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Journey between languages

Why I don’t write in my mother tongue. A French writer of Urdu fiction shares his process

Journey between languages

In 2005, an earthquake ravaged the Pakistani Kashmir and the Indian Kashmir. I was called to work in Pakistan’s Kashmir, and this was a defining experience for me. I had never been confronted before to so much destruction, seen so many wounded and dead, seen at the same time so much heroism and so much selfishness. I had never before had to make choices that could impact the lives of other human beings so drastically.

This experience traumatised me and changed me forever.

Back from Kashmir, in Islamabad, where I was stationed, I wrote a novel about my experience, which I named zalzala, and which featured characters whose lives had been affected by the earthquake. The novel began with the narration of a true event, the collapse of the roof of a school in the city in Muzaffarabad on its students. Very few survived.

While writing this novel in my language, I had a weird feeling. The feeling that the language I used, my mother tongue, was not appropriate. And I did not have the courage to write the dialogues in French. Since these dialogues based on real dialogues, I felt that translating them was betraying them. So I included them in Urdu or Punjabi (or Hindko) in the French text.

Which is that when you write something creative, whether in your mother tongue or in another language, you always struggle. The language always resists. You are always struggling to find the right word. The language always beats you.

Once I finished writing the novel, I told some friends in Islamabad about it, who asked me in what language I wrote it. When I replied: In French, one of them said: “Lo, ji language makes us unreal”. He probably wanted to say that language, which is a tool of connection, had become here a tool of disconnection, because I wrote about an event they had experienced in a language that none of them could read, making it inaccessible (unreachable).

I published this novel in France the following year, and it was far from being a success. The novel was talking about an event that did not concern the French public, an earthquake in a far off developing country. As far as I know France never had an earthquake. And since it occurred in a developing country the reaction of the French public was a mixture of cynicism and indifference. Something like: “These kind of things keep on happening in these kind of countries. Why should we care.”

Moreover, I talked in my novel about the human aspect of a country which is known in the West not for its people but only for its religious bigotry and terrorism, things which I did not mention in my novel. It was not surprising that the response of the French public was not going to be very enthusiastic.

In 2006, I wrote in French again a novel about Saaghar Siddiqui, a well-known poet from Lahore who lived in poverty, in the streets, and whose life is similar to that of some of our French poets, those who call ‘Les poètes maudits’ (‘the cursed poets’).

While writing this novel, I had once again the feeling that the language I was using was not adequate. I had trouble translating words like mushaayraa, ghazal, saaqi, shab-khoon, which have such specific connotations and I could not translate the poems of Saaghar Siddiqui in French either (which I wanted to quote/include in my novel), these poems which are the mirrors of his soul. I had once again the impression that translating would be an act of betrayal…

The book was published in France, and was even less successful than the first one.

My mother tongue isolated me from the experience which I was writing about, as well as potential readers from Pakistan and India, who could relate to this experience. I had been writing in French about the 2005 earthquake or about the condition of the poets in the subcontinent, and neither the people who had experienced the earthquake, nor those who loved and knew the poetry of the subcontinent could read me (that seemed almost dishonest to me. It’s as if I did not want them to read what I wrote on them). Those who could read me, and who spoke the same language as me, were not interested in what I was writing, and about what I was writing about.

So I decided to translate these two books into Urdu, to make them available to the people who could really appreciate them. Or I would say rather that I rewrote them in Urdu. They were published a few years later, in Urdu, in India and Pakistan, and followed by three other books, written directly in Urdu.

I was raised in the myth of the sacrosanct mother tongue, in a French family, where, like so many others, you are corrected when you use a foreign word or do not pronounce a word properly, and I had always believed that the mother tongue was the best medium of expression, and that one always had to write in one’s mother tongue. But soon once I started writing in a newly adopted tongue like Urdu this myth began to collapse.

Writing in Urdu deepened my experience of writing. I was more aware of what was happening during the writing process than when I was writing in my language, (writing in one’s language is a process so natural that you do not even think about it). I was better able to correct myself, to pinpoint problems, details that did not fit, and so on. But writing in Urdu required a lot of work. When I started writing in Urdu, I had worked as a translator for 10 years and had known the language for 13 years, but I felt that I did not know it at all, because the requirements of the written language are different from those of the oral language.

Words were always eluding me. It seemed to me that what I wrote was never grammatically correct, that the words I used were always inadequate, that they were mere approximations of what I actually meant. I had to constantly use a dictionary, and I had also to read constantly in Urdu, to get a grip over the literary language (but there is also pleasure in having to relearn everything). I was struggling with every word, every sentence. But I realised also something. Which is that when you write something creative, whether in your mother tongue or in another language, you always struggle. The language always resists. You are always struggling to find the right word. And you always have to make do with approximations.

The language always beats you. No language, even your mother tongue, does ever cooperate. No language belongs to you. When it comes to creative expression every language is a foreign language, even your mother tongue…. This is probably due to the fact that when you write something creative you try to transpose in words emotions, feelings, ideas or situations that have never been done by anyone. The words to express them are never adequate (they do not pre-exist your writing somehow) ….

I also came to realise something else, which is that when I wanted to express myself on a specific context (different from the one in which I grew up) neither my mother tongue nor my language of education were of any help. The language of the context is the one that proved useful. I could suddenly understand why two of my favourite writers, Milan Kundera and Hector Bianciotti, had changed language after changing context. Both of them, after moving to Paris, had started using French….I was doing the opposite, and yet something similar…

The advantage of writing in the language of the context is that I got immediate contact. And not only with the readers related to this context, but with my characters. I was writing in the language in which they live, feel and think. I could get into their skin. While rewriting my novel Saaghar in Urdu, I used the first person instead of the third person originally used. This freedom was given to me by the switch to Urdu. There was no longer a barrier, a wall between this character and me. I could play his role (I could embody him) because I wrote in his language. This is one of the opportunities that not writing in my mother tongue gave me.

I have been living outside the subcontinent for a few years, in Central African Republic, Ukraine and Russia, and, in spite of my geographical remoteness, have continued to write in Urdu. But for some time now I have been finding it more and more difficult. The Urdu I write is no longer really Urdu. It is a transposition of French. I began again to feel things in French. I no longer hear Urdu around me and the Russian that I hear all around contains hundreds of French words. I am geographically closer to Europe than to the subcontinent. My context has changed, and so the language in which I write — Urdu — has become irrelevant.

Presently, I find myself in the same situation where I was twelve years ago, writing in a language nobody understands around me. This language isolates me. It makes me tragically unreal. And now the ghost of my mother tongue is haunting me again. This mother tongue that I had abandoned. But did I really abandon it ? Maybe not. Maybe for years I’ve been writing in French, but using Urdu words and phrases.

The experience of writing in French is refreshing (And that’s quite normal, have you noticed how your house looks different when you come back from a long trip abroad?). It has become a foreign language for me, but a foreign language that I know perfectly and speak and read and write since childhood. And while writing in French I see often myself transferring (or transposing) what I learned and acquired in Urdu (in terms of narration, rhythm, language), in the same way that while writing in Urdu I was transferring what I had learnt and acquired in French. And maybe this is the answer to this dichotomy of mother tongue-creative language that I have been experiencing for years.

No language belongs to me and I do not belong to any language. I am languageless (in a state of languagelessness). My expression lies somewhere between languages, between several languages, and what has remained constant has been the shift from one language to another, the constant ‘dislocation’ and subsequent ‘relocation’, the constant loss and constant recovery. I always avoided being trapped in one language (Afraid of being trapped in a language). And I think one should never be trapped in one language. In order to avoid being crushed by the global steamroller one must remain creatively bilingual, trilingual … One must avoid the monolingualism this new world is leading you to.

I would like to end this with a little story.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote in 2006 a novel called zalzala. This novel began with a description of a Muzaffarabad school, which had collapsed on schoolgirls…

Three years ago, I happened to meet a girl from Muzaffarabad in Lahore who had read zalzala and she told me she was one of the schoolgirls in this school. And she survived the earthquake. She told me “it is good that you wrote our story, that you recorded it in a book. Because people have already forgotten it”. And I was very moved. Of course, this would never have been possible if I had not rewritten my novel in Urdu … And I felt that all my writing efforts in Urdu and translation for all these years had been rewarded…

Julien

4 comments

  • Anique Afshan Newaz

    This article is sensitively and poignantly written. The writer relates about his ‘struggle to translate his story of a very real experience of the earthquakes in Pakistani and indian Kashmir experience in Urdu, his mother tongue. After translating in Urdu, the local pakistani could relate to his story whereas to the French in France it failed to capture that emotion and connectedness. I loved the author’s expression, ” No language belongs to me and I do not belong to any language….I always avoided being trapped in one language (Afraid of being trapped in a language). And I think one should never be trapped in one language. In order to avoid being crushed by the global steamroller.”

  • Anique Afshan Newaz

    This article is sensitively written. I loved the author’s expression, ” No language belongs to me and I do not belong to any language….I always avoided being trapped in one language (Afraid of being trapped in a language). And I think one should never be trapped in one language. In order to avoid being crushed by the global steamroller.”

  • I received a copy of Julien’s Three Short Novels; they captivated me; I stayed up all night to read them. I had no idea they had been written by someone who was not a native speaker of Urdu. Only in the third novel was I able to discern some cultural errors.
    Only then I read the back of the book which described this unique author.
    Julien, please spend more time in Pakistan, write more in Urdu.

  • Anique Afshan Newaz

    This article is sensitively and poignantly written. The writer relates about his ‘struggle to translate his story of a very real experience of the earthquakes in Pakistani and indian Kashmir experience in Urdu, his mother tongue. After translating in Urdu, the local pakistani could relate to his story whereas to the French in France it failed to capture that emotion and connectedness. I loved the author’s expression, “I loved the author’s expression, ” No language belongs to me and I do not belong to any language. I am languageless (in a state of languagelessness). My expression lies somewhere between languages, between several languages, and what has remained constant has been the shift from one language to another, the constant ‘dislocation’ and subsequent ‘relocation’, the constant loss and constant recovery. I always avoided being trapped in one language (Afraid of being trapped in a language). And I think one should never be trapped in one language. In order to avoid being crushed by the global steamroller.”

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