Over drinks with a Spanish science fiction writer last week, I learned that the legendary dime-novel author of the early and mid-20th century, José Mallorquí, could read English just fine but couldn't speak it. No surprise, really. Back when Mallorquí began studying the language, English-language books were available in Spain, but movies, radio, and films were not. He never heard it spoken. He learned it from a dictionary.
Among many other works, Mallorquí wrote 192 Western novels (yes, Westerns written by a Spaniard in Spain who had never set foot in Dodge) in the 1940s and early 1950s about "El Coyote," loosely based on Zorro. Then he tried his hand at science fiction, at that point a genre not well known in Spain, and produced the "Futuro" series of novels from 1953 to 1954. He wrote 26 of the 34 titles, some under his own name, many under a variety of pseudonyms. Though the series had limited success, it opened the door for bigger and better things.
Mallorquí had no money for this project, though. Spain was poor in those years. So he often took novels published in the United States and translated them but in the process changed them somewhat, then signed them with a pseudonym like "J. Hill" or "Martin Blair," thus evading royalties and at the same time making it sound like a real American had written them -- everyone knew that Americans and Brits wrote the best science fiction.
At one point (this is what we were gossiping about over drinks), Mallorquí found himself in London, and that was when he learned he couldn't speak English, just read and write it. He understood nothing anyone said to him and couldn't make himself understood. He had a problem -- and he figured out how to solve it. He got a pen and paper and wrote, "I am a deaf-mute. . . ."
His visit went fine after that.