Casting Aside your Morals

When I tell the French people I meet that I’m a writer, they often ask if I write in French.

‘No way,’ I say.

‘Why not?’ they ask. ‘You’re pretty much bilingual.’

That ‘pretty much’ is what has always stopped me. How can I possibly nuance my language, weave a subtext, hook the exact word I’m fishing for from the little pond of French I possess? Come on: it’s difficult enough to do this in my native English.


Me (copyright Christine West)

I have tried. A few years ago a literary friend invited me to her French creative writing workshop. When I eventually summed up my courage and went along, I discovered that it was a surprisingly stimulating experience.

Knowing I couldn’t expect any elegance from the French corner of my mind, I felt more liberated than in English workshops. My creations were basic but the ideas, associations and images flowed easily and naturally. By letting go of my language expectations I was able to focus more fully on the narrative.

Much as I enjoyed the other participants’ poetic prose, though, I was unable to write a satisfactory piece in French.

So I was intrigued to see the title ‘Why Write in a Different Language?’ featuring as one of the discussions at the European Literature festival in Cognac last November. I hurried along to listen to the panel of authors, who all write in non-native languages.

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

There were two Slovak authors, Jana Benova (has written in Czech) and Irena Brezna (writes in German); a Czech writer, Lenka Hornakova-Civade (French); and the Russian writer Vladimir Vertlib (German). It turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking themes of the festival, and one that remains with me three months later.

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (coline-sentenac)

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (photo Coline Sentenac)

Lenka argued that your native language is one of emotion. In your mother tongue, the emotion surges out and grips you as you write. Writing in a different language, however, gives you the distance you need for the surgical precision of the job.

Jana Beňová (Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana Beňová (photo Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana agreed that when writing, you’re searching for the clearest way of communicating, and suggested that this distance can also be achieved in terms of letting time pass or writing in a different location.

Vladimir talked about dogs: when he says his native Russian word for ‘dog’, he can smell and feel the animal. But when he says the word in German, there is a space between the word and the feeling. This made me think how feeble the French swear words sound to me, compared to the strength of English ones. Now I know why.

Irena Brezna & Lenka

Irena Brezna & Lenka

There’s also a freedom in writing in a different language, according to Irena. She’s sometimes horrified when she reads her German work once it’s translated into her native Slovak: not because of bad translation, but because she’s shocked to think she could have written those things. The distance she felt when writing in German is lacking when she reads her translated words in her native language.

Jana confirmed this and quoted the results of an interesting study. Apparently, when you use your mother tongue you respect your morals, whereas you morally let go of yourself in a foreign language.

You have been warned, Ex-pats. No casting aside of your morals here, please.

The panel also explored the difference between translating into a different language and writing in that language.

At the time of the Cognac festival, Lenka was in the process of translating a French work into her native Czech. She pointed out that when translating you must respect what is written rather than interpreting the author’s intention. The result of her translation, both in terms of sonority and meaning, didn’t resemble what she would have written in Czech.

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir put himself firmly on the writer side of the fence for this very reason, admitting that he would be tempted to rewrite rather than translate.

He brought the discussion back to the freedom of a non-native language, saying that you actually re-invent a language when you adopt it: you create your own nuances that enrich your use of it.

Lenka suggested this is because you don’t have the codes you learn from growing up in a language. And Irena added that German readers have told her that her use of German is more beautiful than native German.

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

I particularly liked Jana’s reference to Samuel Beckett – an Irish writer who lived in France and wrote in French. He apparently said that he knew English too well to write in this language.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, I will know English so well that I’ll be able to write in French! Though with over a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, there’s still a way to go.

And, to be honest, I like writing in English. I like the way it keeps me in touch with my origins.

If you’d like to read more about other writers who write in non-native languages, there’s an article on the Telegraph website here

(Photos courtesy of Littératures Européennes and Lycée Jean Monnet’s photography club)

16 thoughts on “Casting Aside your Morals

  1. nessafrance

    Interesting post, Harriet. My French is not bad after 20 years here and I get asked the same question as you. Mostly it’s, “Is your book translated into French?” “No.” “Well, you could do it, couldn’t you?” “No.” – for similar reasons to yours. Actually, we have a French lady in our writing group who writes in English and I am always astonished at her apposite choice of words. Writing in our own language, we probably get a bit sloppy, whereas writing in another tongue forces you to be more precise. I still think I’ll stick with English, though…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sue Ranscht

    This is an approach I’ve never given any thought to, but then the Latin I could read and write in high school, and the German I could read and write in college no longer seem to occupy an accessible portion of my brain. On top of that, apparently I’m a hopeless American when it comes to foreign languages.

    However, recent experience shows me the effects you’ve summarized can be achieved in at least one other way — by writing in a voice so foreign to my own that I let go of both my approach to word choice AND my morals, and the persona I’m writing through adopts its own. There is a space between myself and the words, just as Vladimir described. I have described the experience as “freeing”.

    Maybe I’m not such a hopeless American after all. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. curtisbausse

    Great post there, Harriet. My own attempts at writing in French have been quite abysmal, but who knows – I may have another go one day. For Beckett it was certainly liberating – why not for us?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A fascinating idea and concept, to just let go and write with that detached distance, I do like how French can open up and expand our experience of English vocabulary, but I don’t know that I’d be brave to venture into anything more than the necessary letters one has to write occasionally!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sally

    I know from my own experience that it is easier to swear in other languages, and to get in trouble for it. When I read authors like Garcia Marquez my mind boggles at being able to translate what they write because it is half poetry. Being able to write in another language … I can’t imagine. Very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Diane Oui In France

    Really interesting and what you said about having an emotional distance from the foreign language. It is really true now that you have me thinking about it. Writing in French for me is more like surgical precision and making sure the message is communicated clearly. I’ve never done any type of creative writing in French and it intimidates me!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Margo Lestz

    What an interesting idea. My native language is English and I have written a bit in French – mostly poetry. I did enjoy it, but always felt self-conscious about it. When I write in English I feel more free and feel that I can express the subtleties of the language. Sounds like a fascinating session that you attended.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Phoebe | Lou Messugo

    I too have sometimes been asked why I don’t write in French as I’m “pretty much” bilingual and I totally get you about that pesky “pretty much”. It’s interesting to hear about these authors who prefer the precision of a foreign language, but I prefer to be able to “smell and feel” unlike Vladimir who prefers to distance himself. Luckily for us as readers though there are people who try out all different styles and ways of writing. Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person


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