Raymond Federman, born in Paris, came to the United States at nineteen, after escaping from a deportation train and spending the rest of World War II working and hiding on a farm in southern France. Although he did not start learning English until he came to the United States, four years in the U.S. Army, including a stint in the 82nd Airborne and six months on the front lines in Korea, vastly accelerated his acquisition of “colloquial” English. Federman writes in both French and English, and his own observations about his bilingualism frequently support the generalizations made in this chapter. When he began writing his novel Amer Eldorado (circa 1970), he worked, alternately, on the French and English versions — one day on the French version, the next day on the English, and so on. He kept that up for about six months: “It drove me crazy. The two languages were pulling apart, pulling together, encouraging one another, defying one another, feeding one another, or perhaps I should say devouring one another. Eventually I dropped the English text and finished the French which became Amer Eldorado (published in 1974 by The Editions Stock). Then I went back to the English text and worked on it for three more years. That became Take It or Leave It. But no longer the same book. Amer Eldorado is about 200 pages long. A first-person narrative. Though Amer Eldorado is contained, in a manner of speaking, in Take It or Leave It (which is about 500 pages long), it is there not as a translation but as a loose adaptation. Moreover, Take It or Leave It uses two narrative voices (first and third person).” Federman always feels a sense of incompleteness when his work exists in only one language. When he writes poems, he immediately does a version in the other language (whichever), because he has the feeling that the original text is not finished until there is a version in the other language. He usually abandons self-translation of his novels, however, “for reasons of time, laziness, etc.,” but the result is that he feels his novels are never finished. Translations by other people do not do the trick. The only time Federman did an immediate translation of a prose text was for The Voice in the Closet / La voix dans le cabinet de débarras, where the two texts coexist in the same book, working from either end (the French text is rectangular, the English one, square). Federman says that his ambition is to write a book — admittedly, totally unreadable — in which the two languages would come together in the same sentence (there are a few such pages in Take It or Leave It). The cover would say “translated by the author,” but would not indicate from which language into which. (Federman did once publish a bilingual text [“D’une parenthèse à l’autre” / “From One Parenthesis to Another”] wherein the English version says “translated from the French by the author” and the French version says “translated from the English by the author.”) Behind the playfulness, there is a “need to abolish the ‘original.’ In fact, between the two texts translated by the author, there is no original, no possibility of origin” (personal communication).
I posted an example of one of his bilingual texts back in 2008.