In The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, edited by Wendy Lesser (Pantheon, $23), such come-lately-to-English authors as Josef Skvorecky (first language, Czech), Luc Sante (French), Ha-yun Jung (Korean) and Ariel Dorfman (Spanish) try to put into English words what Lesser calls "the singular characteristics" of their original languages. Skvorecky laments the absence in English of "the sex appeal of feminine endings, the lure of verbal aspects, the capricious scherzo of prefixes, such things." Sante emphasizes the elegance and precision of French, qualities that when together, he asserts, "indicate the presence of truth," adducing as an example this line from La Fontaine's Fables: "Tout flatteur vit aux depens de celui qui l'ecoute (every flatterer lives at the expense of whoever listens to him). . . . By the time I was of age to understand all the implications of the phrase, I knew its music to be a further guarantee of its wisdom."

Dorfman recalls exploring "the verb system in Spanish, perhaps the richest in the Indo-European family of languages." And Ha-yun Jung notes the anti-egotistical tendencies of Korean, in which "the simple English sentence 'I want an apple' sounds awkward when translated, word for word. . . . A Korean person is much more likely to say something that could be translated as 'It would be nice to have an apple.' " As for the editor herself, Lesser admits that, unlike her contributors, she is no exile, living as she does in Northern California, about 40 miles from where she grew up, and that, like most Americans, she is "embarrassingly monolingual, possessed of the merest remnant of my little high-school Spanish."

-- Dennis Drabelle