Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

A Bilingual Writer’s Dilemma

Writing professionally in two languages, Spanish and English in my case, poses stimulating challenges. After almost 50 years of living in the United States, I still find it extremely difficult to write in English, the reason being that, even after so much time, I still think in Spanish when I write in English.

One explanation is that I only had a serious immersion in the English language at the age of 31, when I emigrated from Argentina to the United States. At that age, many linguistic structures of thought are already formed. While children have extraordinary ease in learning languages — ​​the younger the easier — the arduousness of this process increases with age. That is why the best age to absorb a new language is between childhood and puberty when the learning curve reaches its peak, at which time it begins to decline gradually, although with large individual variations.

Writing in both languages has an additional pitfall: what may be appropriate in Spanish is not necessarily so in English, and vice versa. For example, my first drafts of articles in English often are too wordy (perhaps because my mother tongue always shadows me) and I keep removing words in subsequent readings.

But each language has a different structure and Spanish as such allows a more flowery expression, with the frequent use of symbols and figures of speech while in English there is an economy of expression not necessarily simpler, but merely less florid. This is clearly evident in the process of translating from one language to another, where the English version is usually shorter than the Spanish one.


In an interview published in the autumn issue of The Paris Review (1984) Julio Cortázar is asked why he believes that José Lezama Lima makes a character in his novel Paradiso say that the baroque is what really interests readers in Spain and Latin America, Cortázar responds: “I can not reply as an expert. True, the baroque is greatly important in Latin America, both in the arts and in the literature as well. The baroque can offer a great richness; it lets the imagination soar in all its many spiraling directions, as in a baroque church with its decorative angels and all that, or in baroque music. But I distrust the baroque. The baroque writers, very often, let themselves go too easily in their writing. They write in five pages what one could very well write in one. I too must have fallen into the baroque because I am Latin American, but I have always had a mistrust of it. I don’t like turgid, voluminous sentences, full of adjectives and descriptions, purring and purring into the reader’s ear. I know it’s very charming, of course. It’s very beautiful, but it’s not me. I’m more on the side of Jorge Luis Borges. He has always been an enemy of the baroque; he tightened his writing, as if with pliers. Well, I write in a very different way than Borges, but the great lesson he taught me is one of economy. He taught me when I began to read him, being very young, that one had to try to say what one wanted to with economy, but with a beautiful economy. It’s the difference, perhaps, between a plant, which could be considered baroque, with its multiplication of leaves, often very beautiful, and a precious stone, a crystal –that for me is more beautiful still.”

Making a difference

Perhaps the best example of the refined style Cortázar prefers is precisely that of Jorge Luis Borges. In the Paris Review (# 28, Summer-Fall 1962), the prestigious French author André Maurois wrote, “Jorge Luis Borges is a great writer who has composed only little essays or short narratives. Yet they suffice for us to call him great because of their wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical style.”

Borges himself defines the baroque thus: “I venture the baroque is a style that deliberately exhausts (or wants to exhaust) its possibilities and borders on its own caricature.”

In a talk with the Argentine poet Roberto Alifano, who was a friend and collaborator of Borges, the Romanian writer Emil Cioran told him: “Borges’s style is intelligent, of a mathematical concession, in which nothing is left out and nothing is missing; his writing makes us touch every step of that disturbing mystery that is perfection. I think I have written that if Borges interests me so much it is because he represents a specimen of humanity in the process of disappearing, and because he embodies the paradox of  intellectual statelessness, of an immobile adventurer who is at ease in various civilizations and in various kinds of literature, a magnificent monster and a condemned one, of course.”

It is curious that Borges believed he had achieved a refined style at a relatively advanced age. In one of his conversations with the Argentine writer Fernando Sorrentino Borges said, “To reach the point of writing succinctly in a more or less decorous way I had to reach the age of 70.”

Whatever our opinion of Borges and his style, it is undeniable that he is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. As the writer Susan Sontag said in her Letter to Borges, written ten years after the death of the great Argentine writer: “All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this 21st century will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.”

Iceberg theory

In English, one of the writers best known for his almost minimalist style is Ernest Hemingway. He developed the “iceberg theory,” according to which the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface but should be expressed implicitly. In October 1954 Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature for “his mastery in the art of narrative recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence he has shown in a contemporary style.”

The art of cutting

In a letter about the influence that the writer Annie Dillard had on him, the American writer Alexander Chee writes, “In her class, I learned that while I had spoken English all of my life, there was actually very little I knew about it. English was born from low German, a language that was good for categorization, and had filled itself in with words from Latin and Anglo Saxon words, and was now in the process of eating things from Asian languages. Latinates were polysyllabic, and Anglo Saxon words were short, with perhaps two syllables at best. A good writer made use of both to vary sentence rhythms.”

However, perhaps what is most important is to use a style that follows what we are trying to communicate. A technical article may employ a different style than a news story, a literary text or a novel. What really matters is that it fulfills the essential function of every single piece of writing: to achieve effective communication with the reader.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.