One of things that causes most confusion and chaos in my life is my nationality/ethnicity. You may know already that I’m half Polish, half Italian; and I married into a Chinese family. I have friends in Hungary, South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Peru… and other countries. Everyone wanted to read something I wrote, and I was always like “oh, but it’s in Polish”. In November 2017 I made a brave choice to turn into an international writer – and write in English.
But even though I’ve been learning this for like 18 years, all editors I’ve worked in, sweat over my work – and then, double the price. A reader said so about an edited story: “all sentences and words are used correctly, but this story feels like it was written in another language, and then translated.”
I try to think in English, but apparently my Polish way of thinking is affecting the way I construct sentences.
I can’t think of an example in English, but I’ll give you an example on how my Polish affects my Chinese. In Polish, we have the word “zaraz”. Zaraz can mean “right away” or “in a moment” – but a moment can last very long, depending on the situation. So zaraz can also be translated as “later” or “much later”.
In Chinese, a word that means “right away” would be 马上 mǎshàng. But mǎshàng means things happeing instantly – we can use it when we want to say “at once”, “staight away”, “immediately”. It can’t be used as “much later.”
Still, because I translated the Polish word “zaraz” into the Chinese word “mǎshàng”, I keep using mǎshàng in the wrong way. For example, my boss told me to do something. I wanted to reply that I will do it later and I said “mǎshàng”. A minute later he asked me: “why aren’t you doing it yet?”. This was when I realized I was making a mistake.
The same is happening when I am writing in English. I wondered whether I shouldn’t ask some English literature professor to give me extra lessons. I asked a trusted person if it was a good idea. She said:
“You’d have to live for 20 years in the UK or America. Just get a good editor. This Polish-English mix is something that makes your style unique.”
And you know what? I think it’s the best advice out there, if you are planning to write in another language. Just ask yourself if you truly feel confident enough in your language ability – here is a checklist:
- What sounds like a better option to me: writing in my mother language and have someone else translate, or writing in this language and have someone else edit my work?
- Have I ever tried writing in this language?
- Am I fully fluent with this language?
- Am I able to express complex thoughts with this language?
- Am I willing to spend time researching new words and synonyms?
- Am I ready to constantly learn this language to improve myself?
- Am I able to read works in this language, including classical, academic and formal writing?
- Do I want to commit to use this language every single day to become even better at it?
- How does the use of this language change my unique style?
- Am I satisfied with how my writing feels in the new language?
- Does this language liberate me as an author, or does it limit me?
Let’s stop for a moment on the last question.
We have already talked about the foreign language limiting us – mostly because of our imperfect language skills.
But, using a foreign language can liberate our minds and helps us write things that we wouldn’t have courage to write in our mother tongue. (Related article: Break your self-imposed limitations, not the writing principles)
From my experience as a polyglot, it always affects me more when somebody talks to me in Polish, rather than when they talk to me in any other language (no matter how well I speak it). Of course, I understand what other people are trying to say, but the emotional effect on my mind is much less than it would be as if they spoke in Polish.
What do we learn from that?
Well, if you have a taboo that you can’t write about in your mother tongue, a foreign language can really liberate you. I can’t write romantic scenes in Polish. I will stop after every sentence and wonder if it’s not too strong. In English, I don’t have this problem at all. This is because the English words don’t affect me as much.
Languages are an incredibly interesting topic, and a passion that I had to give up in order to dedicate my time to becoming a professional author.
I think that the choice of language in which we write is incredibly important, but at the end of the day, what matters is what we want to say, and not if we say it imperfectly.
* * *