Home > 1930, About reading, Autobiography, Hungarian Literature, Marai Sandor, Memoirs, Opinion, Translation Tragedy, Translations > Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

  1. August 22, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I liked very much your observation – “Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers”. I also liked very much reading your thoughts on Márai’s point that one can write well only in one’s own language. I agree with you that writing in a new language can be liberating because one can use simple words without heavy meanings and interpretations attached to them, but it is also interesting that some readers might insert that meaning into the text anyway, even if the writer didn’t intend them. It is interesting to know about Romain Gary. I haven’t read any of his works, but after reading your thoughts now, I would like to try. I loved that passage by Karabashliev that you have quoted – so beautiful! Thanks for this wonderful review!


    • August 26, 2013 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks Vishy.

      I’m very interested in writers who choose to write in another language than their mother tongue. I wonder how they do it. For the ones who write in French like Kundera or Nancy Huston, I’ve never noticed anything wrong with their use of the French language. Perhaps their publishers did a lot of work.
      Gary isn’t well known in the English speaking world, although he wrote in English and in French. He writes better in French than in English, that’s for sure. (But he went to school in France as a teenager while he learnt English later) He’s my favourite writer, there are posts about him on the blog if you’re interested. I recommend Promise at Dawn for your year of reading French literature.


      • August 27, 2013 at 9:30 pm

        Your mention of Nancy Huston made me think. When I discovered her early this year, I thought her name didn’t sound French. It is interesting that her first language is not French but she writes fluently in it. Thanks for telling me more about Romain Gary. Wonderful to know that he is your favourite writer. I will look for ‘Promise at Dawn’. Thanks for recommending it. I will also check out your post on Gary.


        • August 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

          Which Huston did you read? I’m a great fan. (plus she loves Romain Gary too and has written a book about him)
          She’s Canadian.


          • August 28, 2013 at 6:38 am

            I read ‘The Mark of the Angel’, Emma. Caroline recommended it. I liked it very much. Glad to know that you like Huston very much. Which is your favourite book of hers? It is wonderful that Huston loves Romain Gary and has written a book about him. Maybe, after reading Romain Gary’s book, I will look for it.


            • August 30, 2013 at 8:55 pm

              I’ve read La Virevolte (billet available), Dolce Agonia and Lignes de faille (billet available). La Virevolte really stayed with me.


  2. August 23, 2013 at 3:22 am

    It’s funny that you mention translators being failed writers (in the quote–not your words) as I just read a book which addresses this idea. I wonder how professional translators would feel about Marai’s argument. Incidentally, I don’t think that’s true, and I agree with you that photography is a separate art and it’s, well, narrow and rude, to call photographers ‘corrupted painters’ and translators ‘often aborted writers.’


    • August 23, 2013 at 9:12 am

      I totally agree with you, Guy. I don’t think translators are failed writers. Writers like Lydia Davis and Julian Barnes have translated novels into English and they are accomplished writers themselves. And we probably wouldn’t have the Russian classics in English today without the great Constance Garnett. And translators like Michael Hoffmann, Anthea Bell, Carol Brown Janeway, Shawn Whiteside – I am glad that they are all doing wonderful work as otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered so many beautiful works of German literature. And I agree with your and Emma’s thoughts on photographers vs painters.


    • August 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      I don’t think it’s true either. I don’t see why translators should be failed writers.However, I’ve noticed that translations done by writers are usually good, one artist meeting the other. (Baudelaire’s translation of Poe is famously good and you know I loved Vian’s translation of Chandler)

      I think this argument about translators and photographers is narrow minded. He wrote in the 1930s, there were excellent photographers at the time (I’m sure Marai knew Man Ray, he was in Paris at the right time for that and moved in the right circles) and as a Hungarian whose language isn’t widely spoken, he should be grateful that literature lovers brought foreign literature into Hungarian.


  3. August 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    A nice comment on matters of writing. I am a writer and my mother tongue is German. I’m rather fluent in English too, yet I hesitate to write fiction in the foreign language. You said that for you ‘writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight’. That’s exactly the problem for a fiction writer in a foreign language: you’re having a hard time expressing yourself with the precision and nuances which are natural in your mother tongue. Besides, in a foreign language you tend to know only a certain kind of language, often missing words for everday things or the idiom of other social classes. Of course, if you have been living in the country where the language is spoken for a while, the situation may turn. Depends on talent and social habits ;-).


    • August 26, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      I didn’t know you were a writer. (btw, I tried to comment on a couple of your posts but never passed through the spam-chaser gates)
      I think it works both ways. I’m not a writer at all but when I write a billet in English, although I know that I don’t master it as I do French –you’re right, lots of nuances are lost — I’m also aware that I can write in English things that would make me blush in French.

      I also agree with you about living in the country as a prerequisite. You’re right, when you don’t live in the country, even if you speak a language well, you’ll always miss the little thing beyond this knowledge which makes that you belong to the language. Writers like Kundera or Nancy Huston live in France, that’s also why they can write in French, I suppose.

      I’m sure Marai could write very well in German. I doubt that he would have worked so long for the Frankfürter Zeitung without an excellent knowledge of the German language. I think he also meant that it’s impossible to write in another language than the one of your formative years. I’m not sure about that either, even if it seems true for him.


      • August 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

        Well, it’s not much of a surprise really that you don’t know that I’m a writer. My ‘career’ is still in an embryonic stage. I’ve seen published three short stories of mine in small (= rather unknown) Austrian literary journals. That’s all.

        Maybe I should try without captcha although I don’t want to invite spammers or meaningless comments. On a work blog (wordpress) we receive hundreds of spam comments every day and haven’t yet found a way to get rid of them or close the site for comments altogether.

        As for Sándor Márai, I’m rather ignorant of his career since I only discovered him recently and didn’t read anything except the novel ‘Befreiung’ (I think the French edition is titled ‘Libération’, but it hasn’t been translated into English), yet. His style reminded me a lot of Joseph Roth. However, I agree with you that his German must have been excellent if he wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung. Writing articles – or blog posts – is different from writing fiction, though. At least for me the two have a different quality and writing fiction I feel a lot more comfortable in German whereas regarding blog posts it’s all the same to me.


        • August 30, 2013 at 8:53 pm

          You need to start somewhere, no? It must be nice to see your words printed for others to read.

          I managed to leave comment on your blog eventually, but I can only do it with a computer. It doesn’t work with a tablet or a phone.

          Did you like Befreiung? It’s strange that you compare him to Joseph Roth, I didn’t think they sounded alike. But what can I know? I’ve only read one book of each writer and both in French translation…


          • August 31, 2013 at 8:47 am

            It’s true. You need to start somewhere and it’s nice to see your texts printed and to think that others may read them. 😉

            I removed captcha – so let’s see how it works. If I’m swamped with spam I’ll reintroduce it.

            Yes, I liked ‘Befreiung’ very much. Sándor Márai’s works have long been on my wishlist, but somehow I didn’t get to read any books of his before now. I started with this slim volume because nothing annoys me more than reading a bulky volume of a new author and not liking it… I use to finish all books, even those which I don’t like from the start hoping that the book gets better towards the end (usually I’m disappointed, sometimes I’m not). However, ‘Befreiung’ is just my line – topic (World War II), style, language. Surely, I’ll read others of his works. In translation there get’s so much lost of the original style and language… that’s why I try to read original versions, if I can. Unfortuately, there are too many languages to know them all well enough for reading.


            • August 31, 2013 at 11:04 pm

              I stopped reading books at any cost. When I don’t like a book, I tend to abandon it if I really think it won’t go better (I don’t want to say it’s a bad book. It’s more about being the wrong reader for that particular book.)
              I’ll try to choose carefully my next Márai.


              • September 1, 2013 at 11:55 am

                Yes, it’s true: not every book is for every reader. And sometimes it just isn’t the right time to read a particular book.
                I always choose carefully and so I rarely start a book which isn’t for me at the moment (‘The House of Ulloa’ by Emilia Pardo Bazán was one of my recent disappointments… I still finished it, mainly to practice my Spanish, though).


              • September 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm

                How many languages do you speak well enough to read books in the original?


              • September 2, 2013 at 9:43 am

                Strangely, there’s no reply button to your last message – so I squeeze my answer to your question about how many languages I speak well enough to read books in here.

                Well, there’s my native language German, of course, then there’s English, French, Spanish and – if it’s an easy read – Italian. I’m a language freak 😉


              • September 2, 2013 at 9:51 pm

                Wow. I’m impressed by people who can speak several languages well enough to read literature in the original.


              • September 2, 2013 at 9:45 am

                Ok – just noticed that the reply is posted at the end anyways.


  4. August 24, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Hello everyone,
    Thanks for commenting.
    I’m not at home right now, I’ll answer properly when I’m home and in front of a computer.


  5. September 3, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Emma :
    Wow. I’m impressed by people who can speak several languages well enough to read literature in the original.

    I’d love to know even more languages, but it takes so long to learn them… and there’s so little time. ;-(


  1. November 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm
  2. April 19, 2015 at 10:47 am

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