Are We Different People in Different Languages?
On Being a Multilingual Writer in the 21st Century
The Latvian student was struggling with his assignment. I had asked all the students in my writing class at Maastricht University in the Netherlands—where instruction was in English—to translate one of their stories into their native language.
The Latvian student, B., was one of 23 who had signed up for the first year of creative writing minor I had designed for the university. This inaugural class comprised one of the most linguistically diverse groups I had ever taught. Only one—my single American—was monolingual. The rest spoke 12 different languages among them. For most of my students, English was their second or third language and yet they used it beautifully, writing stories and poems that were among the most interesting I had come across as a teacher of writing.
So I was surprised to discover that this last assignment requiring them to write in the language they had first spoken was especially difficult. Like B., many students found it nearly impossible to complete.
B. had been born in Latvia and had moved to the Netherlands with his family around the age of 10. He had already written an accomplished, rather adult story, a gothic tale involving a bit of violence and a bit of love. The translation assignment nearly did him in. He was in my office every week, unable to start the project, and then when he did, unable to make any progress. Finally, I asked him to try to pinpoint what was the root of his problem. He thought for a moment and then lit up.
“The problem,” he explained, “is that this is a very dark story and Latvian is just not that kind of language.”
I asked him what he meant.
“You see,” he replied. “Latvian is a very sweet and beautiful language.”
A sweet and beautiful language. I smiled. And then gently broke it to him that it’s not the language that was sweet and beautiful; it was the 10-year-old boy who stopped using it exclusively when he acquired a new one. He was able to finish his translation after that. But I don’t know if he ever quite believed me. Latvian will always remain for him the sweet and innocent language of childhood. As it probably must.
* * * *
At its most basic level, we have language in order to communicate. One can easily imagine that the first human articulation was some version of “Watch out!”
But the struggles of my Latvian student show that language also communicates our deepest selves back to us, as if words were a shroud that give form to our inner world. Language is power and protest, inclusion and exclusion. It is game and braggadocio.
And it is impossible to talk about multilingualism in the United States without acknowledging the politics of language and culture. We cannot forget that in the 1800s thousands of Native American children were forced into schools that beat their languages out of them. In Texas and New Mexico, those states that were not long ago part of Mexico, students—up until the 1970s—were not allowed to speak Spanish at school. Sadly, none of this is ancient history. Just this year, Donald Trump chastised Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish and a broadcaster was attacked for pronouncing Spanish words a bit too correctly for the tastes of some of her English speaking listeners.
We must remember all this because it is the background hum that attends any discussion of language in the United States. Language divides as easily as it unites. But when I teach multilingualism in writing, I try to concentrate mostly on the game, on language’s ability to give us pleasure, because it can and because we’re writers and that is what language ultimately is for us, a source of deep pleasure even when the words are angry or difficult or even ugly.
What does it mean to be multilingual? At the most basic level, we all are. If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other. “English,” this solid behemoth that depending on your politics should either be preserved or purged, is actually, when you cut it open, quite a shape-shifter. What is English? A relative newcomer to the club of languages, (in use a mere 1400 years compared to truly ancient tongues like Tamil which reach back to the third century BCE) and not all that original: Mostly German, Latin and French with some Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit.
But even if you’re not a linguist and even if you don’t speak anything other than this closeted polyglot called English, you are probably still speaking in tongues. Do you have a different language for your parents than you do for your mates? Do you speak the language of lawyers? Of doctors? Of your hometown? Of your own particular tribe?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me recounts a moment at an airport, when he bumped a young black man at baggage claim.
“My bad,” Coates said by way of apology.
“You straight,” the man answered.
“And in that exchange,” writes Coates, “there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black.”
It is a tribe, Coates notes earlier “ bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream.”
I share a corresponding sense of cozy belonging every time I hear Cuban Spanish, that unpretentious vernacular that renders a crisp phrase such as “It is back here” into the joyfully efficient, “Ta qi ‘atra”
I’ve already mentioned my sweet Latvian student. A similar thing happened when I taught a different workshop in Miami in 2014. Though many students spoke other languages, all wrote exclusively in English. I asked why. A student whose parents were from Gujarat explained.
“I’ve talked about this with my other friends,” she said. “None of us write in Gujarati because it’s not a nice language for us.”
I asked why. And after a moment of thought, she said, “Because it’s the language of scolding!”
Today, I ask my classes to reflect on what language means to them. I ask how many now use a language different from the one they grew up speaking. I ask: What is your language of scolding? What is your sweet language?
* * * *
Eva Hoffman in her memoir Lost in Translation writes about emigrating from Poland to Vancouver at the age of 13 and encountering the shock of the new language.
She writes: “The problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.”
And yet, as an adult, she chooses to write in English. “If I’m to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of the self.”
Later, she realizes that each language “modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages.”
In her essay collection Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat comes to a similar conclusion:
One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.
This is part of what Mikhail Bakhtin was getting at when he wrote “…language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between ones’ self and the other… The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s “own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.”
For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.
That, to me, is the great gift of bilingualism. And I usually begin a workshop by asking students to translate a short poem into their native tongues (I usually use Alfred Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” after I learned to translate it in a charming workshop given by the Dutch poet Wiel Kusters). Those students who do not speak another language are asked to rewrite the poem without using the letter “e”, a translation hurdle in itself.
To translate, one must really understand what is being said. The translator crawls inside a text and inhabits it in a way not even the careful reader can. This is why every writer must read as the translator does.
* * * *
This essay is cheekily subtitled “being a multilingual writer in the 21st century” which implies that we invented it. Of course we didn’t, anymore than we invented globalization.
“One truth that is rather neglected in creative-writing workshops is that all good poets of the past, almost without exception, were at least bilingual if not trilingual,” the critic Helen Vendler said in a 1996 interview with the Paris Review.
Cicero, Saint Matthew and Erasmus were all literate in more than one language. Rumi, the 13th-century poet who has enjoyed such popularity lately, was born to Persian speaking parents in what is now Afghanistan. He wrote in Persian, with a smattering of Turkish, Greek and Arabic. To be educated then, as now, meant being able to write in an imperial language.
For a long time in what is now Italy, serious writers wrote in formal Latin. It took Dante, in the late Middle Ages, to take the revolutionary step of writing in his own Tuscan dialect. It would be a mistake, though, to see him with modern eyes as some kind of champion of inclusiveness. He did, after all, use Latin to make his case in On Eloquence in the Vernacular. And in that essay he disparages just about every other Italian vernacular, including the one used in Rome calling what the Romans spoke, in Steven Botterill’s translation, “not so much a vernacular as a vile jargon, the ugliest of all the languages spoken in Italy; and this should come as no surprise, for they also stand out among all Italians for the ugliness of their manners and their outward appearance.”
Ouch. Politics and the Italian language. Some things never change in us. Still, Dante started something. And later writers like Petrarch followed eagerly. Writing in Italy would never be the same.
Nor was the vernacular revolution confined to Western Europe. At almost exactly the same period, the Turkish poet Yunus Emre, was rejecting the literary Persian used by writers of the time to write in his own native Turkish.
The lessons carry to our own day, reminding us that the vernacular is also “another tongue” one that may be “vile jargon” to others, but whose expression has all the beauty, value and uniqueness of another language. In the words of the poet Edward Hirsch: “We need the sound of our words to delineate the state of our beings.”
In the 20th century, some of the most celebrated figures in literature were multilingual, either through exile, immigration, colonialism or family circumstance.
Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his first novels in Russian, became an international star after he started writing in English. Jorge Luis Borges spoke English as a child and wrote in Spanish. The Irish Samuel Beckett, who studied English, French and Italian at Trinity College, wrote his most well known work in French, preferring that language because, as he famously noted, it allowed him to write “without style.”
This list grows longer towards century’s end when we add the refugees of the era’s great upheavals: Eva Hoffman, Charles Simic, Anchee Min, Edwidge Danticat, Milan Kundera, Nuruddin Farah, and Amin Maalouf, to name just a few. Many of them, like my uncle Dionisio Martinez, left their homeland in their early teens and went on to write in the language of a new land.
Now, in the hyper-connected 21st century we find poets who are playing with language the way the concrete poets once played with image.
Antoine Cassar, born in 1978, is a Maltese poet whose “mosaics” such as the playful “C’est la Vie” combine English, French, Italian, Maltese and Spanish. The poem begins:
Run, rabbit, run, run, run, from the womb to the tomb,
de cuatro a dos a tres, del río a la mar,
play the fool, suffer school, żunżana ddur iddur,
engage-toi, perds ta foi, le regole imparar,
Among my favorites of these hybrid poems is Gloria Anzaldua’s “Borderland,” and I teach it often. One of the things I love about the poem, and that I often remind my students about, is that it’s not enough to call it a “bilingual” poem. It is more properly a “multilingual” and even “multi-heritage” poem. Though I myself am a native Spanish speaker, I had to look up the meanings of gabacha (foreigner) and rajetas (coarse multi-colored cloth), two words not usually spoken by Cuban speakers of Spanish.
Anzaldua, like Dante, started (or re-started) something. Today, you find many bilingual poets celebrating the fact in their writing.
In “Dreaming Pancho Villa” Carl Marcum, who was born in Nogales, Arizona, and raised in Tucson by his Mexican mother and Caucasian father, writes:
Half, medio, milkweed,
Carlos Gringo, Carlos Murphy.
part Kentucky hillbilly,
I’ve angloed my way
through this life—
nunca pensando en
In “Bilingual Blues,” the Cuban-born Gustavo Perez-Firmat writes:
You say tomato,
I say tu madre;
You say potato,
I say Pototo.
Let’s call the hole
un hueco, the thing
a cosa, and if the cosa goes into the hueco,
consider yourself en casa,
consider yourself part of the family.
In my workshops, I often give students the assignment of picking seven words in their mother tongue. These should be words they consider particularly beautiful or resonant or even hideous and frightening. Then I ask them to use them in an English-language poem. For students who are monolingual, I press them to think of all those bits and pieces of foreign words and phrases that most of us have floating about our consciousness.
One of the most charming poems to come out if this exercise was in fact written by one of my monolingual British students in the second year of the program in Maastricht:
“So you only speak English?” –by Theresa Bullock
So you only speak English?
Pourquoi? They ask me, of course I’m in France
My cheeks blush as I
Make some excuse about
Not reading enough books or not going on enough trips
Rolling off the basics
Seems to keep them off my back for now
So you only speak English?
The Dutch seem more forgiving
Until they learn I have lived here for
Years rather than weeks.
But their look of disappointment
urges me on
Maar ik spreekt een beetje .
The truth is very different
I love how musical bore-da
Sounds in the morning on a camping trip to Wales
How kurwa sounds so soft
It cannot possibly mean my Polish friends are insulting each other
I watch movies with different subtitles so I know
Ezel, burro, åsna, baudet.
But I cannot string two words together.
In England that’s good going
But here, being able to order
Frikandel met frites
Just doesn’t seem to cut it.
It’s easier for me to say
Tak, I only speak English.
(Theresa Bullock, Maastricht University 2013, used with permission)
* * * *
I started this essay off with the idea that at its basic level, language exists in order to communicate. But the flip side is the possibility of miscommunication, misunderstanding and the sense of mute inarticulateness that many learners of a new language experience.
“I want to write a story about a woman who is trying to say important things, but cannot,” one of my Chinese exchange students recently told me.
She was trying to express what it feels like to have a vibrant intelligent inner life that cannot yet be fully expressed in the elementary constructions of a new language.
Our universities are woefully lacking in multilingual writing programs that can give students the encouragement and freedom to use their native languages. We should be building many more such programs, and they should not only be for multilingual writers. Monolingual writers, too, have much to learn from the multilingual experience, one that will invite them to confront, perhaps for the first time, the gulf between a lively mind and a poor tongue. A good writing program will acknowledge the limits of language while celebrating its pleasures and possibilities.
One of the last exercises I give in my workshops asks students to translate a poem from a language of which they have no knowledge.
The first part of the “translation” is absurdist, of course. And it is valuable in its own way because it forces students to pay attention to the sound of the words and the break in the lines. I’ve yet to have a Turkish speaker in a workshop, so for this exercise I give students a short poem by the sublime Turkish national poet, Nazim Hikmet.
I read it out loud, in my own imperfect Turkish. Then I have students write what they think the poem means, guided only by the music of the lines.
The second part involves putting the poem through a translation program. Usually this produces a literal translation that can be unintentionally humorous. The last part of the exercise is to rewrite the machine translation in a way that respects the intention of the original. The result, like any concerted effort at understanding, is often beautiful, even in its imprecision.
The assignment allows students to write a few original verses (without realizing it), meet a new poet on his terms, and experience the bewildered state that millions of immigrants know so well: the struggle to understand and make one’s self understood.
The inaugural issue of Freeman’s, the anthology edited by the critic John Freeman, contains a long essay by Lydia Davis on learning to read Norwegian. She writes, “…the first thing you encounter, looking at a page of unfamiliar language, is not the meaning but the appearance of the words, the way they look.” Every time Lydia Davis’s work appears in a new language, says Freeman, she learns enough to translate a fragment of its literature into English.
Reading that I was struck by the empathic generosity of such an act. And I thought: Why aren’t we asking all our students of creative writing to do the same?