I was born in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. English wasn’t a big deal back then, even though cultural influences from the West were strong. We listened to the music (of course) and watched the movies (with subtitles, thank goodness!), but English was not seen as the language you had to speak if you wanted to communicate with the rest of the world. Looking back, it feels strange to remember just how absolutely un-globalized we were.
I will forever be grateful to my parents for my first English lessons when I was nine, because something amazing happened almost immediately: I fell in love with the language. I can’t explain why. I’ve studied other foreign languages since, with varying results (I speak Slovene well, Italian poorly and German left me permanently scarred). But English never felt like homework, or a boring chore. It might be because my teachers were good, or because the lessons were interesting, or because there was some inexplicable chemistry between English and my brain. All this without smartphones, computers or the internet – all I had were the massive dictionaries I won at various language competitions.
And yet, when I started writing my stories in English, it was painfully obvious to me that I was a foreigner.
Every translator and writer who writes in a foreign language knows that different languages do not really run parallel to each other. At best, they occasionally correlate as we struggle to get the meaning across – let alone the context, or the emotion. The huge differences in grammar – the tenses, the phrases, the cases, the articles and so much more – present a technical challenge for any translator. But it’s the idiosyncrasies of history and culture and mentality that kill one’s writing.
At one point in my life I used to juggle three languages daily (English, Slovene, Croatian), which I managed to reduce to two (Croatian, English), each getting about a half of my waking hours. Inevitably, the leaks happen when one language slips into another – when I’m tired or when I can’t find the right phrase quickly enough. It is entirely possible to communicate like that – most bilingual people do it without much effort. You can start a sentence in one language and finish it in another and still keep the conversation running smoothly.
Writing, on the other hand, does not tolerate such overlaps. This is why I avoid translating my own work, and if I try to do it, I inevitably end up with two very different stories. Every language carries a huge burden of hidden meaning, of cultural context, which is very hard to translate. This is not immediately obvious when translating from a big language into small, because cultural influences of a dominant culture are so strong the readers unconsciously pick them up, but it becomes painfully obvious when translating from a small language into a big one. For English readers, the Croatian context just isn’t there. Which leaves the writer with two options: to bend the original language unnaturally from the start, already thinking about the translation, or to waste precious words on explaining the context.
For me, the solution is to keep my writing languages strictly separated, which makes me feel rather disingenuous when I fall into the diversity trap and try to write an English story about a Croatian experience. It always feels fragmented like a broken mirror, always adapted for the foreign gaze, always sacrificing something in order to convey any meaning at all.
It makes me wonder how attainable diversity truly is, when you describe your culture, but cannot use your language. It feels like using the wrong equipment, like trying to cook a meal using plumbing tools. It’s like being reduced to a curiosity, an exceedingly ornate national costume in a display cabinet in a dusty corner of a museum.
As an ESL writer, I often feel that I am unfaithful to my own language and false in English – which is a terrible thing to feel because I love them both. I was born into one and I chose another as my career tool – I could never abandon one for the sake of the other.
Perhaps this is why I write speculative fiction. After all, in imaginary worlds, we are all strangers.
One Reply to “Being an ESL writer”
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Jelena. Well said, and lots to think about.