Thinking in Translation: On the Perks and Pitfalls of Being Multilingual
The life of a non-native speaker has its perks and its challenges: how do you navigate your way through a language that isn’t your own? What pitfalls should you expect? Is there a way to fit in? In this post, two logophiles with different backgrounds talk about their experiences as they’ve worked to find their way around the winds and bends of the linguistic maze.
“Perhaps the language barrier so often spoken of is not a barrier at all...”
Marie, German native speaker, MLitt student of Creative Writing in Dundee
The first memory I have of coming into touch with other languages was during my many travels through Europe with my parents. Having grown up monolingually, other languages were mysteries to me, enigmatic codes of unknown origin and with incomprehensible rules. I was fascinated, but was too young to have any real grasp on what it even meant to learn another language, let alone to think in one.
Growing up as part of the largest community of native speakers in the European Union, speaking English was not a big deal to anybody when I was young. These days, the kids are sent to bilingual kindergarten before they can hold a fork, but back then English was only obligatory from late primary school on, and I did not start having English as a subject in school until I was nine or ten years old. These days, the consensus is that that is actually quite late to start with foreign language acquisition, which may have been the reason why I struggled a lot as the lessons grew harder and more grammar-oriented. I had a true crisis with the English language in middle school: I would have quit if it hadn’t been mandatory.
I am grateful it was: It took many years to foster my affection toward the English language, and today nobody loves it more than I do. People who don’t speak English fluently often hold the stereotypical opinion that it is a simple language: far from it. My native language has a much more complicated grammatical system which makes it more precise than other languages, but when it comes to idiomatic intricacy and flexibility, German does not hold a candle to English. This called for a change in the way I handled language, and it brought new perspectives with it.
As a teenager growing up when the Internet was not yet part of everyday life, I found English empowering: I understood the lyrics to my music, I had access to what people said outside the enclosure of my native language, and I could talk to people from all across the world about the things that mattered to me. From this I’ve learned that each language you learn uncovers previously unknown horizons.
How do your experiences compare to mine, Anna?
Anna, Dutch native speaker, MLitt student of Religion and Literature in Glasgow
It never fails to amaze me how our experiences with language are bound by our social and cultural environment. Clearly you have walked a rocky road in your journey to mastering the English language, and it strikes me how just across the border the situation is completely different. Growing up in the Netherlands, English is a language that can easily set itself in your life without having to force its way in through deterrent grammar lessons. I suppose that the source of our differences in our experience lies not in English, but in our native languages. You mentioned that the comfort of being a member of a large language group led most Germans you grew up with to isolate themselves from other languages; with only about twenty-five million Dutch speakers worldwide, I suppose we do not feel like we can afford such an attitude. Wherever we go – and we’ve always travelled a lot, whether to colonise or to get sunburned on an exotic beach – we feel compelled to adapt to other languages. Nearly all children in the Netherlands are taught English, German and French to varying degrees, and while we increasingly experience difficulty with the latter two languages, it has become quite a shameful thing for young people not to speak English fluently. From an early age Dutch children are surrounded by English as movies, TV series and videogames are hardly ever available with subtitles. To be honest, this is not entirely unrelated to our passion for illegal downloading and streaming – I have to admit our reputation as cheapskates is not completely a product of the imagination.
I have to say I admire how you turned around your attitude towards the English language. I have always enjoyed English as it was something that became so effortlessly a part of me, and I never fully developed the same friendly relationship with languages like German and French no matter my improvements – they have always remained foreign to me, and whenever confronted with them I’ve never truly felt at ease. For you to now daily express yourself creatively in a language you had to fight so hard to acquire is truly impressive.
Thanks, but believe me, it wasn’t always easy. When I first spent a summer holiday on my own in an English-speaking country, I was very uncomfortable. It didn’t hit me until the plane touched down on Canadian ground that I had entered a zone of linguistic no-returning, where I couldn’t, other than in school, raise my hand to ask, “How do you say [insert German word] in English?” – and I couldn’t very well look up everything in the dictionary. I was scared, but it was too late. I had the time of my life that summer, but I believe everyone who first steps out of the comfort zone of their native tongue will feel similar. It’s always worth it though, because after that, the ice was broken. And I do feel like in some aspects, having had to learn a language as a non-native speaker has its advantages too.
What do you mean? I often feel like being a non-native speaker inherently puts you in a position of insecurity, especially when surrounded by native speakers. My mistakes will be more easily noted by them than I can recognise theirs; no matter how comfortable you become in a certain language, you will never acquire the confidence of a native speaker, because there’s always that nagging feeling they might have an understanding of their language that you have somehow missed.
I see things differently. There is nothing contradictory about being more comfortable in a language other than your native one as soon as you realise that none of us came out of the womb speaking anything. We all have to find our way with or around words. Think about this: Some people never pick up a book, whether in their own language or any other; many don’t like to travel and don’t care what lies beyond their garden fence. That’s fine, everybody has their preferences, and my second language happens to be mine.
People ask me why and how I write in something other than my first language. They can conceive how you could speak a different language, but producing literature in something other than your mother tongue seems odd to them. I feel like in conversations like this, I can never quite convey what I feel when it comes to English without using a painfully hackneyed metaphor: English is the language of my heart. It comes more naturally to me, and it is my chosen way of expression when writing creatively. It’s no more an effort or a struggle than it would be in German; in fact, it is less. This is something deeply personal and others are bound to be puzzled by it, but I don’t question it any more. I feel lucky to have several languages at my disposal and I am privileged to be able to pick which one I wish to talk and work in. When I started my University course, people used to tell me how “brave” they found it to be studying my subject in a different language. It has nothing to do with bravery, and I would very much prefer to be treated the same as a native speaker when it comes to my work – which is also why I like the fact that my poetry, on the page, stands by itself, accentless and free of any prejudice, whether good or bad. Sometimes I feel the need to walk around with a sign saying “being non-native is no disadvantage”, but I’ll hold off until something more catchy comes to mind. I still perform my works, but I always feel like there is an element of estrangement in my listeners, something that throws them off when they hear my lilt. Perhaps I have just become paranoid over the years, though.
Either way, you have not let that paranoia take control over you though, and I suppose that’s what learning new languages is all about. Even though it’s scary at times, to throw yourself into the deep end, the reward of getting access to a whole new world definitely makes it right. In the end, perhaps the language barrier so often spoken of is not a barrier at all, but merely a curtain waiting to be opened.
About Marie-Bernadette Rollins: Originally from Germany, Rollins went to live and work in Canada for two years after graduating high school. Having always been a lover of the spoken and written word, she completed an undergraduate degree in Literary Criticism and Philosophy and is currently finishing her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Published poet and author of numerous articles, Rollins draws inspiration from personal encounters during her extensive travels. Privately, she is easily made happy by sunny days and good company; she will also go a long way for a delicious meal and a great tattoo parlour.
About Anna Bruins: Anna Bruins is one of our interns working on the Think In Translation project. She was born and raised in the Netherlands, where she – after an interval in Seoul for her studies – graduated from Tilburg University with a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree in 2017. She is currently doing a postgraduate degree in Religion, Literature and Culture at the University of Glasgow. Her love of language was partially instilled into her by her education in a variety of languages, although her current fascination for non-Latin scripts is mostly due to her grapheme-colour synaesthesia. She has an existential fear of cracking joints and the colour spring green.
About Think in Translation: It's only natural that different languages produce different cultures: the words we use affect the way we think and the way we live. That's why reading books in translation opens your mind. We created Think in Translation to encourage people to read books in translation by making them more accessible – to remind readers that translated literature is available to everyone, and not reserved for specialised audiences. Through podcast episodes and blog posts we're exploring translation from various angles. Use #ThinkInTranslation on social media to join in the conversation.