Writing In English When It’s Not Your Native Language

On today’s episode of the podcast I address a question from a listener about tackling the difficulties of writing in your non-native language. Listen in, or if you prefer, read below.

I received an email from a listener who is struggling to move forward with her work in progress. Part of the reason for this is that English is not her native language. “Just the idea of me writing a book feels laughable, like a huge cosmic joke.” However, she states, “I mainly only read in English, therefore it feels natural to daydream and put words on paper in that language.”

While this has never been an issue for me – I am, sadly, a monolingual Midwesterner – I can empathize with the struggle of writing – not to mention publishing – being compounded by the problem of not creating in your native language. It’s an interesting question, and one I took to Twitter for some answers.

But first, I want to add that the idea of you – or anyone else – writing a novel is not laughable. The drive is within you, therefore it is a real possibility. Also, the fact that you are naturally daydreaming in English and bringing words to paper in that language is a good sign. The current state of publishing in the United States does for the most part require that your manuscript be in English.

Now, for some more specific advice, I’ll take you to some of the responses that came from bi-lingual authors on Twitter, as well as a translator.

A native French speaker who prefers to read fantasy and SciFi in English and therefore – as noted by my listener as well – chooses to write in that same language. A German speaker on Twitter agreed, saying, “short stories are fine, but my attempt to write an English novel turned out to be quite hard. The language is missing a variety and a certain deepness. Also, progress is much slower than usual.” He adds that the specific struggles when writing in his non-native language are “word order, common expressions to native speakers, and odd rhythm from your own language.”

The French writer adds, “my grammatical writing is much better in French, but the English language is more malleable.” Adding, “also, the audience is larger in English. Odds are, if one can write a good book in English that the book will reach a wider audience than in French.”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Books in English are going to reach a wider audience, and – if you’re trying to publish in the United States – many agents only accept manuscripts in English.

Which brought me to the question of translation. Can a writer go the route of writing in their original language, and have it translated before attempting publication? Or, is too much of the original nuance, voice, and meaning lost in that move?

Janet Sumner Johnson, a MG author and translator addressed this saying, “I do my best to maintain voice when I translate, but inevitably, some of that is lost, and some of my voice seeps in.” She adds, “if you can reasonably hack the English, I would go that direction.”

The French writer adds, “Nuances and choice of words are lost during translation.”

Through the course of this conversation on Twitter, YA author and native Russian speaker Katya de Becerra shared with me an article she wrote for YA Interrobang titled, “How Do Bilingual Authors Choose to Write Their Stories?” which I will be quoting from below and linking to in the episode credits.

Katya says, “Every aspect of my writing is influenced by my bilingualism; the way I structure sentences, how I describe things, metaphors I’m more likely to use, etc. Even thematically, in my novel What the Woods Keep the theme of a lost / forgotten language emerged as a sub-theme of its own, and totally unexpected.”

Katya continues in her article, noting a “deep seated worry that I’d somehow be “outed” as a fraud, once agents and publishers discovered that English wasn’t my first language. While this didn’t happen, my editors did comment on my at times unusual uses of language—things like sentence structuring or odd adjective choices—which made me wonder for the first time exactly how my bilingualism influenced my process.”

Katya brought this question to her fellow bilingual and multi-lingual 2018 debuts, among them Kristina Perez, author of Sweet Black Waves who grew up speaking three languages and as an adult added another six. Kristina says, “I also imbue my characters with own experience of switching between languages and how that affects their personalities and relationships. We articulate our identities through language and as languages change, so do we.”

Kelly Yang, author of Front Desk, is an English – Chinese speaker who states in Katya’s article that, “One of the things I struggled with as a bilingual writer is this fear that I may not be as good in either language. I wrote Front Desk to try to dispel this fear. I hope that when bilingual kids see more examples of writers making it in their adopted language that they’ll feel empowered to embrace their bilingualism and not be ashamed of it, because to know more languages is a beautiful thing!”

I hope these perspectives help lend some confidence to my bi-lingual listeners. Check out Katya de Becerra’s article How Do Bilingual Authors Choose to Write Their Stories? On YA Interrobang for more quotes and advice from authors writing in their non-native language.

As always, if you have a suggestion for something you’d like me to address dealing with writing, publishing, or questions for me in general – feel free to ask! Email me at Mindy@MindyMcGinnis.com or ask me on Twitter!

One thought on “Writing In English When It’s Not Your Native Language

  1. Great podcast, Mindy! I have one other thought I want to express about this . . . I think there is a certain voice that comes from writing in your non-native (yet fluent) language. True, you don’t write like a native speaker would, but in fiction, I think there is room for that.

    Speaking is not the same as writing, but when I lived in a French-speaking country, I was always astonished how many people would comment on how they loved listening to me speak. To me, I was killing the language, but those very shortcomings I despised were what drew them in. There is certainly a balance, and it can be tedious to hit it, but I do think you can use your difference in language to your advantage.

    Best wishes to all of you!

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