Have you ever attempted studying a foreign language, whose soul is completely alien to you? The way sentences are constructed, the way they glide to form paragraphs, smoothly, at times belligerently… Nabokov has done it, Beckett has done it, and many others have done it. When you study a language completely different from yours, it could create significant changes in your perception.
Joseph Conrad was a Pole, with a past of uprooted from his native culture and language. Orphaned at such a young age, Conrad chose the life of a sailor for himself. He chose English, his fourth language, and created a world in it. Now his seminal work, ‘ Heart of Darkness’ is regarded as one of the eternal classics in English literature. For him, the language of English was a mirror leading to the portals of human understanding. He polished his idioms, to perfection and created even an artificial country named ‘ Costaguana’ in his important work – Nostromo. Now Conrad is being regarded as one of the greatest writers in English literature.
What would have been thoughts of Conrad, when he first started writing in English? Would he have thought, that this alien language, for him had much in store for him? As he said later, would he have thought that its enchanting idioms had captivated him? We never know. But from the writing style of Conrad, it is quite certain that he had acquired mastery over the language.
Have you heard about Nancy Huston, the writer from Canda, who primarily writes in French and translates her own works in to English? How does she do it? What are the thoughts accumulating in her mind when she self translates her own work from French to English? Taking a leap from French to English, from the polished sophistry to the universality is quite a feat. And let us talk about the group of writers from the Indian Subcontinent, who have collectively created a lingua franca, called Indian English for the whole of the Indian subcontinent.
The nuances of Multilingualism
When you start writing in a language which is quite different from your own, you have to pull quite a struggle. You have to think in that language, breathe in it, and create castles and mountains in it. This ferocious creativity,would later give birth to a language that could capture the basic nunaces and subtleties of your own soul.
Let us take the example of Aleksandr Hemon, an emigre- writer from the former Yugoslavia. He came to the United States in his late 20s, and had to learn English in order to write in it. Coming from a background that reeks of war, destruction and consequent melancholy, Hemon found, in English language, a medium that could capture his own tortured soul. He would go on to write novels such as ‘ The Lazarus Project’.
O.V.Vijayan, one of the most celebrated writers in Malayalam, a language spoken by almost 3 crore people in the Southern tip of India, wrote classics in that language, and self translated his works. He wrote the important work- ‘Khasakinte Itihasam’, then self translated it in to English as ‘ The Legends of Khasak’, a poignant novel brimming with existentialism and humanism. Still this date, it is celebrated as one of the eternal classics in Malayalam literature.
Let us take the example of N’gugi wathiongo now. This African writer wrote beautifully in English, and later switched in to his native language- Kikuyu. His works such as ‘ The Wizard of the crow’ reminds us about the dangers of dictatorship and corruption. He deftly mixed folklore with other literary tropes to create a language of his own, that became so successful.
Now, the world has changed. There are many who can easily switch from one language to the other. In Malayalam, there is Paul Zachariah, one of the front runners of modernism in Malayalam literature, switched in to English in his novel – A secret history of Compassion. When we traverse through the labrynthes of this novel, we could understand the effort and perseverence of the writer. Zachariah, a well- known name in the Malayalam literary world, was praised for his debut work in English.
Why do people switch Languages?
Have you heard about William Auld? He was a poet who primarily wrote in Esperanto, the constructed international language. Esperanto, a relatively easy language to learn, became his chariot. His poems are praised by Esperantists all over the world. Perhaps, his reputation as a writer in a constructed language, made him less popular all over the world, and his works are mostly read and enjoyed by a relatively small cognoscenti.
People mostly change languages for myriads of reasons. Some would want to write in a language, in which their souls would get a new meaning, Like Beckett, who had switched from English to French, did that because he found the language of French more aesthetically pleasing. Or like Hemon, to capture the essence of a life in fragments carrying the stains of destruction and war.
The thing we have to remember is that, when you choose a new language as your vehicle, you are creating a life in it. You are beckoning a plethora of characters, with their own identities and backstories, in to your soul. If you could write in more than one language, then you are acquiring a finesse that is unmatched.