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Speaking in tongues: Why do writers abandon their native language? | The Economist

March 14, 2016

IN 2012, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome and began a period of self-imposed linguistic exile from English. She stopped speaking, reading, and writing the language entirely, the better to learn Italian. Total immersion in a foreign language makes sense as a means of achieving mastery, but for a writer of English literature, abandoning the language in which she has established her career and literary identity also seems an odd move. What is a writer without the language in which she writes?

This isn’t a passing fling, either. In a memoir of her Italian immersion, translated into English as “In Other Words”, Ms Lahiri notes that Italian is “the sole language in which I continue to write”. People have advised her against it, insisting that they don’t want to read her in translation and that the change could spell disaster for her career. Even Italians struggle to understand why she would want to write in a language much less widely read.

But Ms Lahiri’s move is not unprecedented; there is a tradition of writers trying to escape their language and render their art in a foreign tongue. Some do it because they are intoxicated by the possibilities offered in a new language—the words and turns of phrase for which their own language doesn’t have any equivalents, the strange new rhythms and patterns of sound. Joseph Conrad, for whom English was a third language after Polish and French, explained that he was “adopted by the genius of the language”. Vladimir Nabokov had political and commercial reasons for writing in English rather than Russian, but his real compulsion had to do with the pleasures of the language itself: “The excitement of verbal adventure in the Russian medium had faded away gradually after I turned to English,” he told the Paris Review.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a 20th-century linguist, argued that speakers of different languages perceive and understand the world differently—that language determines thought. If this is the case then writing in a foreign language offers writers not just new words but new ideas, a different way of interpreting experience altogether. Whorf’s theory is controversial. Some experts contend that it is more a matter of influence—that English doesn’t force you to think differently from Russian, for instance, but that the languages have different associations and so different effects on your mind. Since language is the medium through which writers represent the world, it is hard to discount the idea that a new language opens them up to new modes of representation. “In the months before coming to Italy,” Ms Lahiri writes, “I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach.”

Yet the adoption of a foreign language isn’t just about looking for a fresh perspective. It can signal a vexed relationship with the original language; the psychological burdens of a writer’s previous texts, his literary reputation in that language, the entire tradition in which he is working. Samuel Beckett is probably the most pronounced example of this; after publishing novels and essays in English, he began to feel that it was impossible to continue writing in his native language. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart,” he wrote to a friend. “Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman.” He longed to “sin against” English as he sinned, unintentionally, against foreign languages—to break with conventional usage, to explode stylistic customs and received literary wisdom. In a sense, this is what all truly innovative writing aims to do. Beckett had tried to do it in English but his early fiction was badly received, considered pastiches of James Joyce, his literary mentor and hero. So he switched to French, a language in which he felt it was “easier to write without style.” (Ms Lahiri, incidentally, echoes this pronouncement: “In Italian,” she explains, “I write without style, in a primitive way.”)

But what exactly was Beckett escaping? Why did French work for him when English didn’t? Some scholars have suggested he was fleeing Joyce’s legacy, the shadow of the forefather that haunted his own attempts at original literary creation. It’s an argument that recalls Harold Bloom’s theory of an “anxiety of influence”—that great writers create by trying to “get outside” the influence of their precursors. But Beckett is an unusual and extreme instance of poetic anxiety. He sought not just to get outside Joyce but to get outside Joyce’s very language—the English language, burdened for him by its associations with all the great writers of the English canon. Switching to French wasn’t just an intellectual challenge or linguistic game for Beckett: it was necessary for his survival as a writer. It was only by composing in French that he really came into his own. And he eventually made it home: by self-translating his French texts back into English, he established himself in the canon and the language he had delighted in abandoning.

Unlike Beckett, Ms Lahiri made her name in English from the start. But on reflection, she, too, acknowledges that she’s “trying to get away from something.” English had become fraught territory, a source of her anxiety as a writer—“a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict.” And if Beckett was burdened by his failure in English, Ms Lahiri is burdened by the spectre of her success: “I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. All of my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible,” she explains. “But a year after my first book was published, I lost my anonymity.” English, constrained by expectation and accomplishment, seems to have become unworkable and overused. Italian offers a clean slate, a language unencumbered by familiar voices, including her own. She has declined even to translate “In Other Words” back into English herself. Perhaps most importantly, in a new language, Ms Lahiri is free to fail, and perhaps, like Beckett, to sin.

Writers rejuvenate themselves by fleeing to foreign tongues. They escape all the psychic associations that gather around a language and a literary tradition. In a sense, it’s an extreme cure for writer’s block. They learn to write again, in a different register. And in the process of adopting a new language, their relationship with the old one changes. It grows less familiar, less tired; with time and distance, the native language can take on the freshness and freedom of the foreign language, with all of its associated possibilities for experimentation. Such was the case for Beckett with English. It seems Ms Lahiri is forging ahead in Italian for now, but she may find that the real boon of her decision to abandon English is the opportunity to rediscover it.

Source: Speaking in tongues: Why do writers abandon their native language? | The Economist

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