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Writing in and as a Foreign Language

By Núria Codina

On the occasion of Words Without Borders’s fifteenth anniversary, editorial fellow Núria Codina looks back at pieces in which writers explore the unique opportunities and challenges of living and writing in multiple languages.


Most of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, and multilingualism constitutes a source of inspiration for many writers, particularly those who write in a foreign language. But the aesthetic and creative influences of multilingualism are also evident in the works of authors who write in their mother tongue but who have either experienced some sense of linguistic alienation or are simply aware of the inherent diversity of the languages around them.

The joys and challenges of the multilingual experience are beautifully captured in Akinwumi Isola’s “The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English),” translated by the author from the Yoruba. Isola depicts both the arrogance and blindness of the monolingual colonial speaker at the story’s center as well as the enjoyment and anguish of the multilingual children he encounters. In Isola’s tale, a white evangelist visiting a Nigerian junior primary school fails to appreciate the peculiarities of his native English and is therefore unable to acknowledge his students’ remarkable linguistic ability to acquire and apply new grammar rules. Instead of recognizing their efforts, the reverend only focuses on the mistakes. He scolds the children and blames them for their stupidity but does not provide any explanation for the unpredictable quirks of his own language. He tolerates no questions and imposes repetition instead of dialogue. As a result, he reduces language to religious and colonial ideology, turning it into one-sided communication that requires passive comprehension and memorization without active or emotional engagement. In contrast, the multilingual pupils’ creative and sophisticated transformation of English is refreshing. The children’s wonder at the unexpected twists of grammar, along with their playful approach to arbitrary rules, can be read as a warning to the adults in the story and to all native speakers who take our mastery of (any) language for granted, forgetting not only our own learning process and mistakes, but also the wonder of that process and the impact that certain sounds, well-turned phrases, or even words that now seem ordinary first had on us.

In his essay “Translating to and from a Native Language,” Moscow-born Alexei Bayer does the opposite as he vividly recalls the associations evoked by his first English word, “knife,” with its silent letters and sharp consonants:

Pronounced Ka-NAIF, with the second syllable midway between KNAVE and NAÏVE, I thought it was an excellent name for a dagger. Quite descriptive of what a stabbing would probably feel like. A jolt of resistance, a stutter just as the point enters the body—and then smooth sailing all the way in.

This type of precious memory, which brings back a crucial moment in Bayer’s multilingual existence, is one that many monolingual speakers won’t experience.

The imaginative use of language and the ability to sense the many allusions and suggestions that words contain is shared by many multilingual writers, and not only when they are young. In her essay “Speaking English Is Like,” Ge Gao reflects on the funny similarities between words that usually go unheard by native speakers:

I often mistake “chicken” and “kitchen,” or “restaurant” and “restroom.” I can’t really tell the difference between “micro” and “macro.” And I have to slow down when I say “usually” so it doesn’t sound like “usury.”

With similar playfulness, in “Listening to Silence,” translated by Sole Anatrone, Laila Wadia juxtaposes the momentous decision to stay in a foreign country with the lighthearted way she and her husband learned Italian:

Prakash and I are here to stay. In the morning we amuse ourselves drinking sweet and frothy cappuccinos, and we have begun to greet each other with a “Ciao.” We also bought two beautiful coats. So long as you think you are just passing through you think it isn’t worth investing in a new language. Nor do you invest in an appropriate wardrobe.

In spite of the pleasure that learning a new language provides, linguistic difference is often viewed as a threat to the purity of the native language. Writing outside the mother tongue (or in a nonstandard variety of the mother tongue) can lead to bitter resistance and an awareness of the myths that govern a nation, its literature, and its linguistic identity. In “New Battles for the Propriety of Language,” translated by Frances Riddle, Argentinean writer Marcelo Cohen recounts his particular struggle against “the oppressiveness of peninsular Spanish” when he worked as a translator in Spain during the 1970s. He reminds us—along the lines of Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other: or, The Prosthesis of Origin—of the colonial origins of all languages, cultures, and nations. In Cohen’s case, the inequalities between Spain and Latin America, between colonizer and colonized, have left a deep mark on the language that has rendered Cohen a “foreigner” in his mother tongue. Peninsular Spanish has unquestioned linguistic and cultural authority and the Spanish of Latin America—despite its multiple regional varieties—is regarded as a uniform Other:

I was a foreigner in a mother tongue that was not my mother’s tongue. A mother tongue with a long tradition of imperial centrality and theology, restored by Francoism, its illogical polished by the Academy and its hatred of the technocracy. It was the Latin Americans who “spoke poorly”; the Argentines, especially, used the vos and, as I already said, oozed certain Argentineanisms that in the Spanish publishing industry were considered blasphemous.

A similar distinction is often made between French and francophone literature, between writers from France with French as a mother tongue and French-speaking writers outside of France, usually the former colonies. In “Paris-Athens,” Vassilis Alexakis, a Paris-based French-speaking writer from Greece, reflects on his relationship with the French language. (The essay was published in two versions in Words without Borders, translated from French by Alyson Waters and from the author’s own Greek translation of his French original by Adriana Mastor.) Alexakis shares some of the questions he’s most frequently been asked during his career, questions which indicate that writing outside the mother tongue is still viewed as an oddity that requires constant justification:

“Why does he write in French?” . . . “And why doesn't he tell us about Greece?” . . . [should my books be placed] “in the French or Foreign Literature section?” . . . “But why do you write French novels?” . . . “What language do you speak to yourself in?” . . . “What language do you understand yourself better in?”

In “Three Myths of Immigrant Writing: A View from Germany,” Bosnian-born writer Saša Stanišiç recounts similar reactions to his writing in German. He is critical of readers’ tendencies to exoticize his style because of his “immigrant background,” even if this sometimes leads to a “more favorable critical judgment” of his books. As he argues against this (positive) discrimination, Stanišiç remarks that “language is the only country without borders” and that “writing itself is a foreign language.”

If writing is a foreign language, writing outside one’s mother tongue should not be considered an eccentricity at all. Rather it is an act of creativity that captures the essence of the writing process. All writing involves translating one’s fears and feelings and transforming them into something alien and yet intimate. And whether working within or outside of their mother tongues, writers are always crossing the borders of their own languages and worlds.

Published Jun 5, 2018   Copyright 2018 Núria Codina

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