A few months ago I decided to create a Russian version of this blog. I am Russian after all, so why don’t I write in my native tongue? After setting everything up, the IT guy told me that my articles read as if I am not a native Russian. Awesome! Just what one wants to hear after presenting her creative work to the world.
He didn’t mean to offend me. He said something along the lines: “Anyways… one can feel that the articles are not written by a Russian… I mean Russian-speaker…” “But I am both a Russian and a Russian-speaker” “Well… you think differently after living abroad for so long…” Aaaaand it all circled back to the identity crisis of being an immigrant and living away from my homeland. If you read my post on being homesick and the real cost of living abroad, you know that these kind of comments hurt. A lot. But today I am not going to concentrate on that. I made my peace with it. Sort of. Not entirely. I am working on it.
I started this blog three years ago and chose English as the primary language because of all the wrong reasons. I though my audience would be bigger. Before that I had never written any long-form pieces in English bar the how-I-spent-my-summer type of essays for school. It took me half a year to overcome my fear of writing in a language that is not my native and stop stressing about some prim English-man commenting “That is not how you say it. Who do you think you are to write in the language of Shakespeare with so many stupid mistakes?” But as they say, practice makes perfect. Ok, practice makes decent, readable, occasionally-rather-good kinda stuff.
Over the past three years I made significant progress in my English writing which I am extremely proud of. At the same time, I do realize that “perfect” is unachievable for me. I am not being pessimistic or negative or setting myself up for failure. It took me 21 years to get to the level where I am today — I started private English classes with a tutor at the age of 9. And although I am entirely comfortable expressing myself in English, once in a while my foreignness waves its hand.
Here I am swallowing novel after novel by American writers, next I come across “Sophie’s Choice” and have to hold a dictionary in hand while laboring my way through every sentence. One day I am arguing in English using the most sophisticated words in my vocabulary (the likes of “uttermost” and “abomination” if you were wondering), the next day my friend is surprised I’ve never heard of the term “love handles”.
One day I am proud of my latest post about the women behind one of my favorite cafes in Colombo, the next day I come across a New York Times restaurant review according to which “The cooking, like its decor, is rough-hewn and self-consciously so…” and think to myself: “I will never write like that”. First of all, I don’t know what “hewn” is. Second, I had no idea cooking (or decor) can be self-conscious. I thought that quality is reserved for human beings. As in: I am self-conscious about my abilities to write pretentious restaurant reviews. That’s why I don’t write restaurant reviews. And when I do they have very little to do with actual reviewing and much more with me complaining how expensive bread was ($4 for 3 slices, people!).
None of this frustrates me. I am ok writing about my love for mayo, the weird wobbly meat jello that is Russian kholodets, and my inexplicable fury when people offer me help in the kitchen. I am not ok when someone tells me my Russian isn’t Russian enough. To be clear, I am not angry with my IT guy. I am angry with myself. You see, Russian language used to be my thing.
Not to brag or anything, but at school teachers would read my book reviews out loud to the whole class. The reason I got into University was because my essay was one of the few that received 10 out of 10. Ok, I am bragging, whatever. The point is, 9 years out of University and my essays in Russian don’t sound Russian?
Apparently, while I was working on perfecting my English, my Russian became rusty. I haven’t written a single piece in my native tongue in the past five years. I can’t say I speak Russian much either, mostly on Skype with my family and friends, a lot of whom are based in the USA and struggle with the same problem as I do, namely, after 9 years abroad it is easier sometimes to express your thoughts in foreign English than in native Russian.
It is a problem only when you make it one, though. Some of my friends sprinkle English words into their Russian speech and feel fine about it. I, on the other hand, make it a point to always find a Russian alternative, even if takes me a second to think of one. Why is it so important, though? I don’t have a problem inserting Russian words into my English speech. I even taught my husband the words “kolbasa” (“salami”), “kolgotki” (“pantyhose”), and “sobachulya” (“doggie”) over the years, and now both of us use them unconsciously. (I know, my choice of words to teach my husband is questionable).
It all comes back to my desire of being perceived as Russian. If I start using English words in conversations with my friends back home, it won’t be long till someone notes that I have “Americanized”. And that is some insult, I tell ya.
The most commonly asked question I get from Russians is “In which language do you think?” As if my thinking in English would be the ultimate proof and the last stage of my gradual “Americanization”. Yesterday, I finally found the answer in an interview with Vladimir Nabokov, one of greatest writers of the XX century:
“I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.”
How did I not think of Nabokov earlier? A Russian-born writer whose family fled the country after the 1917 revolution first for Germany and later for the USA, Nabokov successfully wrote in both Russian and English, as well as translated his own novels from one language to another. His first nine books were in Russian, but after immigration to the USA Nabokov almost exclusively wrote in English, and it is his novels in English, like Lolita and Pnin, that brought him international fame.
What it feels like to leave your native language to write in a foreign one, Nabokov summed up in the afterword to Lolita:
“None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”
It is strange to read these lines, knowing Nabokov’s mastery of English and taking into account his Nobel Prize nomination. When 12 years later Nabokov translated Lolita — or rather rewrote it in Russian — the afterword to the Russian edition was full of self-doubt yet again:
“Alas that ‘marvelous Russian language’ that I thought had awaited me somewhere, blossoming like a faithful springtime behind a tightly locked gate whose key I had kept safe for so many years, proved to be nonexistent, and beyond the gate are nothing but charred stumps and the hopeless autumnal vista, and the key in my hand is more like a jimmy.”
Reviewing Nabokov’s works written in Russian, many critics acknowledged his brilliance, yet found his novels to be “un-Russian”, influenced by the years of living in Europe and speaking English and French as the first languages.
Isn’t it fascinating to hear discontent in the voice of one of the greatest writers of the XX century as well as to read about his “un-Russianness”? Nabokov is my proof that one can write in both his native language and a foreign one successfully, even while being critical about his own abilities and constantly questioned for identifying with more than one culture.
In the end, does it really matter which language I choose for expressing myself? Isn’t language for a writer just a medium, like oil, watercolor, or chalks for a painter? One can achieve different results by using different mediums, but is one really better than the other? And why can’t I combine the two?
In his 1966 interview, Nabokov answered the question about his identity as a Russian or American writer with the following:
“I have always maintained, even as a schoolboy in Russia, that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance… The writer’s art is his real passport”.
Hi Yulia! What can I say? I’m not going to say that your English is perfect – because it’s not. It’s pretty damn close though! And it’s beautiful. You have a feeling for using English words that none of my students have (so far!). As for ‘losing’ your Russian, it’s normal when you don’t use it all the time. I’m losing my natural way of speaking English because I rarely use English with native speakers anymore. I always have to grade my language and I just forget how to speak in a normal, natural, fluent way. I get laughed at when I visit Australia – especially because I have a very strange accent now. Anyway, your writing is super, your ability to put your thoughts into words in your second language is amazing. I envy you, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. xx
Cheryl, thank you for your support and the kind words, it means a lot to me! As for “forgetting how to speak in a natural, fluent way”, I think I can relate. The surroundings influence your language a lot. After living in Sri Lanka for several years I started making the same mistakes as Sri Lankans do and even developed a somewhat Sri Lankan accent 🙂 I can only imagine what influence Russian pronunciation and grammar might have on you 🙂 Also, Russian and English have very different intonations. In English people tend to end a sentence with intonation going up, while Russians always end the sentence with intonation going down. When people tell me I have an accent in Russian, I know it’s really my intonation that’s confusing. Either way, I think it’s pretty awesome to be able to speak multiple languages, even if not perfectly!
Bilingual and aspiring to be a writer, I really relate with how you feel – so grateful that I came across your blog. That sense of “foreignness” – as you put it so well – and my inability to commit to think and write in just one language, feeling rusty at both, has become a huge obstacle for me. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and also your reference to Nabokov was enlightening. Love that final quote – it was the highlight of my day!
Hi Tin Tin!
I am sorry it took me so long to reply to your comment. The last couple of months were hectic and out of ordinary, what with the current situation affecting every aspect of life. I’ve decided to take some time off blogging.
I am happy that such a personal post that I wrote without being truly sure that someone else is going through this resonated with you. It’s good to know that I am not alone in this and it’s also good to have great examples of writers like Nabokov who “made it” by writing in a foreign language. Not that we are obliged to “make it”. As long as we enjoy the process of writing in whichever language, then it’s all worth it.
Yes, it’s a bit of a thrill to be able to communicate, even if only basically, in other languages. My accent when I speak English is apparently like South African, or Dutch, according to Australians. I’ve even been mistaken for a South African by a South African here in Moscow! When I speak English in a lazy way, I forget to use articles 🙂 and sometimes when I write emails too, I don’t always use articles where I should. Russian influence 🙂 I have to pay very close attention to how I speak when I’m with students! Keep up the good work Yulia! You’re an inspiration! xx
How in the world did you pick up a South African accent living in Russia? 😀 That’s hilarious! And losing the articles is understandable! When I started learning English, it took me a while to accept the idea that I need an extra word (even if only a one-letter word) in front of every noun. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would need it there, we do perfectly fine without any articles in Russian 😀
Hi Yulia! I think it’s a combination of trying not to sound too Australian, being influenced by my students’ accents, being influenced by my husband’s accent, and trying to speak clearly for everybody to understand me! It’s horrendous! I agree, it’s perfectly ok not to use articles 😉 How are you going with German? Making any progress? Hope you’re having a nice week! 🙂
That’s hilarious! 😀 My German leaves a lot to be desired, unfortunately! I can confidently buy a loaf of bread in a bakery and ask to slice it, but that’s about it 😀
Balanced bilingualism is a myth they say, and I have to agree. The thing is, let’s say you are pretty balanced in English and Russian, but your profession is a lawyer, and you trained and practice in Russia. Your lawyer Russian is going to be much better than your lawyer English, although it doesn’t mean you cant transfer it if you need to, or that it won’t be as good in English after time. Upsetting, though, I can see, especially perhaps with an area of glorious creativity, such as writing. Nabokov is a good example to follow though, writing wise!
That’s very true. I actually feel it when I try to talk about blogging, SEO optimization and social media in Russian — it’s extremely hard to do without using a few English words here and there. I bought Nabokov’s biography and planning to reread a few of his books and their translations for some inspiration 🙂
Hi Yulia, nice to meet you. I am very happy to hear that there are other bilingual writers around the world. I made your same choice: I am Italian, but I started writing my first blog in English, seven years ago. I understood every word of your article. Your English is emotional and international like you!
Hi Rosalba! Thank you for these words! It makes me so happy to find people around the world who face the same difficulties and can relate to my story. This post was one of the hardest to write in the entire time of my blogging, so thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment!
Hi Yulia, thanks for your kind reply.
Yes, as bilingual writers, we must face hard posts and hard topics, but that is the beauty of being bilingual writers. Now, we know that bilingual writers are a great community. You are not alone, I am not alone. Each of us has their own style and tone of voice. That is the true greatness of bilingual writers. A writer is creative, but a bilingual writer is creative twice!
So well said 🙂 From now on I will think of it whenever I have my doubts!
Hey Yulia great post!
As a person who lived in english speaking countries for the past 5 years, i relate to you post so much!
Growing up, it was always pushed into me that languages was something i should master, so from the moment i started, every book (out of school), newspaper, video game and music was in english.
I do feel quite comfortable with how i use english now.
But as someone who aspires to be an author, this have troubled me for years now.
I starting writing in greek, my native language, then think it over and switch to english, since most literature ive read was in english.
Im afraid i wont know how to properly write a book in greek, with all the specific frases i only know in english, as i havent read many.
Im afriad of writing in engish, as its not my native and might end up limiting my vocabulary.
I stumbled upon this blogpost of yours, right after reading about Nabokov’s expirience, as one of the most famous exophonic writers.
And yet, im still hesiant on my decision.
Ive read so many writing books, watched writing videos on writing from writers, found so much material to help me write.
Ive read all about the publishing and how it works.
But all that is in english.
There is just not much helpful material i could find in Greek.
I dont even know what a greek publishing company wants or looks for.
Its so tiring..
I apologize it took me so long to reply to your comment! Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts, I appreciate it.
I feel you. I also feel hesitant writing in Russian right now. In fact, after I created a Russian version of this blog I only translated a handful of articles and then stopped writing in my native tongue all together. Partly for the lack of time, partly because I am not sure of my abilities. The way I see it, the only way forward is to write. To actually sit down and write. Not watch videos about writing, not read books on how to write, but to actually write. In whatever language feels closer to you right now.
I am actually guilty of falling into the educational trap myself (currently going through all the writing classes on Masterclass). And if there’s one thing that every single successful writer says over and over, it is that you have to write every day. So I am trying to do that. For now in English, but hopefully in Russian one day too. When I feel ready.
I wish you all the best and hope one day you will publish a book in English, Greek or maybe both!
I think one the most important things in writing in a tongue that is not yours is the gain in cognitive terms, so in those back and forth between one language and the other, you can catch some insights about new ways of telling things. Nice post. Keep going
thank you for sharing and sorry for my late reply! I like your perspective. There are a lot of downsides to writing in a language that is not your own, but there are silver linings too. Discovering new ways to put a thought into words is one of them.