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Amazing Bilingual Writers I

Writing literature in a second or a third language

Post written by François Grosjean.

Writing is one of the most demanding skills that is acquired, and writing literary works is an art that only a handful of people ever master. And yet, there are some very special bilinguals who write literature in their second or third language, and sometimes even in two languages.

There are many writers who are bilingual or multilingual but they usually write their works in their first language (e.g. Isaac B. Singer, Czelaw Milosz), or in their most proficient writing language when they changed language dominance in their childhood. This is the case of Richard Rodriguez, the author of Hunger of Memory, whose first language was Spanish but who writes in English, his dominant language. It is also the case of Eva Hoffman, of Lost in Translation fame, who moved to Canada from Poland when she was thirteen and who uses English as her literary language.

Some authors, however, decide to write in their second or third language, even though they have good writing skills in their other language(s). This was the case of Joseph Conrad, the author of classics such as Lord Jim, The Secret Agent and Nostromo. He was born in Poland where he spent his youth before living in France for four years. He then joined the English merchant navy and traveled the world until age thirty-five. It is then that he became a full-time novelist.... in English, his third language!

Frederick Karl, one of his biographers, tells us that he decided not to write in Polish, his first language, in order to separate himself from his father as well as from his own first culture. Neither the Poles nor the British understood why he had chosen English, and Conrad had to live with a well-known bicultural dilemma—being categorized as a member of the other culture by each of the cultures concerned (see here).

Even though Conrad had a very strong accent in English which prevented him from lecturing publicly (see here), he wrote wonderful prose in English which required practically no editing. Even so, he belittled his English and wrote, "In writing I wrestle painfully with (this) language which I feel I do not possess but which possesses me—alas!".

A more recent bilingual author who wrote in her second language only was Agota Kristof. She left Hungary during the 1956 uprising along with her first husband and their four-month old baby girl. They came to settle in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and for a number of years she worked in a local watchmaking factory. She was totally monolingual in Hungarian when she arrived but she went back to school and studied French.

Kristof started her literary career some twelve years after having arrived, first by writing poems in French. She then wrote her first novel, The Notebook, in French also, the story of twin brothers lost in a country that is torn apart. It was a real success and it has been translated into numerous languages. This was the beginning of a long career as an author of novels, short stories and plays .... all in French!

When one reads biographies or interviews of bilinguals who write in their second or third language, one sometimes finds evidence that some did try out writing in their first language. One such writer was Jack Kerouac, the much acclaimed author of On the Road. Kerouac's first language, and only language until age six, was French. He came from a French Canadian family that emigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, and with whom he spoke the Quebec French variety, joual. His manuscript, Sur le Chemin, was written shortly after his 1951 best seller (it is in fact a different story). It was never published in French but Kerouac did translate it into English as Old Bull in the Bowery. The original French version was only discovered in 2008.

Unlike the above bilingual authors—and there are many others such as André Aciman, Ha Jin, Andreï Makine, Dai Sijie, Ahdaf Soueif, and Xu Xi—who have remained faithful, for the most part, to just one language, there are some authors who actually write in their two languages (e.g. Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov). I dedicate another post to them (see here).


François Grosjean. Bilingual writers. Chapter 12 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Frederick R. Karl (1979). Joseph Conrad. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Interview of Agota Kristof:

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area (see here).

François Grosjean's website.

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