WRITING IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Part II: Writing Traditions and Possibilities
I use foreign words when I tell my stories. English isn’t my first language, and that presents me with various problems – and a lot of possibilities.
A Free Ride to Science Fiction Land
Science fiction and fantasy are genres of Otherness. The genres share with us the possibilities of what could and might be, of what can be invented, and of what can only be brought to life within the boundaries of human imagination. And whenever we enter a world of the Future or the Fey, good consistent worldbuilding is helped along when we experience the world through the eyes of the characters living in that world.
The characters need what I think of as their own worldview and a social context – a way to be in dialogue with their world. The way they relate or react unconsciously to other people says all about their culture, as do their reactions to phenomena like demons, warp drives, and dilating doors. Basically, the existence of different everyday items and events will convey a sense of Otherness. If characters only had to react to TV, grocery shopping and dull day jobs, that Otherness would be lost.
And this is where I’m so very fortunate: Whenever I venture into English, I leave my earthbound Danish world behind and go into territory that – albeit not unfamiliar – isn’t quite Kansas anymore. You could say I am translated into another world as I sit down to write. And this is important, since language is one the keys to giving Future&Fey their specific taste or flavor. The words and phrases and the characters’ tone of voice all have the power to convey Otherness.
By writing in English, I avoid the pitfall of writing milquetoast stories, since my vocabulary is automatically switched from ‘default’ to ‘different’. Of course, I may fall flat on my face because I write drab English, but I find that this happens less often because I already have my mind set to a different world.
A Free Ride on the Shoulders of Giants
In a recent interview with the Guardian, SF writer Iain M. Banks said:
“Science fiction can never be a closed shop where only those already steeped in its culture are allowed to practise, but, as with most subjects, if you’re going to enter the dialogue it does help to know at least a little of what you’re talking about, and it also helps, by implication, not to dismiss everything that’s gone before as not worth bothering with because, well, it’s just Skiffy and the poor benighted wretches have never been exposed to a talent the like of mine before . . .”
‘To enter the dialogue’, as Banks puts it, is more than the simple matter of knowing the tropes and traditions of science fiction – especially for a foreign writer like me. It’s also a matter of knowing the language that helped form the tropes. In that respect there’s no doubt that science fiction is an English phenomenon. Warp drives, stargates, implants, comm units, AIs, lightsabers, galactic empires, moon bases, satellites, and dilating doors were all conceived in English. Even robot–originally a Czech word–was absorbed into the SF genre and spread to the world through English stories to a degree that make them more English than Czech.
To use these tropes and phenomena in my native tongue would be awkward because there’s a tradition behind them that gives additional meaning to the words – connotations that are missing in Danish, because the context of the words either don’t exist here or were introduced along with the word. For instance, ‘warp drive’ makes sense in English because of the inherent contents of the two words – “a drive [engine, propulsion unit] that warps [bends or twists] space”. A similar concept was never developed in Danish, so instead of calling it a Space Folding Engine, we simply use ‘warp drive’.
So you can say that writing in English saves me a lot of time, because I don’t have to invent new Danish terms for the science fictional concepts that already exist. But much more importantly, English offers up those concepts for free, and by learning the right words and their background, I can enter into a dialogue with the genre I write in and love.
(Originally published at jakobdrud.livejournal.com)