Foreign Languages in Literature

Recently, somebody complimented me for my English. That’s always a boost, but on the other hand, it would be a terrible idea to write in a language one doesn’t master. It gave me food for thought though. What makes any writer chose to write in a language different from his or her native tongue? For me, it was a matter of routine. I’d lived in England for several years and hardly spoke Danish with anybody. It felt natural for me to write in the language I used on a daily basis.

This is one of the issues that crop up unexpectedly when you go to live abroad. It comes slowly, the change. At first, you struggle to express the simplest thought. You have an issue with pronunciation and often feel embarrassed, when failing to convey what you want to say. You feel alienated. For me, it became an obsession to get it right. I ditched reading in any other language for a while. I practised enunciation — I found it particularly difficult to catch the difference e.g. between ‘s’ and ‘th’. It may sound strange to somebody who’s used English since they started talking. But imagine having to use a soft d or swallowing half a word, if you’re trying to pronounce Danish.

The differences don’t stop there. In every language, one must learn the idioms. Things you’d express in a certain way in one language wouldn’t make sense in another. There are loads of examples. Here I’ll resort to German: who but a German would understand the expression ‘Tomaten auf den Augen’ (‘tomatoes on the eyes’)? And it just means — you (or I) must be blind.

Should I mention that a lot of people know and speak more than one language? It is hardly a surprise in today’s multifarious society. We’re in the midst of another migration period, multiple languages abound, and you hear them on the street wherever you go. When I was a kid, living in Denmark, I hardly ever saw or heard anybody speaking anything but Danish. Hence, my first experience with foreign languages merely came out of a book. I found it lifeless and — boring. Especially because of the teaching methods.

Once I lived in London, over time, I found that I’d lost my roots in spoken Danish. I could still speak it, but I searched for words and often mixed in English words when I couldn’t think of the equivalent in Danish. It was frustrating, especially because English has words for everything. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my native tongue, just that it has dropped out of focus.

That was the situation when I decided to become serious about writing.

What strikes me now, is that it can be an advantage to know multiple languages. If the plot brings the protagonist to a foreign location, the benefit is that one can add local colour, using language. I don’t believe that only literary fiction can sport this feature: it’s easy to explain the meaning of a few German, Danish of French words in actions or subtexts. No need for foot-notes or fears about the readers’ language skills.



© HMH, 2018



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2 responses to “Foreign Languages in Literature”

  1. Lucinda E avatar
    Lucinda E

    I’m at the stage when I forget my first language 🙁

    1. Hanne H avatar
      Hanne H

      I’m still fighting and read my first language regularly to keep up. . .

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