Reading second-language writing

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Exophonic writers – those who write in a language other than their primary or so-say native tongue – choose to do so for many different reasons – personal, artistic, social, political, economic. And in English-language literature there is no shortage of examples in both directions: those who choose to write in English when it’s their second language (Conrad, Koestler, Achebe, Nabokov etc) and those whose primary language is English, but who also write in other languages (Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Joyce and other modernists whose nominally ‘English’ texts are deeply infused with words, phrases and allusions to languages from across a broad linguistic and cultural spectrum).
I have already written about my own experiences of writing in Bulgarian in, ‘Writing into the Unknown’, the introduction to the bilingual Непознати Преводи/Unknown Translations collection of poems I originally wrote in Bulgarian that was published in Sofia by Scalino in 2016. In this, I noted that, rather than limiting what I wrote, the process drove my imagination in unexpected directions and offered me ‘a whole new set of tools and new resources to draw on’. Having spoken to other, far more accomplished polyglot writers since then, this seems to tally with their experience: they use each of their various languages – primary or secondary – for different purposes or in different circumstances, according to the associations they’ve accumulated about each language’s vocabulary, grammar, idioms and other linguistic features.
This question again crossed my mind while I was reading Riccardo Duranti’s 2013 collection Meditamondo, which, alongside poems originally written in Italian, includes others  originally written in English – subsequently translated into Italian by the author. I imagine that Duranti’s experiences writing these poems was much the same as mine: the second language providing an opportunity to ‘think differently’, to formulate new image-structures and associations.
In ‘How to get a halo’, for example, it’s possible to see how English has offered him linguistic opportunities, particularly in relation to sound. In the opening stanza, for example, he writes:

Inside a swarm of bees
stand still
and look beyond the blur
for the one detail
that makes sense
of the horizon

Likewise the first two lines of the second:

escape the droning shell
            (renounce its promise of honey

What strikes me in particular, though, is the final two lines of the poem:

while you keep growing
just treading time.

Thanks to the ready-made metaphorical English phrase ‘marking time’, ‘treading’ initially seems an unusual choice here, especially because the act of ‘marking time’ (that is, marching on the spot) incorporates a sense of ‘treading’ or stepping on something. ‘Treading’, in other words, draws us towards one possible meaning of the line – ‘just marking time’– and risks being seen as an error by those who read it inattentively, ungenerously.
Simultaneously, however, ‘treading time’ offers other meanings, other connotations, which wouldn’t be available with the more common and more commonplace ‘marking time’ option. We might, after all, tread the line, tread a fine line, tread on eggshells, tread on someone’s toes, tread lightly, rush in where angels fear to tread or tread water – and the choice of verb allows the varied connotations of these idiomatic usages to adhere to ‘treading time’, providing the opportunity for a much nuanced, much more ambiguous reading of it.
To me, in fact, this seems like a good example of Keats’ notion of ‘a fine excess’, as interpreted by the poet and critic JH Prynne, who unpacks the notion thus: ‘If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’
Other similar examples occur throughout the English poems in Duranti’s collection – ‘the fluid pain’ in ‘The Economics of Misery’, ‘the sombre joy/nested in music’ in ‘Composition’ and so on – and what Prynne calls ‘a kind of semantic spark’ is often part of the experience I have – as someone whose primary tongue is English – when reading work in English by those for whom it is a second language. Aside from any immediate pleasure derived from these individual ‘sparks’, they also provide a wider opportunity to regard my own primary language and its semantic possibilities from a less restricted (because unencumbered by ingrained conventions) point of view.
What I am suggesting here, in other words, is that writing in a second-language not only offers opportunities to writers to pursue directions they may not have previously imagined themselves, but also to primary-language readers – in the sense that the resultant texts can enable them to perceive their own language from different perspectives, identify its perhaps hitherto unnoticed semantic possibilities and relish – rather than criticise, feel disconcerted or even threatened by – the ways in which its linguistic implements are put to different uses and either consciously or unconsciously push at, cross or extend the boundaries of convention.

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Tom Phillips
Tom Phillips was born in Buckinghamshire in 1964. He is a freelance writer and guest lecturer at various British and Balkan universities. He has lived in Bristol, UK, since 1986, but since the 2000s he has often travelled to the Balkan peninsula and much of his literary and research interests are focused on the region. He has been published in many magazines, anthologies and pamphlets and he has published three books of poetry in UK: “Recreation Ground” (Two Rivers Press, 2012), “Reversing into the Cold War” (Firewater/Poetry Monthly, 2007) and “Burning Omaha” (Firewater, 2003) and one bilingual books of poetry in Bulgaria: “Unknown Translations / Непознати преводи” (Scalino, 2016). He is the author of a number of plays, of which “Coastal Defences” (Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, 2014) and “100 Miles North of Timbuktu” (Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol, 2013) have enjoyed the greatest theatrical success.