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Not in my language

The challenge a writer faces is that of alluring readers by capturing their curiosity and keeping it alive up to the end of a story. Writing is a craft and language is one of its tools and, when a writer uses it creatively, magic happens.

‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink, and clamouring to become visible.’

– Vladimir Nabokov

Though a first language is most probably the strongest one with which to write, for some famous authors, a second and sometimes even a third or fourth language worked the miracle.

Also referred to as ‘exophonic’, these authors tend to describe the experience of leaving the familiarity of a mother tongue as ‘empowering’, despite, or maybe because of all the limits and obstacles one needs to overcome when writing in a new language. 

‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.’

– Jhumpa Lahiri

Not surprisingly, most exophonic authors are often also translators, therefore people who act as a bridge between cultures, aware of the many social implications a language has and the issues it raises around identity, diversity and inclusion.

‘As I commute between Turkish and English, I pay attention to words that cannot be translated directly. I think about not only words and meanings, but also absences and gaps.’

– Elif Shafak

The reasons behind the choice to crossover into a new linguistic identity can be different, practical, economical, political, social or, at times, just experimental. In fact, because of the complex psycholinguistic dynamics involved in the interaction of two languages and cultures, non-native writing can be a unique chance to explore linguistic creativity from a fresh perspective.

‘Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock.’

– Haruki Murakami

When first writing in English, Haruki Murakami noticed that because his vocabulary and command of syntax was severely limited, and he could express his thoughts and feelings with a more restricted set of words and grammatical structures, he ended up writing in short sentences and a more simplified language, free of unnecessary components. This helped him find a more original, distinctive narrative voice than in Japanese, his mother tongue.

‘There was no need for a lot of difficult words – I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrase.’

–  Haruki Murakami

A story doesn’t just appear on a blank page, it needs time, trials and errors, original ideas and an understanding of how language works. This is why experimenting with a new one and having a whole original set of words, sounds, and meanings to play with can be an endless source of inspiration and the chance to grow as a writer.

While a mother tongue might sound like a fluent, confident voice, another language may feel raw, clumsy, but not necessarily wrong.

Why don’t you give it a try?

Maybe keep it simple. Start with a haiku and be kind to yourself. After all, it is not your language.

‘If you want to narrate a story no one ever wrote, write with a language no one ever used.’

– F. Scott Fitzgerald
About Barbara Ricci

Barbara Ricci is an Italian translator, a community interpreter and a creative writer with an interest in the cognitive aspects of multilingualism.


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