Famous Past and Present Bilingual Writers from Around the World

by contributor · 4 comments

Joseph Conrad’s writing desk and typewriter


By Melanie Taylor
Photo credit: Ben Sutherland

For parents raising a bilingual child, it may be interesting to learn that some famous writers, past and present, had a multicultural background and were bilinguals, and even multilingual. In some cases, their oral skills were not perfect but that did not stop them from developing a body of work appealing to readers worldwide.

  • Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): born in Ukraine to Polish parents pertaining to the aristocracy, Conrad was introduced to multiple languages early on as part of his education:  Russian, Polish and French.
    His parents die when he is a teenager. He goes to the south of France (most of his acquaintances mention that his French was excellent) and later on becomes a sailor in a British vessel. Eventually he would acquire British citizenship. His travels to Africa, South America and Asia as well as his life as a merchant marine gave him the substance for his many famous novels written in English: Almayer’s Folly,  Under Western Eyes and The Heart of Darkness, the latter having been adapted to theater and film. “Apocalypse Now” (1979) by Coppola is the most famous of these adaptations.
    Throughout his life, Conrad had to deal with issues such as loss, being an outcast and belonging. He had success as a writer although writing in English was an arduous task, and he was aware that he did not sound like a native speaker in that language.
  • Vladimir Nabokov  (1899-1977): author of the controversial novel Lolita, Nabokov was born in a wealthy Russian family in which Russian, English and French were spoken.
    Due to the Bolshevik revolt, the family goes first to England and then to Berlin — he keeps writing in Russian. In 1937, he goes to Paris, where he writes in French and a first novel in English. In 1940, he finally settles in the United States, a country in which he would enjoy literary success. He managed to keep writing seamlessly, adapting to the different countries in which he lived.
  • Rolando Hinojosa-Smith (1929-   ): Hinojosa-Smith is an American writer raised on the border between Mexico and the US. This experience shaped him and provided the material for many of his novels. He grew up speaking both Spanish and English.
    What is particular about him is that he has written a series of novels (13) set in a fictional town called Klail. Some of the novels are in English, others in Spanish. He has received recognitions both from the English and Spanish literary worlds.
  • Anchee Min (1957-   ): born in China, Anchee Min endured the hardships of the Maoist era. She arrived to the United States in 1984 not knowing a single word of English. She taught herself the language by watching television and found freedom in writing her experiences in English. Her first autobiographical novel, Red Azalea, published in 1985, was a bestseller.
    She considers that her writing style is simple for two reasons: English is her second language and thus idescribes her writing style as naïve. To get a glimpse of her writing, read the following literary essay: www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/ww1/min.html
  • Anna Kazumi Stahl (1962-   ): born in Louisiana, Stahl is one of those few cases of a native English speaker that chooses to write in another language. As the previous biographies illustrate, t is more common that a non-native English speaker switches to English in search for a bigger audience, a better paying market or to adapt to a new culture. In Stahl’s case, she decided to settle in Argentina and started writing in Spanish.
    She has a doctorate in Comparative Literature. Her background is multicultural: Her mother is Japanese and her father’s family of German descent. Some of her stories can be read online www.letropolis.com.ar/2007/05/kazumi.hiroko.htm. I find a strong Japanese influence in her aesthetics.

Melanie Taylor Herrera is a Panamanian bilingual writer. She has a Bachelor in Psychology and a Master of Arts in Music Therapy. She writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry in Spanish and non-fiction in English. In 2009, she won the Central American award “Rafaela Contreras” for short fiction written by women.  Her work in Spanish has been published in magazines such as Americas, The Barcelona Review and Iguana Magazine. She has a blog called “Cuentos al Garete” and a free poetry book available at Smashwords.com. In English, she has been published in Diverse Magazine in Canada.

Blog melanietaylorherrera.wordpress.com/
The Barcelona Review www.barcelonareview.com/73/s_mth.html
Poetry www.smashwords.com/books/view/29061

Article in Jazz Times jazztimes.com/community/articles/27918-can-yoga-improve-your-music-skills
Translation of an article about Panamanian drums www.thefreelibrary.com/Path+of+the+Panamanian+Drums.-a0207391384

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tracey September 20, 2011 at 5:37 am

From my home country, New Zealand, the author Witi Ihimaera is a famous bilingual author often considered to be ‘one of the most prominent Māori writers alive.’ His work mainly consists of short stories or novels. Witi has written many stories in Maori and in English the best-known is The Whale Rider (which was adapted into a movie). As a general rule his stories show the Māori culture in New Zealand and touch on modern issues in Māori society. You can read more about him on Wikipedia. I am very proud of him and his work.


2 Melanie September 21, 2011 at 11:48 pm

I saw that movie and loved it! thanks for the info


3 Sparkas November 16, 2012 at 12:18 am

Nice list, but I would also add Ayn Rand, a Russian born writer who came to USA at the age of 21 with elementary English and succeeded in writing such famous works as ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘Fountainhead’. Also, anyone interested in multilingual writers should glance at the life of Romain Gary. Cheers.


4 Maria June 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

Jorge Semprùn was a french-spanish writer, he grew up speaking Spanish, French and German, and excelled in literature both in Spanish and French.


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