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Writing in a Foreign Language

Part I – Vocabulary and Usage

However you like your stories – long or short, realistic or escapist – they don't exist without words. In my case, the words I use for telling stories are foreign; English isn't my first language. That presents me with various problems, but also gives me possibilities that I wouldn't have if I only wrote in Danish. I hope to cover some of those things in this and later posts over the coming weeks/months.

One notable barrier to learning the English language is vocabulary and usage – the far from simple act of using the right words in its right context.

In this area, using a Danish-English dictionary is less useful than you might think. If I need a technical term or a specific adjective, I'll sometimes look up the Danish word, but more often than not I'll use my approximate understanding of a thing or concept to find the perfect match with Google, online English-English dictionaries, picture searches, or what have we.

The most invaluable approach to getting a better vocabulary is simply: reading. Novels, short fiction, blogs, ad copy, letters, newspapers, and the ever important et cetera. Watching CNN or BBC to take in the language by ear. Listening to podcasts. Playing computer games. (And I believe I've mentioned Weird Al Yankovic's lyrics elsewhere on this blog.) All this contributes to my vocabulary and understanding of what you actually mean when you say stuff like 'how do you like them apples?'

This is an approach that goes back ten years to the time when I was an avid student of Latin. I studied under a professor (and brilliant translator) who forbade us to use our notes in class when we practiced translating from Latin to Danish. He wanted us to understand Latin the way the Romans did.

Consequently his poor students (that is, yours truly and a handful of other badass survivors of the first month of his class) had to keep all the different connotations of the same Latin word in mind when we read a text. Why? Because that was what the Romans did. Notes, he said, would have limited our focus to just one meaning of the word, cheating us of a lot of interesting connotations. This made sure we learned the roots of the words – their original meaning. A stimulus, for instance, was originally a cow herder's goad for slapping the udders of his cattle. Pecunia, originally meaning cattle, came to mean money. The Romans knew, ergo we had to know too.

Those lessons meant that now when I read and write English, I aim for the same precise understanding of words and idioms. It's not just a matter of ingrained habit either. Using a word in its original sense, instead of later derivations, can sometimes lend power to the text. Lunatic, for instance, has a certain ring to it when there's a full moon rising. 'Bedlam' contains the entire history of a mental institution, and as such has a hidden impact in the right context.

Bottom line: I have to think in English when I write. Danish has another feel and rhythm, so if I simply translate my thoughts into English, something invariably turns out clumsy or clunky – not to mention disastrous when it comes to finding the right voice for a character. But when I think in English, the story usually finds a tone of its own, be it dark or light, futuristic or medieval – and that always helps me discover new sides to the world and characters.

So words and usage aren't just barriers. They force me to think about what I write and how I put my words to use. Not only has this improved my English drastically, it's also taught me to write much more accurately in my native language. That increased precision, I believe, is a cornerstone in good fiction and communication, and I'm glad that writing in another language has helped me come closer to my target: Writing damn good stories.

I'll be thrilled to hear similar stories from both foreign and native English writers, so please share in the comments or post a link to your own blog.


Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
jakobdrud
Sep. 29th, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
My pleasure :-) As you can probably see, it's a topic I find fascinating too. I should have more to say on it later.
threeoutside
Sep. 29th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
I LOVE this post! I look forward to more, Jakob! Right now I'm studying French - I've been a lifelong Francophile and now (for the what - 4th? - time? I'm enrolled in a real class. And my old brain kinda hurts. I love your comments on connotations and history of words. That's what makes any language so rich and rewarding to learn.

I'm too tired to comment any further right now but I'm coming back to reread your post tomorrow and maybe learn some more from you!

BTW - your English is GREAT. I just wish I had another lifetime to learn Danish. I've got relatives over there...
jakobdrud
Sep. 29th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, French is a lovely language. My parents are Francophile, and I've gone with them to Nice a fair share of times. Sadly I've never learned the language well enough for anything other than token additions to sign language. Taking it in a real class again would be cool.
jongibbs
Sep. 29th, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
Excellent post!

Knowing a word's origin is especially useful in not-of-this-world fantasy, some types of science fiction and/or historical fiction.

Someone (I wish I could remember who - bogwitch64 perhaps?) wrote a great post about misusing words a while back.

Words like 'bedlam' for example, which have a root in a name, don't belong in stories about worlds which never actually had a place called Bedlam. On the other hand, if you can do it without giving the reader a 'huh' moment, those same roots can inspire language which gives a story a flavor of it's own.

Thanks for sharing :)
jakobdrud
Sep. 29th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading :-) Your point about misusing words in a secondary world was right on target. When you have to consider things like ethymology, it really shows how much thought you have to give to worldbuilding.
ralan01
Sep. 29th, 2010 09:44 am (UTC)
Writing in a Foreign Language
As a native English speaker/writer I can testify to Jakob's incredible linguistic feat. When you talk to him, or read something he's written, it's impossible to tell that English is a second (or third or fourth?) language. My Danish isn't even in the same building as his English, let alone on the same floor.

Your Latin teacher was a genius, and you were smart to stick it out. He taught you not only about the Roman language, but gave you a methodology to learn any language the correct way.

This is a very interesting discussion, Jakob. I'll be excited to see more.
jakobdrud
Sep. 29th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Writing in a Foreign Language
Hi Ralan, thanks for that very nice comment. Made me blush, and I don't do that very often :-)

My Latin professor really was a genius. Among other things he translated the Aenid and Metamorphoses into Danish (and the Illiad and the Odyssey from ancient Greek as well). All of it in hexameter, and yet the Danish is every bit as natural and fresh as literary prose published today. That's nothing short of a heroic feat if you ask me.
ralan01
Sep. 30th, 2010 06:52 am (UTC)
Re: Writing in a Foreign Language
As someone who has tried to translate parts of an epic Danish poem to English I can only agree.
bogwitch64
Oct. 1st, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
Jakob...I had no idea. I mean, I know where you live and all (that's not a stalker-comment, I swear!) but it never actually clicked that English wouldn't be your native language. I certainly can't tell in here!

"Bottom line: I have to think in English when I write. Danish has another feel and rhythm, so if I simply translate my thoughts into English, something invariably turns out clumsy or clunky..."

This says SO MUCH, not only about writing outside your native tongue, but writing ITSELF. There is always a rhythm, and if that rhythm falters or feels false, it effects the whole thing.
jakobdrud
Oct. 2nd, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
Well, I've been reading books in English for the past 20 years and writing a lot for the past 12, so I've some routine to fall back on ;-) And don't be fooled, I usually post what I know I can write properly -- I won't be doing any posts in a Jamaican accent or pretend that I'm from Austin, Texas.

Finding the rythm in a story is very difficult, and I'm struggling with it in Danish just as I do in English. Rythm and tone have to match the story, but in a way they also determine what the story is. That's one thing I doubt I'll ever control in my writing, so I'll settle for learning along the way.
wordsrmylife
Oct. 2nd, 2010 01:36 am (UTC)
I spent a decade or more of my life immersed in German, to the point that I wrote a poem or two, which I shared with a poet I admired, who had once had a correspondence with Rilke in poetry (sonnets as I recall). She read my poems carefully, then gently suggested that I might want to write them in English, because while I had a poetic sense, I lacked "Sprachgefuehl." What she meant was exactly what you are describing, that sense of precision, which I have in English, but never quite acquired in German. On the other hand, having delved into a foreign language to the extent I did, I am much more conscious of the way I use English.
jakobdrud
Oct. 2nd, 2010 09:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks for dropping by :-) Sprachgehuehl is wonderful word for it.

And like you say, experience with other languages makes you more conscious of your native tongue. In my experience that's partly because we learn how differently other people say the same thing (because of gramatical differences or usage). And learning the complexities of a differen tongue also makes it clear just how complex our own languages are.
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