Haruki Murakami aspired to be translingual, to write in a language other than his native Japanese. “When I was a teenager,” he told interviewer Jay McInerney, “I thought how great it would be if only I could write novels in English. I had the feeling that I would be able to express my emotions so much more directly than if I wrote in Japanese. But with my limited proficiency in English, that was impossible” (3). Instead, though he devours and translates American fiction, Murakami has written all his novels in Japanese. However, his youthful impulse to adopt another language as literary medium is not uncommon.
The most celebrated translingual novelists—writers who write in more than one language or in a language other than their primary one, as a broad definition—are Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov, but the category is bulging with many, many more. Each of those three had his own motives for switching languages. Born in Ireland, Beckett began his literary career writing in English but jumped to French because of an affinity with French literature and because he sought discipline for his prodigal prose; he claimed that: “en français c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style” (“in French it is easier to write without style”; Gessner 32n). After a life at sea, Conrad, who spoke Polish and French long before English, settled in England and became an English novelist. Nabokov grew up trilingual and varied his linguistic medium from country to country during his lifelong exile from Russia.
Immigration has been a common motivation for many translinguals—Ha Jin from China to the United States, Aharon Appelfeld from Romania to Israel, Amara Lakhous from Algeria to Italy, Emine Sevgi Özdamar from Turkey to Germany, Irène Némirovsky from Ukraine to France. In colonized societies, writers often adopt the language of the imperial power rather than an indigenous tongue; thus did Raja Rao write in English rather than Kannada, Rachid Boudjedra in French not Arabic. [End Page 403]
Of particular interest are those translingual authors who switched languages for stubborn reasons of their own: Frederick Philip Grove, who was born Felix Paul Greve in Prussia and published in German until, facing serious financial trouble, he feigned suicide and resurfaced in Canada, where he took on a new identity as Anglophone writer Grove; Hideo Levy, an American gaijin who writes all of his novels in Japanese; Jhumpa Lahiri, whose 2015 memoir In Other Words recounts her passion for Italian and her aversion to English.
Translingualism in the novel has an ancient pedigree. The Golden Ass, the only Latin proto-novel that survives in its entirety, begins with an apology for its linguistic infelicities. Its author, Apuleius, was born in Numidia, North Africa, in about 124 CE and studied Greek in Corinth and Athens. “Later in Rome, as a stranger to the literary pursuits of the citizens there,” he recalls at the start of his story, “I tackled and cultivated the native language without the guidance of a teacher, and with excruciating difficulty. So at the outset I beg your indulgence for any mistakes which I make as a novice in the foreign language in use at the Roman bar” (1). By the early sixteenth century, Latin was no longer a native language, even in Rome, but the English clergyman Thomas More employed it to compose his Utopia (1516). More even uses Latin to conceive of the language spoken by the inhabitants of his imaginary ideal society: “They learn the various branches of knowledge in their own language, which has no lack of vocabulary, is not unpleasant to the ear, and is not surpassed by any other in the expression of thought” (79). Other narratives written in Latin by non-native speakers include John Barclay’s Argenis (1621) and Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (1741). Holberg’s contemporary, English aristocrat William Beckford, wrote his Gothic novel Vathek (1786) in French.
Increased mobility and global communication have produced a bounty of translingual fiction in recent decades. Scores of notable contemporary novelists in English, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, and other languages are writing in an...