Anyone who enjoys the painstakingly difficult process of writing probably has a love for words, which inspires their masochistic writer’s journey. Those who understand the slight intricacies of words and the importance of sentence structure choose their statements wisely, editing, re-editing, and editing again. This process is multiplied twofold for a writer who speaks more than one language, carrying with them the difficulty of creating their desired outcome while thinking in two (or more) languages.

In my studies, I trade off writing in French and English. I’m not claiming to be bilingual by any means, but I understand the difficulty of translation. For example, I came to understand that “poser un lapin” does not mean “to pose a rabbit” in direct translation, but is a colloquial expression for standing someone up on a date. My time studying both English and French has provided me with invaluable knowledge about the process of writing, mainly two distinct aspects: the difficulty of exact translation and the desire to sound like a local.

One of Swenson Book Development’s clients, Carolyn Porter, stumbled upon several French letters and set off on a quest to understand their meaning. Despite her fervor and passion for these letters, she did not speak French and hired a translator. This translator, Louise, was essential in Carolyn’s journey to learn about the life of Marcel, his obligatory service in Germany during the occupation, and his relationship with his family. Carolyn sought out a native speaker to overcome the dissonance of direct translation and gain an understanding of the true meaning of French words. Due to the connotative complexities of any language, a direct translation cannot convey the entire meaning. In French, “to love” and “to like” are one word: “amour.” When directly translating into English, the difference between like and love is anything but trivial.

Once a writer has successfully written in another language, a sense of immense pride is seemingly inescapable, until the realization hits that this writing does not sound like a native speaker. Another Swenson Book Development client, Newell Searle, author of “Language of My Heart: Memoir of Mexico,” became bilingual by studying Spanish and he wanted to fully partake in a culture he connects with strongly. He yearned to understand Mexican culture in its entirety. During his multiple cultural immersions he discovered that sounding or writing as a native is not easy. It is not feasible to expect an overnight transformation to sound like a local. Instead, a bilingual, or multilingual, writer should understand writing in other languages takes patience and years of practice. Try not to get caught up in your beginning stages.

As for my language experience, I studied in an immersive program in Paris, where I took five university courses in French. I started speaking French when I was 10 years old, but despite my childhood dreams of Eloise at the Eiffel Tower, it took several years for me to retain the exact sound and pronunciation. During my time in Paris, I became increasingly aware of how difficult it is to truly maintain another language, even more to sound like a local. I loved to talk with strangers, until they realized I was American and wanted to practice their English with me or, more commonly, they took pity on my level of proficiency. In spite of my frustration to speak French, I learned to appreciate the empathy of these strangers, who understand that speaking a non-maternal language is demanding and tiring. I continued speaking in French when they insisted I changed to English, and this effort instilled in me a newfound confidence. I started appreciating the different ways French allows me to explain myself in ways English lacks.

Contemporary American poet Tracy K. Smith explains this sentiment in an interview with Poets.org. “Spanish became important to me when I felt I was drowning, or perhaps suffocating, in English. I think, that we become different people when we express ourselves in different languages.” Smith identifies that learning another language allows writers to go beyond their bounds of experience. English is not encompassing of all sentiments, making room for other languages to explain different parts of being. To anyone who explores language, remember this journey is more difficult for those with multiple languages in their arsenal. Learning how to maneuver the complexities of various languages while still conveying their honest meanings is by no means effortless. However, the right amount of determination and passion can yield transcendent, cross-cultural results.

2 thoughts on “Writing in more than one language

  1. I’m bilingual and love dipping into the other language to find fresh expressions for old tired idioms. No, your French phrase doesn’t translate directly into English, but might it not offer inspiration for a fresh way to describe being stood up?

    • And sometimes idiomatic expressions and translations can be a source of humor. Here’s a funny video about learning portugese which is riddled with colloquialisms and their direct translation into English.

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Diane Tober
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