Sometimes I confuse myself with my shadow
and sometimes don't.

                      Samuel Beckett

A voice within a voice speaks in me, double-talks in me bilingually, in French and in English, separately or, at times, simultaneously. That voice constantly plays hide-and-seek with its shadow. Now there is nothing unusual about that. Many people nowadays, in many parts of the world, speak two or three or even several languages. Whether or not I speak French and English well, that is another question which is not for me to answer. But the fact remains that I am a bilingual being, a double-headed mumbler, one could say, and as such also a bicultural being. I spent the first twenty years of my life in France, therefore inside the French language and the French culture, and spent (more or less) the last forty years in America, therefore inside the American language and culture. My social and cultural activities reflect this.

But I am also a bilingual writer. That is to say, I write both in French and in English, and that is perhaps less common. Furthermore, I also, at times, translate my own work either from English into French or vice versa. That self-translating activity is certainly not very common in the field of creative writing. In that sense then, I am somewhat of a phenomenon. The French would say: Federman, c'est un drôle de phénomène! Indeed, I have often wondered, as a bilingual writer and a self-translator, whether I am blessed because of this phenomenon or cursed because of it?

The fact that I am, that I became a bilingual writer may be an accident -- an accident of history as well as an accident of my own personal experience. In any case, I am often asked if I think in French or in English, if I dream in French or in English. And I usually answer (at cocktail parties, on the golf course, at various intellectual gatherings), since one must always answer such questions if only for the sake of answering something and not be bothered any further with an unanswerable question: I think and I dream both in French and in English, and very often simultaneously.

That, in fact, is what it means to have a voice within a voice. It means that you can never separate your linguistic self from its shadow.

There seems to be a lot of interest these days in this question of bilingualism and multilingualism, related of course to the current concern for multiculturalism. Recently a friend of mine who is writing a book on the subject of "Bilingual Writers" -- such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Elsa Triolet, Samuel Beckett, myself, and others -- asked me in a letter to reflect on my own bilingual condition, and answer some questions.

Though I exist bilingually, in my life as well as in my work as a poet and a fiction writer, I have never really tried to articulate a theory of my bilingualism. It was, therefore, interesting and provoking for me to answer my friend's questions having to do with what she calls [my friend's name is Elizabeth] the location of bilingualism, the space between the two languages, the verticality versus the horizontality of bilingualism, the periodicities of alternation, the horror of self-translation, etc.

This is what I wrote to Elizabeth in my reply:

I do not normally question or analyze my schizophrenic bilingualism. I just let it be, let it happen in me and outside of me. I have no idea in which side of my brain each language is located. I have a vague feeling that the two languages in me fornicate in the same cell. But since you are probing into my ambivalent (my ambidextrous) psyche, I can tell you that I believe I am left-handed in French and right-handed in English. I am not kidding. You see, I was born left-handed (in Paris, some years ago), but when I broke my left wrist at the age of nine or ten (I forget exactly when now), I was forced to become right-handed. You might say that I am a converted lefty, just as I am a converted Frenchman who became an American. However, there are certain things, certain gestures and motions which I cannot do with my right hand (like brushing my teeth or throwing a ball), and others which I can only do with my right hand (like writing or playing tennis). Could this have something to do with my bilingualism? It is also true that there are certain texts which I can only write in English, and others only in French, even though eventually I feel a need to translate these texts from one language into the other.

What amazes me, but perhaps it should not, is how true I am to the patterns you describe in your essay [Elizabeth had enclosed with her letter a copy of an essay she had just published entitled "Prolegomena to a Study of Bilingual Writers" in which she delineates certain patterns of behavior for bilingual writers, such as periods of rejection of one language in favor of the other, or a need bilingual writers seem to have to return to their native tongue in the later years of their life]. Considering myself just beyond the mid-course of my literary career, I find that I am more comfortable these days writing in English than in French. This does not mean, however, that I have rejected the French language -- my native tongue. I have merely placed it (temporarily) in parenthesis. Though it seems that whenever I begin a new book there is a quarrel inside of me between the two languages to decide which I should use.

Knowing that I have written extensively on the work of Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth asked: "How do you compare yourself to Beckett? And should the case of Beckett be examined? He was such a classical and backward case." In terms of his bilingualism and the act of self-translating, Beckett was a superman, an angel. He came from above. I am a mere mortal. I come from below, from the cave. Yes, of course, Beckett's case should be examined, carefully examined. In my opinion, Beckett was a most unique, a most extraordinary case of a bilingual writer, for he had, at least since 1945 until his death in 1989, sustained his work in French and English to the point that for him language one and language two became totally interchangeable. Therefore, when reading Beckett it is absolutely irrelevant to ask which text was written first. His twin-texts -- whether French/English or English/French -- are not to be read as translations or as substitutes for one another. They are always complementary to one another. In many ways, I consider my own work, my bilingual work to be somewhat the same. Whether written in English or in French first, the two texts complement and complete one another.

"Is there anything familiar to you in what I am saying in my essay?" Elizabeth asked. Yes, most of it, especially the problem of periodicities of alternation (I seem to be constantly vacillating between the two languages), and also what you call "the horror of self-translation" (it scares the hell out of me whenever I begin to translate myself, though lately, in spite of the horror, and even the boredom at times, of translating my own work, I also find a constant temptation to do so, as if there were a profound need in me to see everything I write exist immediately in the other language). There are, however, a few things in your essay with which I seem to differ, but then this may have to do with my own idiosyncratic mind.

For instance, I do not seem to feel, as some of the bilingual writers you discuss (Nabokov and Elsa Triolet in particular), that there is a space between the two languages in me that keeps them apart. On the contrary, for me French and English always seem to overlap, to want to merge, to want to come together, to want to embrace one another, to mesh one into the other. Or if you prefer, they want to spoil and corrupt one another. Therefore, I do not feel that one language is vertical in me, and the other horizontal, as you suggest. If anything, they seem to be standing or lying in the same direction -- sometimes vertically and other times horizontally, depending on their moods or their desires. Though the French and the English in me occasionally compete with one another in some vague region of my brain, more often they play with one another, especially when I put them on paper. Yes, I think that the two languages in me love each other, and I have, on occasion, caught them having wild intercourse behind my back. However, I cannot tell you which is feminine and which is masculine, perhaps they are androgynous.

To tell you the truth, Elizabeth, there is perversity in my bilingualism. Usually when I finish a novel (as you know I have written seven or eight now, either in English or in French), I am immediately tempted to write (rewrite, adapt, transform, transact, transcreate -- I am not sure what term I should use here, but certainly not translate) the original into the other language. Even though finished, the book feels unfinished if it does not exist in the other language. Often I begin such an alternate version, but quickly abandon it, out of boredom, I suppose, fatigue or disgust, or perhaps because of what you call "the horror of self-translation", the fear of betraying myself and my own work.

It is curious, however, that when I write something shorter than a novel, a short-story and especially a poem, I immediately do a version in the other language. Most of my poems and short-stories exist bilingually. My feeling here is that the original text is not complete until there is an equivalent version in French or in English. Perhaps the same need for completeness, for finishedness into the other language is there too for the novels, but laziness, fear, apprehension, and of course time prevent me from doing the work. I am aware also that translating one's work into another language often reveals the poverty, the semantic but also the metaphorical poverty of certain words in the other language. There is no doubt that the process of self-translating often results in a loss, in a betrayal and weakening of the original work. But then, on the other hand, there is always the possibility, the chance of a gain. Yes, the possibility that certain words or expressions in the other language may have the advantage of metaphorical richness not present in the first language. So that even though the self-translator always confronts this possibility of loss, he also hopes for a chance of gain. It seems to me that the translation, or rather the self-translation often augments, enriches, and even embellishes the original text -- enriches it, not only in terms of meaning, but in its music, its rhythm, its metaphoric thickness, and even in its syntactical complexity. This is so because the self-translator can take liberties with his own work since it belongs to him.

However, this matter of loss or gain in the process of self-translation raises a crucial question: whether the translation is merely a substitute for the original or if, in fact, it becomes a continuation, an amplification of the work? We always admire the faithfulness of a translation in relation to the original, and quickly deplore and criticize the liberties a translator takes with the original work of a writer. A case in point: the marvelous though greatly unfaithful translations which Richard Howard recently did of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which were bitterly criticized.

Yes, we rarely forgive such liberties, and consequently expect the bilingual writer who translates himself to remain faithful to his own texts. On the contrary, one should allow the writer-as-self-translator some freedom, some room for play within his own work, if only for the sake of enriching that work. And of course, I allow myself such playfulness -- often simply for the sake of playfulness, but also in an effort to make sense out of my own writing. But there is also a more important reason for wanting to translate one's work: since we know that language is what gets us where we want to go but at the same time prevents us from getting there [I am paraphrasing Samuel Beckett here], then by using another language, the other language in us, we may have a better chance of getting where we want to go, a better chance of saying what we wanted to say, or at least we have a second chance of succeeding. That is to say, we have the possibility of correcting the errors of the original text.

The original creative act, as we all know, always proceeds in the DARK -- in the dark, in ignorance, and in error. Though the act of translating (and especially self-translating) is also a creative act, nevertheless it is performed in the LIGHT (in the light of the original text), it is performed in KNOWLEDGE (in the knowledge of the existing text), and therefore it is performed without error, at least at the start. As such the act of self- translation enlightens the original, but it also reassures, reasserts the knowledge already present in the original text. Sometimes it also corrects the initial errors of that text. As a result, the self-translation is no longer an approximation of the original, nor a duplication, nor a substitute, but truly a continuation of the work -- of the working of the text.

Basically that is how I understand my work as a self-translator and as a bilingual writer. Sometimes the translation I do of my own work amplifies the original, sometimes it diminishes it, corrects it, explains it even (no, not to the reader, the potential reader of the text, but to the author, to myself, who knows very well that the language he uses, whether French or English, is always an obstacle that must be overcome again and again).

That is what I think it means to be a bilingual writer, to be a writer/self-translator. It means that one is constantly displaced from one language (and one culture) into the other. And yet, at the same time, it means that one can never step outside of the languages inside of us, whatever these languages may be. The bilingual writer allows his readers (if he has any) to listen to the dialogue which he entertains within himself in two languages, even though in most cases the readers (who are usually not bilingual) only hear half of this internal (one should almost says infernal) dialogue.

I feel a sense of incompleteness with my work when the texts I have written exist only in one language. This need, this anxiety rather, I have to see my work exist in both French and English ... (and I should insist, in my own voice -- I have read translations of some of my work into French or into English, translations of poems, stories, essays, and even one of my novels done by someone other than myself, and these always feel totally alien to me) ... this need I have to speak and write in two languages, almost simultaneously, also affects my reading process. Often when I read a book, either in French or in English, a book I am particularly enjoying, a book which gives me, as Roland Barthes put it, Le Plaisir du Texte, I find myself translating the text mentally into the other language while reading.

What often troubles me when I am working on a novel in English (and this because in most of my novels so far, the protagonist remains a Frenchman in exile) is the realization that perhaps it would be easier, and certainly more logical, to write the book in French, or at least to let the protagonist speak French whenever he feels like it. But then, the question can be asked: to whom is the book speaking? My fiction always has an implied reader, or rather an implicit, active interlocutor/listener present in the text, and I believe that this "potential reader" (as I call him) is of the English and not the French language. In other words, my books always seem to be speaking to English reading people, and therefore, even though the central character and even the material are of French origin, they demand to be written in English.

I write more, and have always written more in English than in French, even though English is not my first language. Somehow the French language scares me. It seems to dictate to me how I should write and therefore prevents me from challenging its rules of grammar, whereas English, irrational as it may be in its grammar and syntax, gives me the freedom to experiment with grammar and syntax. Though I did not start learning English until I was twenty years old, I feel that my French is somewhat ancient, perhaps even fossilized, that it is no longer up-to-date, that it is a language of another time in my life. That does not mean that I write badly or poorly in French, I don't think so, nor does it mean that I have rejected the French language, but that when I write in French I become conscious, over-conscious of using a language which is distant from me. And this, not because there has been periods when I did not use French (I use my French all the time), but simply because French is somewhat foreign and restrictive to me now. To put is differently, I feel like a prisoner in the French language, perhaps because it made me, because it captured me originally, and I feel free in English because it liberated me, because it took me out of the French language and the French culture.

"Is there a desire in me to lose, to abandon French?" Elizabeth asked. No, I do not think so. You must understand that I do not feel afflicted with bilingualism, I feel enriched by it. At the same time, however, I do not feel that I want to preserve the purity of my native tongue, as so many of my French friends and colleagues, who have been living and working in the U.S. for many years, often do or claim to do. On the contrary, I want to corrupt the French language in me, I want the two languages in me to corrupt one another.

I have often contemplated writing a book -- a book which would probably be unreadable to most people -- in which the two languages would come together in the same sentences. There are a few such pages in some of my novels, but I would like to do a entire book using both languages simultaneously. Here allow me to give you a short example of what I mean. It's a passage from my novel Take It or Leave It [1976]. The French protagonist marvels at what he sees when he arrives in New York:

... because me too like a jerk j'attendis une bonne heure or more after the phone call à la même place and then de cette pénombre in this gray rain de cette foule en route discon-tinuous morne surgit around 10:00 p.m une brusque avalanche quite unexpected de femmes absolument belles gorgeous stunning out of nowhere quelle découverte quelle Amérique quel ravissement was I lucky to be here je touchais au vif de mon pélerinage and if je n'avais pas souffert en même temps des continuels rappels the loud gurgling in my stomach de mon appétit wow was I hungry je me serais cru suddenly parvenu à l'un de ces moments de surnaturelle and of surrealistic révélation esthétique les beautés that I découvrais just like that incessantes m'eussent avec un peu de confiance and de confort and a bit more self-confidence ravi à ma condition trivialement humaine ...

Yes, I have often considered writing a book in which the two languages would merge into one another. On the cover of this book (if such a book were ever to be published), it would say, translated by the author, but without specifying from which language.

There is, quite clearly, an element of playfulness at work in my bilingualism. The two languages play with one another, and I am using the term play in its fullest sense -- not only in the sense of game, but also in the sense of looseness, as in the expression, there is looseness in the door . My French and my English play with one another as two children do in a playground, or rather as two lovers (loose lovers) play with one another in order to possess and even abolish one another. Perhaps my French and English play in me in order to abolish my own origin. In the totally bilingual book I would like to write, there would be no original language, no original source, no original text -- only two languages that would exist, or rather co-exist outside of their origin, in the space of their own playfulness.

At this point my reply to my friend Elizabeth stopped abruptly, either because I had nothing more to say, nothing else to invent on the subject of my bilingualism, or simply because I had run out of space. Whatever the case, in the process of reflecting about bilingualism, I think I had managed to explain (especially to myself) how the struggle, the love affair, and the playful intercourse of the two languages in me have determined and informed my work over the years.

No, I do not feel afflicted by my bilingualism. I feel enriched by it, as I hope the following bilingual poem will demonstrate:


   sixty already     soixante ans déjà
   and still not a word     et pas encore un mot
     mumbling like a fool     balbutiant comme un con
at best     au plus
two or three groans     deux out trois cris
that's about all     voilà c'est tout
     lots of qua qua     beaucoup de qua qua
   that's how it is     voilà comment c'est
in the bubble of the skull     dans la bulle du crâne
dragging yourself in verbal mud     te traînant dans la boue verbale
looking for a word     cherchant un mot
the first word     le premier mot
a noun perhaps     un nom peut-être
a verb     un verbe
yes     oui
an imperative     un impératif

Copyright © 1996 Raymond Federman