Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Colours of Language

I like to think words have personalities. They're more than a bunch of letters stuck together. They mean something, and behind that meaning there is a connotation. The same is true for sentences and paragraphs. The way we put them together has a certain vibe to it, a personality. It's that little thing we call voice.

But beyond that, on an even deeper level than words and sentences, I believe every language has a personality. When you speak it, you can see it from the expressions, from the vocabulary, from the sentence structures... but even if you can't understand a word of it, the language vehiculates a special vibe.

Compare italian and german for a moment. One is lyrical, full of vowels and intonations. The other is harder, straightforward, with a lot of sharp sounds.*

The language you write in brings a particular colour to the story you are telling. This is why translations can never best the original. You cannot capture one language's soul with another. You can try, and translators do an incredible job at it sometimes, but it will never have the original text's flow. It cannot.

I believe that is a beautiful thing. It does, however, raise a question: what language should I write my stories in?

I am fluent enough in English that I believe I can write a publishable novel in it. But is this wise? Would some of these stories be better served by French? Can I afford to play both markets? (probably not)

Most of the time I do not even ask myself such questions. The story came to me in English, right? That's enough to make the decision. Edingher, however... for some reason, Edingher was created alternating between French and English, and I wonder if French would not fit it better. I decided to focus on the other novel until I'd reached my decision, but there's something deeply disturbing to wondering if you're in the right language at all. It feels as though I did not know my story at all, and it does not sit well with me.

This is something I have been struggling with for three years now. I'm not sure it will ever go away.

*For the record, I love both german and italian.


  1. It's good to know multiple languages well enough to have this issue. I will never improve my Russian enough to get there!

  2. What a brilliant post about an issue that only those of you who have mastered more than one language can address. My own struggles to learn French tell me that I'll never have these choices but oh how I wish I did.

    Cheers --- Larry

  3. I ended up writing bits of my WIP in Gaelic initially (particularly dialogue between Gaelic-speaking characters), then translating it into English. As much as I'd love to write in Gaelic (it has a wonderful capacity for description!), there's not really a market. :-/

  4. Ted, Larry: Believe me, I know how lucky I am to have these issues. Sometimes it occurs to me that compared to French, though, I have a long way to go still in English, and that brings its own load of self doubts.

    SB: Gaelic, really? That sounds awesome. ^^ Gaelic is (another) one of those languages I wish I could speak.

  5. I'm studying abroad and took a creative writing class in Spanish, which is a second language for me. I wrote 10 stories directly in Spanish (I'm fluent enough that I really thought them in Spanish, and with the help of my tutor you could hardly tell they were written by a foreigner). Now I'm translating some of those stories back into English, to look at getting them critiqued and sending them off to ezines... and it's a really weird experience. I know that in some ways I'm lucky because English is my first language and obviously there's a bigger market for that, but I love the way some things sound in Spanish so much more.

    The experience of translating yourself is also just really strange. I keep finding passages I wrote in Spanish which I can't phrase properly in English without losing something! I definitely agree that each language has its own personality.

  6. About translating yourself: That's exactly what I mean, Katelyn! Sometimes it becomes very difficult to get the same point across when you translate a text.