Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Letters

The base of a sculpture celebrating famous German authors at the Bebelplatz square in Berlin (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Watch Your Language  

In her review of Thomas Mann’s War, by Tobias Boes (“Mann in America,” December 22), Elizabeth Powers writes of Thomas Mann’s literary career as anticipating “the present global publishing market, which increasingly erases the long-established identification of writers with specific languages and literary traditions.” The implication is that when writers “bypass their native publics and market their works to an international readership” in English, they impoverish the culture of their mother tongues.

Another way of looking at this is to argue that these writers were impoverished of a mother tongue to begin with. I, for example, come from an immigrant family, and although I often state on my résumé that Dutch is my native tongue, I feel little connection to that alien language. I feel equally foreign in my other native tongue, Cantonese, of which my vocabulary is limited, and of which the number of words I can read or write is: zero. Growing up as a child in an immigrant family, but without having the status of an immigrant yourself, often means that people assume you somehow pick up the language of both your family and your residential country naturally. This is far from the truth. At least in my experience, English was the first language that was taught to me properly and that I felt I could understand properly. Through engagement with literature and TV shows in English, I gradually became more at home in that language. 

So I imagine that many writers bypassing their mother tongue are not “bypassing” anything; they’re writing in that language that they feel is truly theirs, that can express their thoughts and feelings best. This sentiment of being unable to write for the place one was born in and in the language one is supposed to be fluent in is for many the drive and obsession in writing — albeit in another language and for another public.

Trent Lee
The Netherlands 

 

Elizabeth Powers responds: There are so many issues that this letter raises — thank you very much! — that I regret that I cannot respond at length. Yes, immigrants today are often linguistically rootless, “impoverished of a mother tongue,” as Mr. Lee writes, and what he says concerning his experience with English literature and TV confirms that English is becoming the universal language par excellence. This means that a great many people in the world today, aside from native English speakers, are bilingual. While many such bilingual speakers live in countries possessing a long literary tradition on which they can draw (such as the Germany in which Thomas Mann came of age), many choose to write in English. I speak not so much of Europeans — French, Italians, Germans, Dutch, and so on, who still enjoy large native reading publics — but of non-Westerners. Salman Rushdie’s mother tongue, for instance, is Urdu, spoken today by 100 million people, mostly in Pakistan, which has its own classical canon, mostly in drama and poetry, reaching back to the 14th century. For Rushdie and many others, however, English as well as the novel (increasingly the universal literary genre) are the vessels in which their feelings and thoughts are best expressed. Languages transmit a history of truth and also fiction, of knowledge and invention, that will cease if languages with a rich literary legacy become, like Latin, dead because no one writes in them anymore.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

The Last Trusted Prosecutor in Washington

John Durham may be the most consequential and least known figure in Washington right now. In May, U.S. attorney general William Barr selected Durham, a longtime prosecutor with a résumé so sterling it nearly glows, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Last Trusted Prosecutor in Washington

John Durham may be the most consequential and least known figure in Washington right now. In May, U.S. attorney general William Barr selected Durham, a longtime prosecutor with a résumé so sterling it nearly glows, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the ... Read More
World

WHO Failed

Since its inception 72 years ago almost to the day, the World Health Organization (WHO)  has been credited with the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of other devastating illnesses, including leprosy and river blindness. This record of success makes the current corruption of the organization ... Read More
World

WHO Failed

Since its inception 72 years ago almost to the day, the World Health Organization (WHO)  has been credited with the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of other devastating illnesses, including leprosy and river blindness. This record of success makes the current corruption of the organization ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More
Health Care

The Experts Lied to Us about Masks

When the stakes are highest, the truth counts the most. Or maybe when things get really serious, that’s when the people really can’t be trusted with the truth. It’s pretty clear which of these two ideas is the one that has been guiding elite medical, political, and journalistic institutions, isn’t it? ... Read More
Health Care

The Experts Lied to Us about Masks

When the stakes are highest, the truth counts the most. Or maybe when things get really serious, that’s when the people really can’t be trusted with the truth. It’s pretty clear which of these two ideas is the one that has been guiding elite medical, political, and journalistic institutions, isn’t it? ... Read More
World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More
World

How to Make China Pay

One of the big questions facing the international community today is how to hold China legally and politically accountable for all its dishonesty and harm to people around the world. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed to the White House that China has deliberately understated the ... Read More