Second Language Writers

by on Aug.06, 2013

I’ve written and thought much about the act of writing in a second language (like I am doing right now), and I found this article by Costica Bradatan in the NY Times very interesting.

In a certain sense, then, it could be said that in the end you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. At a deeper, more personal level, writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn. The result is a “ghostification” of sorts. For to change languages as a writer is to undergo a process of dematerialization: before you know it, you are language more than anything else. One day, suddenly, a certain intuition starts visiting you, namely that you are not made primarily out of flesh anymore, but out of lines and rhymes, of rhetorical strategies and narrative patterns. Just like the “book people,” you don’t mean much apart the texts that inhabit you. More than a man or a woman of flesh and blood, you are now rather a fleshing out of the language itself, a literary project, very much like the books you write. The writer who has changed languages is truly a ghost writer – the only one worthy of the name.

Having done all this, having gone through the pain of changing languages and undergone the death-and-rebirth initiation, you are sometimes given – as a reward, as it were – access to a metaphysical insight of an odd, savage beauty.

Bradatan’s “ghostification” might not be so different from what I’ve been calling “kitsch”; certainly the “savage” aspect of second language might jive with my recent post about art and violence; but mostly I think it’s the point above that interests me, suggesting language functioning what we in recent post here have called “ambient[ly].”

14 comments for this entry:
  1. françois

    I was a bit put off by the initial characterization of language change as being “catastrophic,” trying to apply this to people like Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener, who have written in French, then came back to English. But I am still struggling with this article, somehow. (As an aside, I am also writing in French right now, after years of not doing it). Maybe more later.

  2. Johannes

    For me it was catastrophic, and in some ways continues to be so./Johannes

  3. Johannes

    How do you feel about it in your own writing Francois?

    I have a post forthcoming on the Poetry Foundation blog about my own experience with immigration, but since you’ve read my blog posts for a long time, it’s probably nothing new that poetry for me is inextricable from the disaster of my immigration.


  4. The Modesto Kid

    Thanks! I’ll check out Bradatan’s article — I’ve been really interested for 2 years or so now in second-language composition and especially in L2 translation. I don’t see a lot written about this — I find that Spanish has really opened me up as a poet and I’m interested to discover more about how this is working.

  5. The Modesto Kid

    btw Vincente Huidobro says (while writing in his mother tongue, while writing one of the major poems of the 20th Century) that “one must write in a language not one’s mother tongue”.

  6. Johannes

    It’s funny because Robert Bly once told me that one had to write in one’s mother’s language – ie literally the language one’s mother spoke while she was pregnant. Of course my mother was a francophile so maybe she spoke some French…

  7. françois

    I think you might have told me this about Robert Bly. Adam Zagajewski told me the same thing.

    I’m actually surprised it took me this long to go back to writing in French. It probably has to do with the increasing amount of time I spend in Montreal. But I’ve also been multilingual from a very young age (English is technically my third or fourth language). And I had been commuting between France and the United States for about as long, until the age of 20. I am often asked, when I mention that I have lived in Houston, how I handled the cultural differences between the States and France. I never know how to answer, being used to both.

    That being said, I’ve never felt particularly rooted in any culture. For that matter, I even switch accents (between a dodgy fake British one, a Southwestern one, and a Western Canadian one) just to throw people off. But I guess this allows me to approach language objectively. I don’t know. My writing in either language seem strange to me in the first place.

    It could also be said this fluidity of language explains my attraction to bilingual places, such as Montréal. It would be interesting to see what Cia Rinne has to say about this.

  8. Johannes

    Yes, I was incredibly rooted in Swedish/Sweden, so to me it was a tremendous blow. So that when I wrote my book Pilot, which is a mash up of languages, I experienced as a kind of masochistic act in a lot of ways. And I bring the Swedish into really most of my writing, in less obvious ways, and then it feels very violent to me.For example, in my first book I keep punning on the word “barn” – which in Swedish is children.

    Even when I go back now – I’ve lived in the US for like 25 years – the nostalgia etc makes me nauseous. Sometimes it’s enough to watch a Wallander show (they’re set in my home province, Skåne). / Johannes

  9. Johannes

    When “experimental literature” works with bilingualism it often feels too easy to me. Just as models of “metropolitanism” feels too easy, as if it avoids that violence. Thus my posts on “corean music.”/Johannes

  10. françois

    As you know, I’ve been interested in writers who don’t write in their first language. I remember giggling a lot going through the Swedish pages of Pilot, trying to access them through my German (which is also how I read the Swedish pages of Remainland, for that matter). But I’m not quite sure what “experimental literature” means anymore in an American context. Most of what is called “experimental literature” seems to me so monoglottal and, well, annoyingly American. I can be rather guilty of this, both in French and English (some of my annoying reflexes are the same in both languages; perhaps because my written English is one inflected by a French syntax). This might have been part of my ambivalence about writing predominantly in American English, the language of empire, whether the text is strictly in English or contaminated (to use one of your terms) by foreignness. Whether the agent of contamination is French or German, languages that are very close to English, American English is still appropriating those sentences and frames them.

    But perhaps this is my fault for just sprinkling the book with foreign sentences rather than write pages in one language. Perhaps this is what you describe as “too easy” bilingualism. One good exception would be Sawako’s Mouth: Eat Color and its accompanying performances, how it navigates language(s) through translation, mistranslation and lack of translation. And because the untranslated pages are in Japanese, there is much more resistance to entry to the text. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Hector Ruiz (whom you and I published in that Canadian feature of Action, Yes), whose first language is Guatemalan Spanish, second Swedish, and Québécois French his third. His writing is only in French, but it’s inflected (according to his editor) by a Latin American syntax.

    I’m mentioning Sawako and Hector because they are among the writers I feel closest to, but also because their linguistic experiences are closest to mine. That is to say it was not at all “catastrophic,” but a choice of convenience, all of us having experienced our linguistic shift at an early age, so we could have chosen to write in any of our familiar languages. Or maybe this shift was indeed traumatic, but we were too young to realize it.

    But perhaps but this notion of language change as catastrophic is Eurocentric. I think of what Omar Berrada told me about poets from the Maghreb, how they can write in French, English, Arabic or Berber (Edmond Jabès being one of them). Or the poets from Iran, Afghanistan and India being polyglots as well, writing interchangeably in Farsi, Urdu or Pashto.

  11. Johannes

    Barbra Jane Reyes – the untranslated pages in POetas en San Francisco – feel very violent in their untranslated state – to me.
    MOre later.


  12. Johannes

    Sometimes “sprinkling” foreign words seems like just that: to give a slightly foreigny, exoticy sheen (I think of a lot of “personal narrative” poems where foreign words are put in italics, but even in such quarantined cases, the words can be pretty forceful). But it can function in all kinds of ways: as holes, as wounds, as energies pushing through the poems. I don’t remember feeling that you merely sprinkle foreigness…

    I guess what I meant by “experimental” I mean exactly what you’re talking about – a kind of american, very monoglottal notion of taste, and how some Deleuzian has been brought into that MO in a very easy way. Like it’s effortless to be “nomadic”, as if moving through languages wasn’t a violent experience.

    It’s also very, very American to insist on the effortlessness of crossing boundaries. There’s an interesting book I’ve quoted before, can’t remember who the author is but it’s jsut called “Homeless”, which talks about how homesickness caused people to literally “die” back in the day, and that American rhetoric of the strong, autonomous immigrant who “never looks back” is actually not just subtext-ideology, but was part of a very active campaign to promote a US that wasn’t connected to the other nations.

    Of course there are many Europeans who speak multiple languages. Finns for example have always spoken many languages, Swedish and Finnish, but also Russian etc, since their own language didn’t “exist” until 1918 when they gained independence from Russia – they are a postcolonial country, something that gets homogenized over in words like “eurocentric”. And on the whole I don’t think it is just European who feel “catastrophic” about leaving their home language. I know plenty of Latino/a and Asian-American writers for example who have a very complex relationship to American/English. Don Mee Choi for example. I mean, I know folks who have crossed illegally into US to get away from civil war in their homeland, but on the whole they don’t seem to have utopian ideas about America and English… I just read a memoir the other day about an immigrant to Sweden whose experiences were quite catastrophic.

    But at the same time, I don’t want to say that emigration is bad. It is certainly beautiful to be immersed in a strange language you can’t quite understand. I can see why Ron Silliman wants to compare his own poetry to an untranslatable foreign poetry, but my experience was much less cut and dry – it was not just pure signifier, it was: odd valences of words, beautiful sounds, half-meanings, etc.


  13. françois

    And there are also some cases where deciding to write in American English, in the case of Myung Mi Kim, Roy Kiyooka, and other “subaltern” poets (as demonstrated here; the interview was forwarded to me by Sean Labrador Y Manzano in the context of our conversations around the idea of an Ethnic (well, Asian-American) Avant-Garde) is the testimony of wound, turning the imperial aspect of America against itself. But this is not my case. I also wonder if this is the case of Asian-American writers who have had a fairly middle-class upbringing.

  14. Kyle

    The original post here is fascinating, but I think the comments even more so. I spend a lot of time thinking about translation (since it makes up half, maybe more of what I read, and almost the entirety of the films I watch), but the sense I get even then is that the translated text is somehow a ghost. There’s a paleness to it; the invisible (but somehow more tangible) presence of the original that somehow lingers in the back(fore?)ground of even the best translation and somehow diminishes it. Or at least makes you see it differently.

    On the other hand, I’d never considered the effect this would actually have on writing in a second language: that the ghost could move from the text to the person creating it. (And, though I speak some Japanese, I have a feeling my experience of learning a second language within America is very different because it takes place in that very American context of voluntary acquisition.)