Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Writing in two languages - Leslie Wilson

I've put in a picture of a house in Berlin because that's the house I've chosen for the birthplace of the heroine of the novel I'm working on at present. It's in Inselstrasse, for anyone who knows Berlin, near one of the arms of the river Spree and just a bridge-crossing away from the Fischerinsel, the island where all the museums are.

But I'm not posting about Berlin geography, but about language, or rather, about what it's like to write about Germany in English when you are yourself bilingual. It's complicated enough when you can hear your characters talking German and then have to render it into English, making the best fist you can of 'equivalating' - yes, I know that's not an English word - the English to the German, when there are some things that are best said in German, and some things best said in English, the same being true for French, and of course for many other languages that I'm not fluent in. And what do I do about Berlin dialect, the way Berliners have of turning all their 'g's into 'y's, hard into soft, like Uri Geller getting his fingers on a spoon? It's impossible to put this into English. It gets lost. Too bad. Some things one can just render into English, very satisfactorily - 'meine Olle' for example, translates perfectly as 'my old lady' - when one's getting vulgar, 'Arsch' is so easy to translate I'm not going to bother here, but Germans do tend to get scatological quite easily. That is, not nice ladies like my mother - and that's another problem, 'Gnaedige Frau' (irritating lack of umlaut-facility in this software, never mind) which literally means 'gracious lady,' but in my childhood it was still used quite frequently. 'Madam' is the best I can do, but it fails to give the flavour of the German.

I suppose what I'm saying is that there's no such thing as a true translation, only a finding of equivalents, and it seems odd that I, who've always hated translating, am finding myself effectively doing it. And in the novel I'm working on right now I've given myself an even tougher problem, in that my main female character is a returned emigree, therefore bilingual like me in English and German, but the boy, who also has a point of view, is entirely German, therefore thinks in German. In the past I've translated German names into English 'Alexander Square' for 'Alexanderplatz', but this won't work when I'm inhabiting the head of someone who thinks in English but thinks of the place-names in German - but in the boy's head, they probably should be in English, because this is English masquerading as German.

I'll work it out in the end, but I'd be fascinated to talk to or hear from other bilingual writers who write about their two cultures, and hear how they manage it. The thing is, though I get frustrated not being able to use German, I couldn't write entirely in German. My German is very good, but English is my main language.

All the same, hearing the cadences and rhythms of the other language in my head does change the way I write in ways that I'd have to spend hours analysing to define, yet I know it is so.


Stroppy Author said...

What an interesting post, Leslie :-) In the summer (has it gone already?) I started work on adapting - not translating - some stories from Old French and found something similar. Though my French is nowhere near as good as your German, I still felt there was some essence that would inevitably be lost. And there wasn't even the confusion of the bilingual characters to struggle with! Good luck sorting it all out - it will be interesting to read the result :-)

Lee said...

I quite like the idea of 'translating' my two (or three, if you add Africa to the US & Germany) cultures into a third, i.e. a fantasy setting.

Just got back from Berlin not long ago, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Leslie, I hope you will leave in the Gnädige Frau. It makes for a much better German feel in a book. Look at The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The German there makes it so much more German, and works better for that reason. In The Book Thief there is a lot of lovely German, and then he goes and ruins it by translating some really illogical names into English. You don't know where you are.

The only thing that's important is that you get it right. The German, I mean. But I'm sure you will.

My early readings of Blyton in Swedish translation had me run to my mother for an explanation of what Mrs meant. She explained, I learnt something new, and now that I'm a Mrs myself I can still remember what it means...

And today's wonderful inventions mean that printing even English books with ä and ö is quite easy, as long as people know that it's meant to be there.

Have a glossary at the end. Caroline Lawrence does that for Latin, which children cope very well with, considering. Debi Gliori's Pure Dead Magic has a glossary for the US edition, to explain all those quaint Scottish words.

lily said...

Really interesting. I'm not bilingual but most of my books are set among Russian or Ukrainian speakers and I've wondered too what to do about Anglicising place names and how to find an English equivalent for puns and word-play, jokes and cultural references, or somehow do justice to the way that Slavic-language speakers express themselves so differently from English speakers. It's really been an issue in the last book I finished, which sounds a bit like yours: it's told from two points of view - one character who speaks English, Ukrainian and Russian, the other only English. How to write a scene where one character understands everything that's being said, the other only understands half? and simultaneously make enough of it understandable to the reader? It was an interesting exercise. I'm struggling with something similar in the book I'm working on now - in this one language and bi-lingualism (is that a word?) is a big part of the way the plot works.

And I really agree with the comment about getting it right. Nothing like finding a mistranslation or linguistic error to really destroy your faith in a book.

Leslie said...

I do my best to get the German right! I do make some mistakes, but then, so do Germans. I usually check gender pretty carefully in anything I write, the kind of thing I'm most likely to get wrong - but as I said, some Germans do too!
I remember as a 6th-former being told by my (British) German teacher that a particular rule she'd learned meant a certain word order applied. I said: I don't care about the rule, what you've said sounds wrong. I went home and asked my mother, who said, yes, you're right (as well as being a native German speaker she was also an honours graduate and a teacher of German). Miss Walker went off and asked the other German teacher, who was an emigree from Vienna - sorry for lack of accents, this software won't do them, I think - and came back, saying, between gritted teeth: 'Mrs Fielding says you're right.' In retrospect, I feel sorry for her, it must have been hard teaching German language to someone who spoke better German than she did! On the other hand, aforesaid Mrs Fielding and I had one of these regional arguments, because she said daffodils were Osterglocken, and I called them Maerzenbecher. We were both right, but Mrs F insisted she was.
I do agree about the weird anglicisation of a name (can't remember which now) in Book Thief. I couldn't understand why he did that, either. But I did enjoy his use of German, and also because his Bavarians rang so true. I think the thing is, you have to have the background to do something like that, it's like with the word order, if you're of german origin, like Zusak and me, there are some things you KNOW feel right - or wrong, and this is often a problem I have with British books set in Germany, however good they are.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Ausländer? Good story, but a fundamentally British story, although set in Berlin. And there was a Norwegian one I couldn't even start, because it felt too English.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I have read Auslaender, and I agree with you, it is a British book - plus there are some howlers in it. Like, I know this, because SPOILER ALERT! I wanted to get my characters out the way he got his out and didn't, because at the date he and I had got to this was no longer possible. Details by request, contact me via my website. Plus, he's got it wrong about jazz, the finer details, really, jazz-listening of itself wasn't as dangerous as he says, indeed a memoir by East german author Gunter de Bruyn describes the Hitler Youth lads listening to jazz while they were manning the anti-aircraft guns. I think there is a difference between doing your homework carefully and having a deeper knowledge of the period through family history AND extensive reading, and, crucially, speaking and reading German. If Dowswell had German he'd never have allowed the gross misguidance on pronunciation on the cover!! But I have just read Machine-Gunners - a very fine book, only slightly spoiled by the way in which he makes his German character talk, not like German word-order at all, the verbs really don't always go to the end. And then he has the guy say 'hein' for 'hey?' which is French!!