Writing in Translation

Because I am devious I thought I would start with a misleading title. In my defense, it was inspired by a question commonly asked to writers who choose to write in another language than their mother tongue:

“Do you write in [insert language] in your head first then translate it on to the page?”

My intuition is that the vast majority of us don’t. When you write in your second, or third language, chances are you have been thinking in it for a while, which doesn’t mean impeccable sentences plop down on the page like you are shaking a New Yorker.

That said, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s a handicap or not, and I used to think so myself. I believed I would be condemned to perpetually second-guess my syntax and spelling, to have tenses and modes overlap at funny angles, while prepositional verbs would forever elude me. More importantly, I was worried I might never capture a language whose cultural legacy and innumerable subtleties I had not made mine growing up. After ten years, hyphenated words still make me vacillate (will they, won’t they?) and the way Americans denote dialogue still appears diabolically eccentric…all minor obstacles.           It turns out that, you can be spontaneous, even chummy with a language, when you have been in context, or should I say in character, long enough.

However, it is not merely a matter of writing as the Romans do, or playing cultural catch-up. I don’t aspire to seducing readers into thinking I could have grown up next door to them. Even though I strive to learn and improve my English every day, I don’t believe my success as a writer will be measured by how native I can sound.

Instead, I rather enjoy the fact that writing in a second, or third, language allows more freedom to create imagery that is not as tied up to traditional language experience and expectations. Of course it doesn’t work all the time and my first attempt at describing jumbled cables as “a doodle of wires” got a mixed reception.

To me, the real obstacle is finding an agreeable theme.

Foreign or displaced writers are often expected to write about their experience as migrants, a moving tale in which the forces of segregation and integration battle it out for your soul –and that of the country. I have read and liked a number of them. The genre will likely never grow stale and it keeps revealing new talents, but it is not what I write about. There is not much to say about my migrant experience, moved from one affluent country to another, part of a privileged group in both, some years in school, some at work. Sure I have been tempted to complain about having to watch Marion Cotillard single-handedly shoulder the burden of representing us in Hollywood, but then I remember Omar Sy in Jurassic Park IV (V?) and I shut up.

I don’t write migrant tales, but I often include visiting French characters or set the action back home, where everybody is French. This has obfuscated, if not downright vexed many fellow writers in critique groups I used to attend.

In one of my stories two office co-workers woke up one day to find out that their mother tongue, Malayalam for one, French for the other, suddenly had the power to compel people to do what was said. Since then, Kilgrave from Jessica Jones has given the practice a bad name, but at the time it was not an issue. Besides noteworthy structural problems, and a comically conspicuous absence of foreign words, the main grievance was that the piece was meant for a very restricted market: French and Malayalam speakers living in the US. It wasn’t the first time that my pieces had been found too foreign in scope. I was even asked if I meant them as drafts for something that I intended to submit for publication in France. I was younger and kept my mouth shut, but I thought, Dammit 5’7 American accountants do not pick up books that talk about the lives and interests of 5’7 American accountants, and what about science fiction, is it meant for future people or the Alpha-Centauri market? Aaaarhh

I seethed for a while but I have to admit they had a point. Americans do not read a whole lot of books in translation, where they are exposed to the lives of others unmediated by familiar filters or explanations, and the heroes in their own literature, tend to be, despite the variety of their circumstances, Americans.

Although I wrote a few pieces of Americana –alright one— that was well received, I am not at the stage where I can have my personal interests align with my best interest in terms of publishing. After all, I have lived two thirds of my life in a different country, a country that was not abroad to me, and it influences the topics I want to explore and the people I imagine. Now, if I looked a little harder at this choice, I might concede it is also a form of resistance to the preeminence of American stories and storytelling, their reach well-meaning but inexorable, destined  one day to make even my story an American one.

Until this happens, I will remain steadfast, like a macaron stuffed into an eagle’s mouth.


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