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Writing in a foreign language

April 9, 2011

I’m doing it now.

My mother tongue is not English, yet this blog is, and probably about 70 – 80 % of the stories that I write are. Why is that? Ought I not to honour my native language by writing more in it? And do I really think that I am as good – or even better – at a foreign language?
Well, I wouldn’t write in any foreign language. I could try my hand at German (which is the only language apart from English and my mother tongue that I would be able to produce anything in). I have, in fact, on a few occasions included a bit of German dialogue or expressions in my writings. But I am far from good enough. For a language to work in a story (or an article or a blog entry), one’s knowledge of it needs to be thorough. Yes, I could probably write a grammatically correct piece in German, but  I haven’t as large a vocabulary as I would need to make it interesting. I simply do not have enough synonyms or enough nuances to be able to convey what I want in a fetching manner.
Any language is rich. There is an abundance of words to choose from to get the exact tone or feeling conveyed to the reader. I can like something, but I can also appreciate, adore, be attracted to, admire, love, desire, care for, hold in high regard, etc. It takes a certain skill in any language to know the words and when to use which one to obtain the desired result.

So why do I write in English? Theoretically my internal thesaurus and general vocabulary ought to be better in my native language. In some areas, it is so. There are technical terms connected to certain subjects that I have only learnt in my native language. But over all, I think it is largely the same.
I consider myself semi-bilingual at this point for a number of reasons (the same are the reasons for writing in English).
Education-wise I hold a master’s degree in English. My studies included translation, history and literature of English speaking countries, and also a lot of grammar. It was expected that we spoke and wrote English fluently from the start, but we were fed a lot of theory which makes my knowledge of the way the language works better in English than any other language.
I mainly read books in English. This is partly due to my education, but even now I rarely read books in any other language. My favourite authors are usually from English speaking countries, so my literary inputs, so to speak, are in English.
I rarely translate between the two languages. I think and dream in English half of the time. I speak or write in one language without consulting the other and can switch between them. Well, except work-related. Seeing as I’m a translator, I have to compare the languages and turn one into the other.
The audience is a factor as well. Very few people that I know would not be able to read in English easily. Lots of people know English on a global scale, and so if I want to publish anything online or internationally in any way, English is the way to go.
The final reason lies within the stories that I write. If my main character is English or lives in an English speaking country, I find it hard to translate the story. I can hear the people in my stories – their voices and their their accents, and I feel that something is lost if I try to translate them (yes, I do realise the irony of it seeing as I translate for a living, but even though a translation can be good and close to the original, it will always be a reinvention of the material, so to speak. Sentence structures, dialects, even words don’t simply translate 1:1). I have a Scottish boy (though “boy” is somewhat misleading. He’s a grown man – in fact, today is his birthday – but he’s still my boy) in a number of stories who would simply would not be the same in my native language. I’m still working out how to make the dialogue of a story set in France (whose main character is part American; that is the reason of my writing it in English and not my native language) sound right and not a little bit as if it were translated from French into English. I believe I would have written it in French if I could, but sadly that is not an option for me.
Anyway, I have tried writing some of my stories in both languages, and there seems to be one right language for each of them. Some don’t work in English as well as in my native language, others don’t work as well in my native language as they do in English. So as I am comfortable with writing in two languages, I choose to let the story and the people in it dictate the language rather than deciding on a language first.

Would you ever write in a foreign language? Do you already? Do you read books in foreign languages?

PS: I had already typed up most of this entry when I read Nathanael’s post about English in non-English speaking countries. It’s very interesting … and I learnt that my country is among top five.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2011 11:21 am

    Great post. I write in a foreign language all the time, including now (my native language is Greek). I have studied English literature and translation, so my knowledge of English is very good – nevertheless, I found the jump from writing in Greek to writing in English (talking about fiction) a huge and terrifying one. I know that I can “feel” Greek better, and my vocabulary in Greek used to be much larger than in English. Now I have got over it and have been writing almost exclusively in English for the past 6 years or so. I also read almost exclusively fiction in English lately.


    • April 9, 2011 11:52 am

      Thank you!
      I know what you mean about “feeling” your native tongue better. I felt like that in the beginning too. Practicing and reading in English definitely helps! I wouldn’t have guessed that English isn’t your first language. 🙂
      I learnt ancient Greek a while back. Forgotten a lot of it now, but it was fantastic to learn. I got a children’s book in modern Greek just to see if I could understand it. XD I did get some of it, but my whole vocabulary in (ancient) Greek is tied up with Homer and Plato …


  2. April 9, 2011 11:22 am

    English isn’t your native tongue? I would have never ever known that if you hadn’t mentioned it!
    Guess what? It’s not mine either…

    Long ago, I spoke Spanish, but nowadays my Spanish is hilarious. I can sort of speak it (painfully) but I cannot read it no matter how hard I try and let’s not even get into writing it as my spelling is that of a seven year old.

    Learnt English at the age of 5, it soon became my favoured language and I feel as it if really is my mother tongue.

    By the way, happy birthday to your boy, and yeah, I know they’re not really “boys” but that is what I call mine as well 🙂


    • April 9, 2011 11:58 am

      Aww, thank you! I’m glad you didn’t think, “Yeah, you didn’t need to tell us that! It’s painfully obvious.”
      Wow, I didn’t know you’re Spanish. (Obvious I couldn’t guess that you’r native language isn’t English.) I can understand a teeny itty-bitty little bit Spanish, but only because I’ve learnt French and have a flatmate whose Spanish books I’ve peeked at.
      And thank you! 😀 I can’t help doting on him today. They’ve just got to deal with being our “boys”. I even call a 3500+ year old a boy. Disrespectful, I know … Somehow they tolerate it. Maybe it’s because I write nice stories about them.


  3. April 10, 2011 7:12 am

    I’m afraid I have no choice but to use my mother tongue…I have to say, I’m jealous that you get to choose.

    It was very interesting to read your reasoning for writing in one language over another.

    Most of my stories take place in the US, not because of language, but because I don’t have the same sense of place for other locals. Culture, mannerisms, etc.

    When you commented on my blog, WordPress said it thought you were from Denmark. I wondered if WordPress was wrong and, if not, why you wrote in English…it’s like you read my mind!


    • April 10, 2011 8:31 am

      Sometimes I’ve thought it’d be easier not to have so much of a choice because … well if you only read and write in one language, theoretically you ought to master it better than if you dabble in several. But I’m usually very happy to have the choice – especially with my mother tongue being spoken by so relatively few people.

      I definitely know the feeling of knowing your own culture/mannerisms best. As fascinating as it is to explore other countries (in travel, reading and writing), I do find it easier with stories going on where I live. Good point – thank you!

      Hehe, I’m glad I could answer your question. Interacting socially online makes it almost imperative to read and write English. Jeg tror ikke, at ret mange ville forstå så meget af der her. [“I don’t think most people would understand much of this.”] 😉

      Thank you for commenting! 🙂


  4. Maggie permalink
    April 10, 2011 6:13 pm

    As silly as it sounds, I’d really love to be fluent in Latin.


    • April 11, 2011 6:48 am

      I don’t think that’s silly at all. I took Latin for one year in school and am happy to know a bit now. If I had the time and the money, I would probably take an intense Latin course at some point.


  5. April 17, 2011 7:19 pm

    I wouldn’t have guessed English wasn’t your native language either. I have a lot of friends who write beautifully in English, even though it isn’t their native language, and I was always curious about why that was. I’m sure their reasons are all different, but it was fascinating to hear yours.

    English is really the only language I can speak or write to any real degree. I took a lot of French in uni, and can still read a bit in French, but have lost almost all the progress I made in speaking and writing. Oops, lol! It’s so easy to lose if you’re not keeping up with it.


    • April 17, 2011 9:05 pm

      Thank you! 🙂
      Yeah, I’ve forgotten huge chunks of most of the languages that I’ve learnt over time. It’s sad really. But I think it’s still there somewhere in our minds so that if we should ever choose to pick it up, it will be easier to re-learn than learning something entirely new. I hope so at least.
      Thank you for commenting! 🙂


  6. April 24, 2011 8:10 am

    I find that when I communicate in another language, what I express and how I express it changes. Language is inextricably tied to culture, so when I communicate in another language, not only the words I choose, but the ‘feelings’ with which I communicate them are different, thus changing the ‘story’ I’m telling. Not sure if you’ve had this experience as well. Maybe it also depends on what the two languages are and how closely tied the cultures are… Very interesting post- thank you.


    • April 24, 2011 9:56 am

      Thank you for the comment! That is a very interesting point. I haven’t thought much of it for some reason, but I believe that you are quite right. When I say that a certain language is tied to a certain character, I think that the character in question also has a certain mood/feeling, and this ties in with the language. In my mother tongue, I get quirkier and more … colloquial I suppose. When I’m humourous in English it’s a little different, perhaps a little more absurd. I’m not entirely certain about the exact differences, but I think that you are right – they are there, the culture in the languages. Thanks for making that point!


  7. April 29, 2011 6:44 pm

    I’ve always been so horribly jealous of the Scandanavians and their general bilingualism! 🙂 I recognize that not everyone is bilingual, but I still have moments of wishing I’d been born in Northern Europe. Well, the languages but also the loony rally drivers 😉

    I don’t write in any other languages, but I will read books or newspapers in Portuguese and sometimes French (though I’ve forgotten enough French that I have to stick to articles, not books). One thing I’d like to try is to start writing a journal in Portuguese, not only to keep my skills fresh, but to explore how different the writing will be (which is most assuredly will!)


    • April 29, 2011 8:16 pm

      Funny you should say that. To me, it’s natural that practically everybody here knows at least some English. But I know that’s not the case everywhere that people learn a second language to that extent.
      The idea of writing a journal in another language is interesting … I mean a language that you don’t usually write in, obviously. Now I feel tempted to try something like it in a third language to see if I can do it.

      Thank you very much for visiting and commenting!


  8. September 9, 2011 10:12 pm

    Thank you for a very interesting post! I’ve been writing bits and pieces for a few years now, but only recently have I noticed that my first language slowly vanished from my written production throughout the years, up to a point where it’s pretty much nonexistent. I haven’t been able to find a good justification for that (nor have I tried very hard to, to be honest), but I agree with many of the points you raise, particularly the one about our ‘internal thesaurus’. I’d go one step further and say that – at least for me – English works much better than my native language in some situations, especially when I don’t know exactly where the writing is going. For more technical, down-to-earth matters, I’m comfortable with both, but when I want or need creative freedom, it’s English hands down. Funny thing. Anyway, thanks again for the post. It’s comforting to know linguistic schizophrenia is a relatively widespread condition. Cheers!



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