Thursday, February 25, 2010

See You Later: Writing in Two Languages

Some time in 1958 or 59, my parents moved into their first American home, an immaculate ranch in a suburb of Boston. The neighbors who came to greet them no doubt noticed my father’s excellent English and his strong Greek accent. My mother’s accent was harder to place, thanks to her mother who had thrown her own French Swiss into the Greek mix. What would have been crystal clear was that my parents were foreign. Not from here.

You can hardly blame the unsuspecting American neighbors for finishing their visit with a casual “See you later.” How were they to know that my parents would take this literally? That my parents would sit in their living room, dressed nicely, all the rest of the day, waiting for the promised return of their new friends?

I grew up with the story of “The See You Later.” It became not so much a phrase as a concept: seeyoulater. Or, with a Greek accent: σηγιουλεïτερ. For my parents, it began as a story of embarrassment, of a weakness unveiled despite their steady progress into American life. But when they retold it to me years later, The See You Later had already become a story of success. This, too, they had learned. They had faced this weird linguistic obstacle and they had triumphed. They would tell the story with a bit of a gleam in their eye. You can’t fool us, they said. We understand American idioms.

But the truth is that they never did understand English idioms. And neither did I. The cat that swallowed the pyjamas? Yup. Out of the clear? (In the clear, out of the blue, who’s to say?) Open my appetite? (Not if I’ve swallowed the pyjamas, I guess.)

Which brings me to my ongoing predicament as a writer—a predicament I’d like to think I share with other writers out there who make their creative way in a language that is not fundamentally their own. Writers who are Not From Here.

There are plenty of examples of bi-lingual or self-translating success. Nabokov and the Czech-born Tom Stoppard come immediately to mind. But I suspect most of us are a lot more bumbling than these two. Most of us have to constantly rescue our odd-sounding English with a last-minute realization that the syntax we used is borrowed from another tongue. Usually it’s during the exercise of reading a manuscript aloud when we catch the alien sound in time to correct it. But if we don’t hear it then, woe be to the readers and editors who have to deal (or choose not to) with the convoluted prose.

It took me a long time before I realized that I was frequently writing sentences in my head in Greek and then translating them into English. (My documented insistence on the past imperfect turns out to be me using Greek syntax in English.) Now that I know this is going on, the question is how can I and other bilingual writers make it an advantage?

1. A Built-in Thesaurus

If you can’t think of the right word in English, go to the foreign one and see if that sends you back to a more useful spot in English. The second language adds another layer of subtlety, a new dimension, and sometimes helps you find the better word.

2. An Editing Tool

If you know you have a tendency to write strange syntax, you can teach yourself how to look for those extra words—and you can learn to eliminate all extras, whether they come from self-translation or not. The end result is leaner, more efficient prose.

3. Attention to Diction

For those of us who don’t have English as our first language, it’s always going to be a tool rather than something instinctive. That makes us very aware of what we’re doing to screw it up, of course. But it can also, I hope, heighten our awareness of what a gift language is. Use it properly and it’s a powerful, wondrous thing.

Striving to Get it Right according to an English orthodoxy is just one way to handle the fact of bilingualism. It’s what worked for me, the kid who for a time was so desperate to blend in that she refused to speak English in Greece and Greek in America. (I still find it annoying when my mother throws the occasional English word into her Greek when a Greek one is readily available.)

For others, there is power in doing exactly the opposite of what I’ve described here.

If you’re a bilingual writer, what works for you? How have you drawn on the power of your other language? And what limitations have you found, as you try to formulate your literary style?

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