Art and Anger pp 204-209 | Cite as

Tongue Snatcher

  • Ilan Stavans


Tongue snatching, the art of switching from one language to another, has always been popular among writers, but it has acquired particular urgency as a result of massive migration. Baruch Spinoza, among the legendary examples, while native in Dutch and Spanish, wrote the Ethics in Latin; Sh. Y. Abramovitch (aka Mendele Mohker Sforim), the nineteenth-century, Eastern European Jewish writer responsible for establishing the Yiddish literary tradition, managed to go back and forth between Yiddish and Hebrew, often with the same essential story, only to discover how differently it is articulated in each medium; Joseph Conrad abandoned Polish to opt for English, his third language (French was his second), and though he did not begin learning English until he was in his twenties, he soon became one of the most revered masters of Shakespeare’s language; Vladimir Nabokov was perfectly fluent in Russian and English, transforming both through his intricate, elegant novels; Manuel Puig wrote books in Spanish, English, and Portuguese; and Fernando Pessoa’s Portuguese self was, in his own words, “dormant” when he wrote English poetry, which helped him recreate himself as Alexander Search when he alternated between Portuguese and English.


Mother Tongue Native French Speaker Hollywood Movie Italian Immigrant Current Literary Medium 
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© Ilan Stavans 1996

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  • Ilan Stavans

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