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As I've mentioned before, the words I use for telling stories are foreign. English isn't my first language, and that presents me with various problems but fortunately also a lot of possibilities.

1) A Free Ride to Science Fiction Land  

Science fiction and fantasy are genres of Otherness. The genres share with us the possibilities of what could and might be, of what can be invented, and of what can only be brought to life within the boundaries of human imagination. And whenever we enter a world of the Future or the Fey, good consistent worldbuilding is helped along when we experience the world through the eyes of the characters living in that world.

The characters need what I think of as their own worldview and a social context – a way to be in dialogue with their world. The way they relate or react unconsciously to other people says all about their culture, as do their reactions to phenomena like demons, warp drives, and dilating doors. Basically, the existence of different everyday items and events will convey a sense of Otherness. If characters only had to react to TV, grocery shopping and dull day jobs, that Otherness would be lost.

And this is where I'm so very fortunate: Whenever I venture into English, I leave my earthbound Danish world behind and go into territory that – albeit not unfamiliar – isn't quite Kansas anymore. You could say I am translated into another world as I sit down to write. And this is important, since language is one the keys to giving Future&Fey their specific taste or flavor. The words and phrases and the characters' tone of voice all have the power to convey Otherness.

By writing in English, I avoid the pitfall of writing milquetoast stories, since my vocabulary is automatically switched from 'default' to 'different'. Of course, I may fall flat on my face because I write drab English, but I find that this happens less often because I already have my mind set to a different world.

2) A Free Ride on the Shoulders of Giants

In a recent interview with the Guardian, SF writer Iain M. Banks said:

"Science fiction can never be a closed shop where only those already steeped in its culture are allowed to practise, but, as with most subjects, if you're going to enter the dialogue it does help to know at least a little of what you're talking about, and it also helps, by implication, not to dismiss everything that's gone before as not worth bothering with because, well, it's just Skiffy and the poor benighted wretches have never been exposed to a talent the like of mine before . . ."

(This is an interesting interview - you could do worse than click on over to it :-) )

'To enter the dialogue', as Banks puts it, is more than the simple matter of knowing the tropes and traditions of science fiction – especially for a foreign writer like me. It's also a matter of knowing the language that helped form the tropes. In that respect there's no doubt that science fiction is an English phenomenon. Warp drives, stargates, implants, comm units, AIs, lightsabers, galactic empires, moon bases, satellites, and dilating doors were all conceived in English. Even robot--originally a Czech word--was absorbed into the SF genre and spread to the world through English stories to a degree that make them more English than Czech.

To use these tropes and phenomena in my native tongue would be awkward because there's a tradition behind them that gives additional meaning to the words – connotations that are missing in Danish, because the context of the words either don't exist here or were introduced along with the word. For instance, 'warp drive' makes sense in English because of the inherent contents of the two words – "a drive [engine, propulsion unit] that warps [bends or twists] space". A similar concept was never developed in Danish, so instead of calling it a Space Folding Engine, we simply use 'warp drive'.

So you can say that writing in English saves me a lot of time, because I don't have to invent new Danish terms for the science fictional concepts that already exist. But much more importantly, English offers up those concepts for free, and by learning the right words and their background, I can enter into a dialogue with the genre I write in and love.

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


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC)
Jakob, jakob, jakob--I am alternately envious and impressed--mostly impressed. First of all, I had no idea English wasn't your primary language. I mean, I knew where you live and that you speak Danish, but I could never tell by your writing that English wasn't your first language. Amazing, and yet--now that you point it out, I can feel that OTHERNESS you write about.

How cool, and how very wonderful. Thank you for this. I'm boosting this on my blog.
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the kind words, Terri! You get that otherness going very well in Finder, right from the Pooni eyes Ethen roll at the beginning. So I guess knowing English first hand isn't exactly a ball-and-chain when writing :-)
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
Wow, thanks, Jakob!
Jun. 1st, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
Writing in another language
User bogwitch64 referenced to your post from Writing in another language saying: [...]   wrote an insightful (and quite astonishing) post about writing in a language [...]
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
Flawless is not what I'd call it, but I do edit a lot :-)

You're absolutely right that non-English writers contribute some very interesting stories to the SF world. I vividly remember reading Portuguese Jose Saramago's "Blindness", which is a kind of apocalyptic science fiction, but which has quite a different aim and story than many other stories of the same kind. He clearly brought his own knowledge and background into that story, and I suppose he created his own dialogue with the genre that way.

In some ways we all bring our special worldview to the table, at least if we're talking about writing something 'new'. I guess my viewpoints just happen to be quite influenced by all the American and English science fiction I've read.
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jakob :)
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jon :-)
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post.

I admire people who can write fiction in a foreign language. I´ve published a lot of articles in Portuguese, but I´m still not competent in fiction. It´s tough.
Jun. 2nd, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
Thanks, Christopher. I didn't get to write English overnight, but in the last couple of years I've found that it's at least possible to do so. These days I'm having more difficulties with the how-to of writing smashing good stories, regardless of language. I don't think it's that's a discipline I'll ever stop learning about.
Jun. 2nd, 2011 12:44 am (UTC)
It's great to find someone that is also doing this crazy thing of writing in another language. Although I'm just starting to read about you is encouraging!
I am a mix of mexican and spanish so in my fiction I guess I use a lot of that magical realism of latin america and that strong literature of Spain. Or I hope I can do it!
Jun. 2nd, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
Excuse me while I answer this with something of a platitude: "If I can do it, so can you." And I'm sure you can :-)

I find there's no magic trick to learning another language, just a lot of work. It has helped me immensely that I'm doing something I really, really love. So though it's crazy, and it doesn't make economic sense, I totally dig why you're doing it :-)

I love your userpic, btw :-)
Jun. 2nd, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
Yes, is a craziness that we want to keep and in a way is worth all the work because it feels great!
Thank you for the encouragement!:)
Jun. 2nd, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
Anabel --

Latin American literature is a wonderful foundation for fantasy writing. Actually, for any fiction writing.

Do you have certain authors that have influenced you more than others? I find that Borges, Benedetti and Giocanda Belli have inspired certain aspects of my own work. All of them are amazing.

I know less about the literature of Spain, but would like to learn more...
Jun. 2nd, 2011 01:40 pm (UTC)
For me Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel are a great inspiration. From Spain it has to be Antonio Gala he is a master with words.

Jun. 2nd, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, Allende and Esquivel are wonderful. I will have to look into Antonio Gala.
Jun. 2nd, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
Very intersesting commentary. I may just try to write a story in Spanish now...
Jun. 3rd, 2011 07:11 am (UTC)
Thanks! Always happy to inspire others :-)

Spanish is something I've never gotten around to learning, so I'm impressed when someone even tries :-) How long have you been reading Spanish, and have you traveled much in Spain or South America?
Jun. 3rd, 2011 09:45 am (UTC)
I started studying Spanish in 1990; as a graduate student I did a lot of field work in Central America. After grad school, I got a job based in Costa Rica and lived there for about 10 years. Places I've visited include Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela & Peru; so yeah, I guess I've been around. :)

I just moved back to the States about 4 years ago. I miss Latin America sometimes, but it's nice to be home too.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 02:25 pm (UTC)
Wow, that sounds like an exciting life (depending on what you were doing in South America, of course :-) ). Without knowing anything about that continent, I'm guessing you must have some stories in you from that time that are better told in Spanish.

Good luck writing them if you set out to do so :-)
Jun. 4th, 2011 08:28 am (UTC)
Interesting posts about writing – w/e June 3rd 2011
User jongibbs referenced to your post from Interesting posts about writing – w/e June 3rd 2011 saying: [...] (Narasu Rebbapragada) by way of Donna Brennan Writing in a Foreign Language, Part II: Possibilities [...]
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