Last week, Tim Parks published a fascinating piece about authors who write in languages they learned later in life for NYR Daily. In “Why Write in English?” Parks discusses Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian and the long history of authors choosing English to reach a wider audience. While Parks is interested in finding out why authors leave their native languages, I’m more interested in how these authors managed to master another language altogether while so many struggle to express themselves in their own native languages.
I have always discovered new words chiefly through reading. When I was younger, I learned the hard way about actually using those words out loud. I got in trouble for calling my sister a schmuck in church and almost killed someone by mispronouncing the word harbinger while they were eating. More recently, I’ve been getting after students for misusing words they picked up from thesauri. (One does not “regale” others with tales about the Holocaust, for example.) But these are a little mistakes compared to sharing something written in a foreign language with the entire community of people who speak that language.
Nuance is a tricky thing and it’s something that I know drives non-native English speakers nuts from helping international students with their writing. It’s hard to explain the feelings and images certain words evoke and why one should use “recount” instead of “regale.” Since authors make a living from making us think and feel when we read their writing, nuance is incredibly important. Parks gives two examples of authors who failed after switching to another language:
Both [Gerard] Reve’s and [Milan] Kundera’s moves [to English and French, respectively] suggest a certain hubris; they supposed their individual talents were entirely separate from the culture and language in which they had developed. It’s a hubris inherent, perhaps, in the Western obsession with freedom, and the consequent refusal to accept that we are conditioned and limited by circumstances of birth, family, and education.
Both of these authors went back to the languages they had started writing in because their new languages failed them. Switching languages is not matter of mastering the lexicon and the grammar. Nuance has to be learned by immersion in culture and experience.
And yet, some authors are able to master new languages. Parks cites Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, both hugely successful in English—more successful than they were in their native languages. How did they do it? How did they find the right words in a language from a different branch of the linguistic family tree?