1. bibliolept
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    bibliolept Member

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    Bilingual Writers

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by bibliolept, Apr 25, 2012.

    English isn't my first language and I'm not from America or England, but it is the language that I choose to write in. I'm not proud of the fact that I have a better grasp of the English language than the Cebuano dialect. From kindergarten to college, English is formally taught and is the mode of instruction. Cebuano is hardly, if ever, taught at all. I blame the government :)P).

    Anyway, bilingual writers who write in English, when I try to write about my country and my culture, things will get lost in translation. There are certain words that describe certain traditions and sentiments that don't have an English equivalent, so I just use the word for it in my language. But then again, I usually write with a bilingual audience who can relate to the culture I'm writing about in mind. So what do you do when you're writing with an English-speaking audience or a different culture in mind?

    I usually do something like...

    "They took the lechon* and ran."

    And at the end of the story add notes like

    *lechon - roasted suckling pig, skewered on a large stick

    What about you?
     
  2. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think footnotes can work well in such cases.
     
  3. bibliolept
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    bibliolept Member

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    A lot of bilingual writers also think that writing in English takes away from the piece, like it just feels different when you say something in say Tagalog and when you say it in English. Thoughts?
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I am bilingual myself, but I've been living in English speaking countries for a long time.
    In this example you gave, I would make sure I describe such a term if at all possible. For example, spare a couple of lines to the pov character imagining the lechon roasting. Use the word "suckling pig" as well and the word "lechon" so that the reader gets a vivid picture as well as learns something about your language and culture. Do it once and after that, you can keep referring to it as "lechon" and reader will know.

    I find this to be a much more sensitive and interesting way of weaving the reality of a different culture into a novel. Footnotes are good, but usually distance the reader, usually, it reads like an English-speaker is investigating a decidedly foreign culture, so everything is seen through the eyes of a foreigner and descriptions that could bridge this gap get demoted to footnotes.

    Re your second question, I agree, once one is fully proficient in both languages, the writing sounds different. Sometimes it is because the writer is more comfortable with one language, sometimes it has to do with experiences. For example, my writings in my mother tongue are more tongue-in-cheek, youthful, with cultural references and slang appropriate to the place I grew up in. My English is a lot more precise and technical but also more versatile and less bound to a specific culture or time. I worried before I moved into writing fiction purely in English, but after a while I gained confidence, especially as the people who read my stuff gave me positive feedback, especially about how they keep forgetting English is not my first language.
    So yes, they are different, and it takes a long time and insane amounts of practice, but it the end it is possible for a non-native English speaker to write excellent prose in English, perhaps even better than in their mother tongue.
     
  5. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    Fabulous advice. I've seen something similar done in several books I've read.
     
  6. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think sometimes it's fine to keep the reader in the dark, a little. These little foreign terms are the very things that make the culture you're trying to describe so vivid and real.

    However I'd be careful - use these terms when the reader can usually work it out by context of the situation.

    So if a child breaks his mother's favourite antique case, and his mum boxed his ears - even without being a native speaker, you can probably at least guess at what just happened.

    Or, every child enjoys mochi at their New Year picnic - without knowing what mochi is, at least you'll have guessed it's probably sweet and definitely a food of some kind (I don't know Japanese festivals quite well enough to tell you when they traditionally eat mochi, but suffice to say it's a common snack either way)

    Or, it's the 1st May but it seems like, while everyone else had a partner to kiss under a chestnut tree, she was left without. You'll probably have guessed that on the 1st May it's meant to be a romantic occasion.

    Or, Tom and Jerry sat in a coffee house in Prague. The waitress came over and asked, "Neco piti?" And Tom replies, "Kavu, prosim." A moment later the waitress brought him a cup of espresso.

    You've probably worked out "Neco piti" means "Something to drink?" - or something on those lines, without any need for me to translate.
     
  7. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^ That kinda thing would make me go on google to look it up, frankly. Not a bad thing necessarily.

    I'm reading some Rabelais at the moment, where there are lots of footnotes and lots of speech in Latin, Greek, German, Hebrew etc etc., as well as explanatory notes on customs of the time and so on. It works very nicely. I don't find it distracting.
     
  8. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I sometimes use Turkish words, but as sparingly as possible and always make sure the meaning is clear,
    e.g.
    The doorbell rang.
    'Kim o?' Maggie shouted into the door intercom, but there was no answer.
    'Who was that?' Kevin said when she returned to the sitting room.
    'Dunno--I asked who was there but he didn't answer.'

    I would never, ever, use footnotes in a work of fiction. Neither would I use two terms interchangably, like "suckling pig" and "lechon". I would first establish what "lechon" meant, and then continue, calling the dish by that name.
    e.g.
    We watched the suckling pig turning on the spit.
    'Looks good,' I said.
    'They call it "lechon" here--it's delicious. Shall we get some?'
    The lechon was every bit as tasty as he promised.

    If you are writing in English, and hope to be published, it would be wrong of you to assume that every person reading your work has the same cultural background as you.
     
  9. Ventis
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    Ventis Member

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    English is not my first language. It's only third, in fact - I'm bilingual Slovak/Croatian, English I only studied in school. After more than a year of writing in English, it's still difficult for me. My readers tell me that it sounds natural and that they wouldn't guess it's not my first language. Of course it's great to hear that. But when I compare it, my original stories in my own languages are much more lyrical and have better rhythm. Both things are important for me in my writing, and it frustrates me quite a lot that I'm far from that level in English.

    As for foreign words in the text - that's not true only for bilingual writers. I can't speak Italian (yet), but one of my characters does, and he sometimes uses Italian word or a phrase. I always try to make it clear from the context, and so far nobody complained, so I guess they understood it. But such thing shouldn't be used often, and only when really necessary, or it will get tired and boring - well, at least it does to me. :)
     
  10. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ventis, your English looks pretty awesome. And I agree with you about not using the trick too much or it gets boring.
     
  11. thecoopertempleclause
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    thecoopertempleclause Contributing Member

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    I am a monolingual reader. Give me a footnote (can be at the back of the book if you like) and a context in which to read an unfamiliar word and I'll be fine.
     
  12. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've seen it work well -- Garrison Keilor's Lake Wobegon Days, for instance -- but not often.
     
  13. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I might write in english on here and speak it quite ok, but I write my novels in my own language, which is swedish so i can't call myself a bilingual writer. This is for two major reasons:
    1. I don't feel confident enough in my written (or spoken) english to write an entire novel. Forum posts is one thing, a novel is something completely different.
    2. There's no market for novels in other languages than swedish here. I don't know of any publisher who accepts mss in english or any other language, except from already published authors, as a translation. Plus to me it seems complicated trying to find an agent in a foreign country.

    Edit: I do make my characters say something in english or italian though, depending on the context.
     
  14. Cassiopeia Phoenix
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    Cassiopeia Phoenix Contributing Member

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    I am a bilingual writer just because some things seem better written in English than in Portuguese. There are also things that seem better in Portuguese than in English so I switch as I feel like, but I tend to keep a story with only one language so I don't have to translate anything.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Remember that Joseph Conrad was a great writer, and English was his third language (after Polish and French). He is regarded as one of the finest prose stylists in English, and he didn't even learn English until he was an adult.

    I know this doesn't directly answer your question; I'm just trying to offer encouragement.
     
  16. MVP
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    This is very true. A good example is Opera. There is a reason why a lot of it is in Italian, it flows beautifully. I'm told by my friends that come from countries where English is not the native, that English to them, sounds choppy at times and also like geese hissing.
     
  17. Frusciante
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    I love reading a novel that includes certain foreign terms and names. If the writer can implement it well then it enriches the prose and adds something that would otherwise be missed in context to the culture the story is taking place in. An example would be the use of aficion in The Sun Also Rises.
     
  18. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    To clarify: I personally would never use footnotes, and IMO footnotes are never attractive in a novel by a novice writer. I think a brilliant writer can manage to use them without alienating her reader, but in any case, a brilliant writer seldom needs them, so in fiction they are very rarely used. They tend to draw the reader out of the story in an irritating way (as does unexplained use of foreign words). Check out some good works. I bet you'd be hard put to find footnotes. (I'm not including Terry Pratchett's footnotes in this category because he lampoons footnotes for comic effect--he doesn't use them seriously.)
     
  19. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    On a positive note, I, as a non-native English speaker, find it very easy to avoid cliched phrases, which I believe is not easy for a native speaker-writer. When I am stuck with cliches I just have to fell back on how I would write them in my native language, and voila, I have a new and exciting way of writing them. Believe me many of the writers from my country, India, succeed in English writing because of the influence of their native language background. They master English and then they add their rich cultural and language backgrounds in their English writing to become "terrific" writers. Many even coined new words and contribute to the ever expanding dimensions of English. You blamed your government for teaching English and not your native language, and I thank my government for doing the same. Of course, you can never write like a native speaker-writer, but that's not a curse but a boon. I remember my online writing class where most of the students where native speakers. The teachers and the students alike agreed that I brought something unique to my writing, and as a result, to the class.
     

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