Is writing an internationally acclaimed, bestseller novel in a foreign language a mark of fluency? Following on from my recent post, I thought it would be interesting to list some of the many multilingual writers and novelists who write in other languages. What particularly interests me, is that many of these write in their second or third languages, of which they are often non-native speakers. Perhaps this is an example of what people mean by the word ‘fluent’.
However, there is a great discrepancy between written, spoken and aural fluency, as can be seen even in people who speak only their native language. Would, for example, an established author who writes in English be seen as fluent, when in interviews he stumbles over vocabulary, uses bizarre grammar and pronounces every word with a thick, almost unintelligible foreign accent, while every now and then looking startled and asking the interviewer to repeat the question?
The following ten authors have all made fantastic contributions to the world of literature, in various languages. Regardless of whether or not this qualifies them as ‘fluent’, I find writing in a foreign language an astounding achievement. Not only do you need to have an immaculate knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but also a thorough understanding of the subtleties of the language that come naturally to native speakers: idiom, diction, word-association, and style. What is even more phenomenal is when these novels, plays, poems and short stories, that are written by foreigners, then turn out to become national and international treasures.
One of the most famous writers of all time, Nabokov was a Russian novelist who emigrated with his family after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919. Settling first in England, he studied Zoology, then Slavic and Romance Languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, before following his family to Berlin in 1922. He lived and worked in Germany for 15 years, then spent three years in France, before fleeing to the United States in 1940, to escape the advance of Nazi troops.
Nabokov wrote the first half of his works in Russian, and the second in English. With the help of his only son, Dmitri, he translated much into both languages. He came from a wealthy, St. Petersburg family, and grew up trillingual, speaking French, English and Russian. His most acclaimed work is probably Lolita, which he wrote in English in 1955, and translated into Russian 12 years later in 1967.
Conrad was a Polish writer, who left his home in modern-day Ukraine in 1874 to travel the world as part of the French and then British Merchant Navies. He was eventually granted British citizenship, and settled in the UK to begin his writing career.
Conrad never finished school, but nonetheless left with a knowledge of Latin, German and Greek, as well as flawless French alongside his native Polish, both of which he spoke without any accent. He picked up English in his late 20s and, on moving to England, chose this language in which to write. However, he always spoke with a thick Polish accent, which prevented him from starting a teaching career. On the subject of language, he once commented: “English is so plastic – if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist”. Conrad wrote his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness, in 1899, contraversial due to claims made in the 1970s by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that its subject matter was “racist”.
Kristóf was a Hungarian writer, born in the village of Csikvánd, North-West Hungary. After the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was crushed by Soviet forces, she was forced to flee her country with her husband and 4 month-old daughter at the age of 21. They went to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where, despite plans to move to the United States, Kristóf worked in a watch factory for five years, before eventually leaving her job, and her husband.
It was at the watch factory that Kristóf slowly started learning to speak French. Nevertheless, she chose to write exclusively in that language. 16 years after arriving in Switzerland she published her first play, Le Rat qui passe, in 1972 and her first novel, Le Grand Cahier, in 1986. This was widely translated and named ‘Livre Européen‘. She was then awarded the prestigious Swiss literary prize ‘Prix Gottfried Keller’ in 2001.
Sholem Aleichem was the nom de plume of the famous Yiddish author and playwright Salomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born to a Hasidic Jewish family and grew up in what is now central Ukraine. In 1905, he was forced to flee with his family to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms sweeping across Southern Russia. He went first to New York, then to Geneva to join his family, and then in 1914 he went back with them to New York.
As was the norm for Russian Jewish writers at the time, Sholem Aleichem wrote in both Hebrew and Russian, until 1883 when he began to write in Yiddish. By 1890 he had become a central figure in Yiddish literature. His 1894 story Tevye and his Daughters was adapted in 1964 to become the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, and 1971 film of the same name. Sholem Aleichem was buried in New York in 1916, and his legacy lives on, as one of the most influential figures in contemporary Jewish culture. There are monuments to him in Kiev and Moscow, and streets named after him in Birobidzhan, Kiev, Odessa, Vinnytsya, Lviv, Zhytomyr, Mykolaiv, New York, and across Israel. Postage stamps commemorating him have been issued in Israel, the USSR, Ukraine, and Romania, and he also has an impact crater named after him on Mercury.
5. André Brink (1935- )
André Brink is a native Afrikaans speaker who was born in Vrede, South Africa, in 1935. Along with Ingrid Jonker and Breyten Breytenbach, he formed an anti-apartheid literary resistance movement, known as Die Sestigers, which protested against the government’s racially segregationalist policies by writing in Afrikaans. His novel Kennis van die aand (1973) was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the regime. Brink is particularly well-known for his Apartheid-era work, but nowadays he works as a Professor of English at the University of Cape Town and continues to write about contemporary issues facing modern-day democratic South Africa.
Kennis van die aand was the first of his books that Brink translated into English, which he published abroad with the title Looking on Darkness. Since then, he has either written simultaneously in Afrikaans and English, exclusively in Afrikaans, or in Afrikaans which he then translates into English. He has received numerous awards for his work, including a silver Order of Ikhamanga.
Elif Şafak was born to Turkish parents in Strasbourg, France, and after their divorce was raised single-handedly by her mother, who became a Turkish diplomat. As a teenager, Şafak grew up in Madrid and Amman, before returning to Istanbul. She has also lived in Boston, Michigan, Arizona and London. In the past, she has talked about literature as a tool of linking cultures and overcoming the restraints of identity politics. She has written about subjects such as the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish conflict, which due to their taboo status in Turkey have led to her being accused of “insulting Turkishness”, illegal under Turkish law.
Şafak writes in both Turkish and English. She is a political scientist, and has written for British, Dutch, French, German and American newspapers and magazines. She has received numerous awards, including most recently the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Born in Dublin, Samuel Beckett was an Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. He studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, Dublin, before travelling around Europe and settling in Paris in the late 1930s. He remained there throughout the Nazi occupation, stating he preferred “France at war to Ireland at peace”, and fought in the French resistance movement. Towards the end of his life, he would refer to his involvement to as “boy scout work”.
Beckett translated his novel Murphy (1937) into French in 1938. In the years following the war he published mostly in French, including his most famous work En attendant Godot (1953), commonly known by its English title Waiting for Godot. He claimed that he tended to write in French, because it made it easier for him to write “without style”. He translated all of his works from French ino English himself, with the exception of Molloy, which he translated in cooperation with Patrick Bowles.
Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac was an American novelist, born to French-Canadian parents in Massachusetts in 1922. He was brought up speaking French, and first learnt English at the age of 6, and did not speak it confidently until his late teens.
He wrote in English, and is most famous for his iconic ‘road-trip’ novel On the Road, first published in 1957. However, in recent years it has been discovered that initially he began writing it in Quebecois French, a language in which he also wrote two other novels which remain unpublished. He also wrote some poetry in French, and towards the end of his life said that he wished to return to speaking his parents’ native tongue.
Stahl is an American novelist from Louisiana, born in 1962 to a Japanese mother and a German-American father. She reports that she was brought up trying to find a balance between those two cultures, and has lived in the United States, Germany, and finally settled in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
She writes in Spanish, and in interviews has said that she does not think in one language, but in several at the same time. Her first novel, Flores de un sólo día, was published in Argentina in 2002. It deals with the subject of identity, with its protagonist caught between wanting and not wanting to find out what lurks in her family history.
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith is an American novelist, essayist and poet from Texas, USA. His family has both Mexican and American roots, and his father fought in the Mexican Revolution. His largest work is the 15-volume Klail City Death Trip Series, which he began writing in 1973, with Estampas del Valle y otras obras, and added to most recently in 2006, with We Happy Few.
Hinjosa-Smith was raised speaking Spanish, but was educated in English in the American school system. Klail City Death Trip Series is written in both English and Spanish, although he has remarked that he prefers to write in Spanish. He translates his own work into English. He was the first Chicano (American of Mexican descent) writer to receive the prestigious Premio Casa de las Américas award.