, Andrew Lam, Li-Young Lee, Yiyun Li, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Dinaw Mengestu, Bharati Mukherjee, Luc Sante, Gary Shteyngart, Charles Simic, and Lara Vapnyar. Though the French are so proud of their language they enforce its purity through diktats from the Académie Française, they have nevertheless bestowed glittering prizes on linguistic interlopers. Among feted authors whose mothers never sang them Au clair de la lune are Vassilis Alexakis, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Hector Biancotti, Hélène Cixous, Assia Djebar, Romain Gary, Nancy Huston, Milan Kundera, Jonathan Littell, Amin Maalouf, Andreï Makine, Alain Mabanckou, Irène Némirovsky, Atiq Rahimi, André Schwarz-Bart, Jorge Semprún, Dai Sijie, Henri Troyat, and Elie Wiesel. Germany even created a special award, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize (named for the 19th-century German poet who was born in France), for translinguals – such as Zehra Çirak, Emine Sevgi Őzdamar, and Yoko Tawada – who write in German.

The Speckled PeopleEvery translingual writer is translingual in his or her own way. Some of the more remarkable cases include Hugo Hamilton, whose mother was German but who grew up in Dublin in a household dominated by a father so devoted to the revival of Ireland and the Irish language that he forbade his children to speak any English, the language in which he would eventually write two compelling memoirs, The Speckled People (2003) and The Sailor in the Wardrobe (2006). Hideo Levy is an American who in 1992 breached the notoriously sturdy ramparts of Japanese culture to become the first gaijin to publish a novel (translated as A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard) in Japanese. In Le Schizo et les langues (1971), Louis Wolfson records, in French, with a smattering of German, Hebrew, and Russian, his perverse refusal to speak his maternal language, the language of the mother – and father – who brought him up speaking English.

Romain Gary, who was born Roman Kacew in Lithuania, became so proficient in his adopted French that he was the only author ever to receive the prestigious Prix Goncourt twice. The rules forbid repeats, but when the Académie Goncourt bestowed the award on Émile Ajar for La vie devant soi in 1975, they did not realize that Ajar was a pseudonym for Gary, who had already received the Goncourt in 1956 for Les racines du ciel. Even more striking is the example of Frederick Philip Grove, who was born Felix Paul Greve in Prussia in 1879. After publishing fiction, poetry, criticism, and translations in his native German, Greve fell into serious financial trouble. Feigning suicide, he resurfaced in Canada, where he began a new career publishing in English under the name Grove. It was only after his death, in 1948, that readers realized that Greve, who wrote in German, was the same man as Grove, who wrote in English.

Immigration is a common impetus for translingualism, and many immigrant memoirs, like Mary Antin’s triumphalist The Promised Land (1912), can be summarized as the story of how the author succeeded in adapting to a strange new land, verified by a text composed fluently in a strange new language. But writers need not travel to become translingual. One consequence of European imperialism has been postcolonial writing in a European language. In Africa, that has meant English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish, rather than Amharic, Igbo, Wolof, or Xhosa. Some languages possess more authority or reach than others; Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol found it more advantageous to write in Russian, and Brian O’Nolan could count on many more readers when he wrote in English, under the name Flann O’Brian, than in Irish, as Myles na gCopaleen.

Switching LanguagesIn Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (2003), I collected a variety of commentaries on and interviews about the experience of writing in an adopted language. It was a sequel of sorts to The Translingual Imagination (2000), a study that attempted to define the phenomenon and map the field. The body of writing that, since 1887, has developed in Esperanto, the artificial language that is no one’s native language, is perhaps the most dramatic example of willful translingualism, and Switching Languages includes the Manifesto de Prago issued by the Eighty-First World Esperanto Congress in 1996, in both the Esperanto original and an English translation. The volume also includes Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor’s paean to French as the supreme language of civilization, novelist Ha Jin’s account of how he came to abandon Chinese for English, Andrew Lam’s description of how he was reborn into English from Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican novelist Rosario Ferré’s discussion of writing alternatively in Spanish and English.

The vexing question of what is the appropriate language for African literature is taken up by Ngúgí wa Thiong’o, who, after success in English, determined to compose only in his native Gikuyu, and Gabriel Okara and Chinua Achebe, who argue for the legitimacy of African English. A similar controversy over the languages of India is represented by Raja Rao, Salman Rushdie, and C.J.S. Wallia. As a counterpart to the triumphalism of some discussions of translingualism, Switching Languages also contains the painful testimonies of  Arthur Koestler, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Elias Canetti, Assia Djebar, and others to how wrenching it is to give up a language and not quite acquire fluency in another. However, if as Ludwig Wittgenstein declared, The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” translingual writing stretches the imagination to a world without limits.

About Steven G. Kellman

Steven G. Kellman

Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth; The Plague: Fiction and Resistance; Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text; and The Self‑Begetting Novel. He edited UnderWords: Perspectives on DeLillo's Underworld; Torpid Smoke: Stories of Vladimir Nabokov; and Leslie Fiedler and American Culture.

Kellman’s work has appeared in Atlantic, Bookforum, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Forward, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Texas Observer.

He served four terms as a director of the National Book Critics Circle and received its 2007 Balakian Citation for Reviewing.

He is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Check out Steven's book:

Switching Languages

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Though it is difficult enough to write well in one’s native tongue, an extraordinary group of authors has written enduring poetry and prose in a second, third, or even fourth language. Switching Languages is the first anthology in which translingual authors from throughout the world examine their experiences writing in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one. Driven by factors as varied as migration, imperialism, a quest for verisimilitude, and a desire to assert artistic autonomy, translingualism has a long and brilliant history.
In Switching Languages, Steven G. Kellman brings together several notable authors from the past one hundred years who discuss their personal translingual experiences and their take on a general phenomenon that has not received the attention it deserves. Contributors to the book include Chinua Achebe, Julia Alvarez, Mary Antin, Elias Canetti, Rosario Ferré, Ha Jin, Salman Rushdie, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Ilan Stavans. They offer vivid testimony to the challenges and achievements of literary translingualism.
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