Writing in a Foreign Language

English isn’t my first language–and not so by a large margin. I started learning English at the beginning of high school, at 11 years or so, but that was school stuff: I didn’t really start practising it on a regular basis until I turned 16, and didn’t start writing in it until about 18.

Most of my daily life is in French: I speak French at work and at home, and about everywhere in between. The only English I get is from books, writing forums, and the occasional UK/US TV series.

And yet I write in English.

I could go on for a bit about the reasons I write in English (the main one being that SF and fantasy remain very much anglo-centred), but that’s not really the point of this post. What I wanted to talk about was what the experience of writing in a foreign language was like, and how it differed from writing in your native language.

Let’s start with the obvious one. I make mistakes. Grammar mistakes, usage mistakes, gallicisms, and probably a bunch of other egregious stuff that isn’t so easily caught.

The hardest one is usage. I used to have a dictionary by my computer (nowadays I’ve moved online to wordreference.com) to translate the words that came to me in French; and it sometimes happens that I have to check my OED for the precise usage, meaning or connotation of a word. Connotations are the ones giving me the most troubles: no matter how fluent I may be, I’ll never be a native English speaker, and some of the nuances of the language will be lost to me.

In particular, dialogue was the thing that gave me the most trouble for a long while–and is still, to some extent, problematic: as I’ve already said, I don’t speak English at home, and thinking of realistic things characters might say is much harder for me. In that respect, going to conventions has been an enormous help for me, because I get to speak English (ok, it’s writer-English, which brings an additional set of problems, but still).

But I still write in English, and for the most part I do it very smoothly. Having thought about this for a while, the main reason I’ve found is that over the years, I’ve succeeded in wholesale compartimentalisation.

See, when I became fluent in English, the first thing that happened was that I stopped mentally translating my thoughts from French into English: when I’m writing, speaking or reading English, I’m also thinking in English. That’s the path to fluency–but it also means that the hardest thing becomes not understanding or producing the necessary bits of English, but the act of mentally shifting between languages. Going from French to English or English to French is damn hard–it’s still the hardest thing that I get to do.

I frequently have people asking me for translations, and the first thing I do is ask for context. That’s not so I can access my mental dictionary and choose between two different translations of the same word. That’s because I don’t know the French equivalent for a given English word: all I know is the English definition of English words, and the French definition of French words. When you ask me to translate a given word from French to English, my mental process goes something like this: “ok, so this word has this French definition, which corresponds to this concept. This concept corresponds to this English definition, which is this word in English”.

Where does that leave me for writing? It means that I’ve separated the writing activities from the rest of my life, and that speculative fiction in general gets associated with English. I read SF and fantasy in English, which is where I pick up the vocabulary and the cool and nifty ideas; I do my research in English when I can, because translating words back and forth is tiring and makes my writing drag like a snail in molasses. And it also means that my writing habits (and indeed, my writing life), to a large degree, are “pre-registered” in English. It’s a sort of feedback loop between writing, editing, reading and discussing writing with other people. And that takes place in English.

Among other secondary effects, it does mean that I find it very hard to discuss SF in French. Which is weird, but there you go.

There are a number of positive sides to doing my writing in a foreign language that might not be obvious. Yes, there’s a painful and error-filled process involved, but it’s also immensely liberating. In many ways, my French is fixed–hammered into me by years of teachers trying to teach me correct grammar, and filled with the clichés I encounter in daily life (clichés being bad in writing, but amazingly practical for quick communication). I don’t have the same inhibitions at all with English: I feel much freer with the language, much more at liberty to take words and sentences and twist them until they bleed. That makes for much more interesting composition, and a point of view that’s not necessarily that of a native speaker: diversity, if nothing else.

There’s also what I would call the glamour of a foreign language: to me, English is musical, and even the simplest words can combine to form beautiful sentences–because what I hear is the mostly the language. In French, it’s a much more complicated relationship, because most words are loaded with associations and history from my personal experience, and all those connotations, which have much to do with me and little to do with the language, tend to get in the way of crafting language that sings.

Finally, there’s a side effect, which is mostly due to the fact that my first reader’s native language isn’t English either: when I brainstorm problems with the boyfriend, I do so in French. This is actually a godsend, because it forces me to take the problem, not only out of the context of the story, but also out of the context of the language. Both of those make for a radically different setting for the question–which is almost always illuminating.

At any rate, that’s my experience so far, the good and the bad. Here’s to the next few years.

(the basis for this was a question Mary Robinette Kowal asked me in her interview of me: if you want the short answer on writing in a foreign language, it’s up at her website)

Addendum: this was originally posted on my livejournal blog, and was followed by a very lively discussion among people who had experience writing in a foreign language or living in a foreign country. Read the thread here.

You can find more information about non-anglophone SF at the World SF blog.