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Amazing Bilingual Writers II

Writing literature in the one and the other language

Post written by François Grosjean.

We saw in an earlier post that some bilingual authors write literature in their second or third language (see here) despite the fact that writing is one of the most demanding skills ever acquired. What is even more amazing is that other authors write their works in two languages, not just one.

Many of these authors go from writing in their first language to writing in their second or third language, usually after having emigrated. For example, Vladimir Nabokov, born in Russia in 1899, started by writing in Russian (e.g. Mashenka, The Gift) before becoming famous in the English-speaking world for his novels written directly in English (e.g. Bend Sinister, Lolita).

A similar itinerary was followed by Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett, who was born in Ireland but who moved to France permanently at age 31. His first novel, Murphy, was written in English but after World War II, he started to write in French (e.g. Molloy).

Hunter College Professor, Elizabeth Beaujour, has analyzed why authors such as these shift over to writing in their second or third language. The first reason is obvious—it is to gain a wider audience, even if the émigré community is quite large in their new country. A second reason is that bilingual authors are rarely happy with the translations that are done of their works. They either redo the translations themselves, even though the process is particularly tormenting for many of them, or they write new works directly in their second or third language.

And a third reason is quite simply that different aspects of life require different languages (see here). Writing a novel in the "wrong language" (e.g. a story in Russian that takes place in the United States) is particularly difficult, as Nabokov himself experienced.

There are also those bilingual writers who start to write in their second language and then, a few years later, revert to writing in their first language, something they had not done before. Canadian and French author, Nancy Huston, is such a person. After having moved to France from North America in 1973, she wrote her first book, Les Variations Goldberg, in French. The reason she gives it that her mother tongue, English, was "too emotionally fraught at the time". She continued writing in French for a number of years and then decided to write a novel in English, Plainsong. It came out twelve years after her first book in French.

Huston explains her return to English by her need to tell stories, "wholeheartedly, fervently, passionately....without dreading the derisive comments of the theoreticians". She now writes in both her languages and translates her works both ways.

Elizabeth Beaujour has found that bilingual authors, in the twilight of their career, are no longer satisfied keeping their two languages separate. They make sure that their works are published in both languages (as did Beckett and as does Huston currently) and they have bilingual characters who speak their languages and shift from one to the other quite freely.

Today, in fact, there is an increasing number of authors who write bilingually, even at the start of their career. Thus, Junot Díaz, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, brings a lot of Spanish into his English prose. And Susana Chávez-Silverman, a Hispanic American author, uses a blend of English and Spanish that is higher than normal in her books such as Killer Crónicas. She states that she remains bilingual in her writing so as not to have to choose between her two languages. (She reads extracts from her book here).

Among other authors who write in their two languages we find: André Brink (Afrikaans, English), Ariel Dorfman (Spanish, English), Claude Esteban (Spanish, French), Romain Gary (French, English), Julien Green (French, English), Milan Kundera (Czech, French), and Jonathan Littell (English, French).

This said, as Elizabeth Beaujour writes, it is still rare for bilingual or polyglot writers to create work that has the same weight in more than one language. Those that do are truly exceptional people!


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

Elizabeth Beaujour (1989). Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the "First" Emigration. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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

François Grosjean's website.

More from Francois Grosjean Ph.D.
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