Illustrated by Jana Walczyk
When you speak a foreign language it can feel like you are leading a second life — especially after all the effort you put into learning it so that you can speak fluently and express yourself in your own authentic voice. But what is it actually like to be a writer in another language? Who are these people who master a foreign language so well that they can create masterpieces?
We will introduce you to five authors who can not only tell really good stories, but who can do this in a language they learned later in life. We take our hat off to these internationally renowned authors and hope this helps you find lots of inspiration when picking out your next book to read!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977-): Born in Nigeria, the steadfast feminist writes in English
The bestselling author Adichie is a prominent voice in contemporary American literature. However, Adichie was actually born in Nigeria and even studied there before continuing her education in the US. From an early age she wrote short stories and plays in English. Her most important work to date , Americanah reflects her own experience as a Nigerian who returns to her home country from the US and finds herself between two nations. As an expert in both cultures, she is able to mediate between the two in her works. Adichie is also well known for her outspoken views and cutting remarks. Among other things, she has questioned why Michelle Obama makes public appearances with straightened hair. Her contribution to American culture has made her a beloved (and sometimes controversial) public figure — even Beyoncé has incorporated Adichie’s quotes into her lyrics.
Milan Kundera (1929-): Born in Czechoslovakia, the sensitive observer has also written in French
The world-famous author Kundera almost became a jazz musician. Born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia, he grew up in a musical family and was initially unconcerned with Communism. However, he slowly turned away from the existing political system until he became a pioneer of the freedom movement during the Prague Spring — largely thanks to his stories and essays. At the end of this political era, Kundera left his country and moved to France where he later became a citizen. However, he initially still wrote in Czech. He also picked Czechoslovakia as the setting for his stories and interpersonal relations as the core topic which he examined precisely in the context of their existence. One good example of this is his most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Under the Western European influence, Kundera has written his last four novels in French, although he has always had the translations thoroughly checked!
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977): Born in Russia, the cheerful exile also wrote in English
There is no doubt that Nabokov is one of the most important authors of the 20th century. His life was strongly shaped by the events of the time: as a child he fled to Berlin, then to Paris and finally to the United States. Nabokov published his first works partly under an alias in Russian which were then translated into English by his son. As a Professor of Russian and European Literature at the prestigious Cornell University, Nabokov began to write in English in the ’40s. He described his iconic work Lolita as his very own declaration of love to the English language. Years later, when he wanted to make sure that Lolita was correctly translated into Russian, he did it himself!
Yiyun Li (1972-): Born in China, the resolute immigrant writes in English
Born in the ’70s in Beijing, Yiyun Li now plays an influential role in the American literary scene as an award-winning novelist and short story writer. In her work she cleverly reflects upon the English language using her unique outsider’s perspective. She is not only famous for her fictional work, but also for her candid writing about her own life: her radical renunciation of China, her difficult immigration to the United States in the ’90s and her desperate suicide attempts. Yiyun Li has categorically left her old life behind her, including her mother tongue which she simply refuses to write in.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): Born in Russia, the aristocratic adventurer wrote in English
Conrad was born Józef Teodor Nałęcz Konrad Korzeniowski to an aristocratic Polish family in the middle of the 19th century. He was orphaned at an early age and moved to France to become a sailor. Although he never managed to make a career as a captain, the life of a common sailor fascinated him. Later in life he was able to weave these experiences into his works. It was only in his twenties, after years of traveling around the globe, that Conrad learned English. A decade later, still working as a sailor, he started to write in English. His best-known novel, Heart of Darkness, addresses the arduous journey to a foreign country, as well as culture shock and colonialism. In this work, he coined the iconic phrase, “The horror! The horror!” made famous in Francis Ford Coppola’s loose film adaptation, Apocalypse Now.
It is precisely in comparison with your mother tongue, with all its biases and familiarity, that there is potential to create something new and valuable in a foreign language.
You only have to take a quick look at world literature to realize that these five authors are no exception. There is a strong tradition of authors who choose not to write in their mother tongue — and let’s not forget writers like René Descartes who were still writing in Latin well into the 17th century. Although it’s true that many authors pick English as a foreign language because of the influence of the lingua franca on their lives, there are exceptions. For example, the author Antonio Tabucchi, a native Italian, also writes in Portuguese.
It is precisely in comparison with your mother tongue, with all its biases and familiarities, that there is potential to create something new and valuable in a foreign language. The issue of whether it is better or worse not to express yourself in your mother tongue does not even come into question. What is certain is that there is not one correct way to speak a language — or to write in a language. If you make a foreign language your own for your own reasons then you have every right to express yourself to your heart’s content in that language.