Today I spent a good portion of my home-from-school bus ride thinking about the good and bad of language when it comes to writing. Whether it is an advantage or disadvantage to know more than one language.
I didn’t come to any conclusion. Readers’ comments are more than welcome.
In the Romantic and Victorian periods, at least, it was common for all the major authors, for both poetry and prose, to study a variety of different languages. Usually these were languages like Latin and Italian and whatnot, so that they were also able to read the big names of literature in the original language. Today it seems a bit useless to study something like Latin just because you want to read a book, but it is true that reading books in their original language is much nicer – better the version the author intended, not the translation, right? So I, for example, often find myself reading Finnish books in Finnish (obviously), English-language books in English, and French books in French, for example. I would read Portuguese books in Portuguese, if I read them at all. Now the books I read in this particular language are mostly translated, and the original ones are not available in the stores.
This way the text gives you the actual meaning, not what the translator thought the meaning was. The risk is, obviously, that you come across sayings or cultural references that you are not familiar with, but, well, it’s a good way to learn!
I found another advantage: it opens up your worldview. This, I believe is important for a writer of any sort. Learning another language means, essentially, learning another culture, and this means that you have to open your eyes to a world, and a point of view you might not have considered before. Of course, this depends on the difference between the languages and the physical distance of the country it is spoken. I would say, for example, that if a person from Finland studies Estonian, the amount of new info to add to their worldview they gather from the experience is nowhere nearly as vast as if that person studied… Let’s say Italian (cos it’s fresh in my head from today’s class).
About the downsides, then.
First of all, what I’ve encountered way too often, now, is that I begin to forget words from other languages, when I’m using another for a longer period of time. For example, and this is connected to the idea I spoke above; I speak mostly English in my everyday life, in school to teachers and friends, at home to my boyfriend – it’s the language I’m using now – which means that when my parents suddenly call me on the phone, and I have to change to Finnish, which I haven’t spoken in a while, I cannot remember even the basic words. I also forget that certain things exist there, since they do not exist here. Out of sight, out of vocabulary.
I sometimes have an urge to write in Finnish, but too often it cuts short because I have to – as stupid as it sounds – go to the dictionary, to find a word in English to remember what it is in Finnish. I once sent a text message to my boyfriend, when I was at school writing in Finnish, to use an online dictionary and tell me what this and that word was.
I won’t even start on what sort of problems I have with languages like Swedish and French, which I use basically never.
Another problem, for me, personally, comes from the fact that I write in two languages.
I often write something I really, really enjoy, and want to share it with my friends, but then remember that I wrote it in Finnish. Right now, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve put some poems up on the Finnish site Aukea.net, and one of my poems is on the list of recently best rated and recently most commented. I’d like to show this poem to my friends, but it happens to be one that is basically impossible to translate. At least it is that to me.
Similarly, I’d often want to tell my friends or boyfriend or whoever about this or that Finnish book, poem or song, but they are often either not translated, or written in a way that would make absolutely no sense if translated. Or then they are things that are cultural, and only understood in their original form and context, and only if you’re born and raised in that culture, or just happen to share a very similar worldview, again.
I was listening to a song called Marraskuu (“November”) in the bus, and I thought that the lyrics are so awesome that I should really try to tell someone about them, but how would you do that, when the meaning is, well, lost in translation? And when the wordplays and the rhymes and everything sound so very, very bad in the new language…
What would you think about a song that says, extremely roughly translated “Past September, through a ragged October, tinkles the grate of beer of longing. Over the sky, days, like a murder of crows drag themselves”?
This is the first part of chorus for the song Marraskuu. It then continues: “I am struck by the saddest of sads, baby when are you coming back? Don’t you know that a lonely man can be taken by November?”