Writing about the marginal surrealist Leonora Carrington in The New York Times Book Review of 4 June, Parul Sehgal introduces us (me anyway) to the concept of exophonic writers: writers who wrote in languages other than their native tongue. Wikipedia has, inevitably, a list. Ms Sehgal alludes to the following:

  • Leonora Carrington: incomprehension brings liberation. “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words  . . . This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.”
  • Vladimir Nabokov: was kind of forced into it. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom.”
  • Joseph Conrad: did it to gain a larger audience (?)*
  • Yuko Otomo: English is more democratic than Japanese. “I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you’.”
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: a sort of rebirth: She finds writing in Italian makes her “a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way”. (Which seems to have involved the rediscovery of the comma!)
  • Emil Cioran: purging the past. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past, I changed my entire life.”
  • Samuel Beckett: a desire for self-exposure. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

Quite interesting. I often say that I have found myself able to say things in a foreign language which I’d never say in English. So I’d add a category of de-inhibitor to Ms Sehgal’s list.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch has attracted some comment. The Economist examines the move, while Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books provides a devastating review of the result. Success in writing confronts the writer with the burden of expectations. People liked your first book; lots of them bought it; and they are now waiting for more of the same. Maybe switching to a different language provides a bit of cover?

Arthur Koestler is another who changed language in mid-career. The New York Review of Books has a piece by Michael Scammell. Darkness at Noon was originally published in English. It was translated as it was being written (from German to English) by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy. In the chaos of wartime they were scrambling to get the book done before the Germans authorities caught up with them. They did get rough translation off to England, and sent the original German manuscript to Swiss publisher Emil Opprecht. Everyone assumed that the original was lost, hence the need to publish from the English translation. When a German edition was published it had to be freshly translated by Koestler into German from the “original” reworked English version. As it turns out the manuscript sent to Opprecht did arrive, and has recently been unearthed. The publisher of the German edition “Ullstein noted that Koestler was using ‘a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions’ in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal.”

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement of 26 May 2017 raises yet more complications. “A Moscow-born assimilated Jew, I left the Soviet Union forty years ago for Israel where, for a year, I ran a student theatre in Jerusalem; the, while staying in Paris (my first novel [which was written in Russian] had just been translated into French), I was invited by the BBC World Service to cross the Channel and settle down in Britain. Ten years later I became a British citizen. Like many of my contemporaries I think, speak and write in two, if not three, languages. What unites these foreign personae is my foreign accent.” He points out that Conrad liked to visit Paris at least in part because there nobody detected his accent; they all thought he spoke perfect English. (But Conrad spoke excellent French, so I’m not sure why he’d need to be speaking in English.) My stepfather, also a Pole, never lost his heavy accent, and although not a writer, would I imagine have written in Polish where his vocabulary remained much larger. In the mill buttons were always referred to as guziki (goozh-eekee). Many’s the time I’ve run upstairs for him to “get that . . . you know what . . . that thingummy”; one would just bring objects downstairs until inspiration lit on the right one.

Zinik mentions Adalbert Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemiel, a classic of 19th century German literature, who was born of French émigré parents who were fleeing the revolution and was bi-lingual all his life. There have always been lots of people like that. Surely now the pace of population movement has accelerated to such a pitch that one can no longer rely on an inhabitant of say Edinburgh speaking English (in so far as one ever could; many would claim that lowland Scots is incomprehensible to a “real” English speaker. It is however an English dialect, whatever they say, unlike Gaelic.) So the expectation that a native citizen of any country should think, dream, speak, write in the language of that country becomes less and less tenable. And I refrain from a discussion here of Jewish identity; it just gets too complicated. Yiddish is in a similar position now to Scots Gaelic: very few speak it; many wish they did.

Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het;
The trees in rank along a ledge
Do show where woonce did bloom a hedge;
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
The grass ageän the mwoldrèn door
’S a tóken sad o’ vo’k a-gone,
An’ where the house, bwoth wall an’ vloor,
’S a-lost, the well mid linger on.
What tokens, then, could Meäry gi’e
That she’d a-liv’d, an’ liv’d vor me,
But things a-done vor thought an’ view?
Good things that nwone ageän can do,
An’ every work her love ha’ wrought
To eyezight’s woone, but two to thought.

Is this written in English? Of course it is, but William Barnes wrote in the dialect of his native Dorset. It’s his poem “Token”. How about Burns? A dialect speaker writing in the nation’s formal language shares much with the exophonic writer. Many a folk critic would want them just to pull up their socks and write proper English. Some of us seem to find it hard to believe that people can really communicate in ways which we don’t readily understand. The demand that everyone write like “we” do is a bit like shouting English words slowly at a Spaniard, and concluding that his failure to comprehend betokens idiocy. The funniest thing I’ve read recently is this from a review in the same issue of the TLS “When de Waal asked colleagues why primate face recognition tests used human faces as the target data, he was told it was thought to be an easier test for primates to pass, since human faces differ so much.” The review does not go on to mention all these chimpanzee ethologists who are scratching their heads despairing of their human subjects’ inability to distinguish between ape faces which of course “differ so much”. (De Waal himself writes in English though he was born in the Netherlands and only moved to the USA in his early thirties. You wouldn’t know he wasn’t writing in his native language. Of how many academics must this be true?)


* But his father was a translator of English into Polish, and Conrad did spend 16 years in the British merchant marine, became a British citizen in 1886 at the age of 28, and lived in England for the rest of his life. He claimed to enjoy the “plastic” freedoms the English language provided him. All of which might seem more explanatory, or at least relevant.