Synonym for a 'torch', or Why you should try writing in another language

Krzysztof Iwanek  
Writing in another language may help you look at the clarity of your texts from a new angle. More importantly, even imagining to write in another language may help you see yourself as an author from a different angle.

Remember that character from Camus' The Plague who kept correcting the same opening sentence of his manuscript, and never got past it? Well, that's me. But you know what helped me? Writing in English.

At this point, I owe you an explanation, however. English is not my first language - Polish is. And yet it was precisely shifting to a second language, one not native to me, that made the process of writing easier for me. Not quicker and involving less effort – it rather became longer and harder for that matter, but emotionally easier.

Like Joseph Grand in The Plague, I would correct the same sentences in Polish over and over. It was as if something in my mind was telling me - 'Shame! It's your mother tongue, Chris, so surely you can write better than what you have here!' And probably sometimes I could, but thinking that meant being stuck in the same paragraphs. Only after shifting to English, I realised that this was what was holding me back.

In Polish, I know at least two words for a ‘torch’, and I could waste my time pondering which one to pick. In English, I just know the word ‘torch’, so I write it and move on. It also takes me more time to put together a sentence in English and so I will often attempt to find a simpler way to phrase it. But perhaps most importantly, I will not look back at the result a hundred times, thinking what others will say (maybe just ten times).

At the risk of stating the obvious, I am not saying that English is simpler than Polish, or that every writer has to abandon writing in their first language, or that an aspiring writer should pick a language in which they know a handful of words. And don't get me wrong – I feel just as much Polish as I used to, and my language gives me joy the way no other language ever will. It’s about me, not the language.

And thus what I do mean is first of all this: you need to identify what is holding you back from writing, or finishing your writing. Chances are that your mental block results, as in my case, from hopelessly striving to be perfect (which none of us will ever be). There is that bar you have set up too high and you afraid to hit it while jumping. Instead, I suggest you find a way around the problem – walk beneath the bar.

Suppose that you are peculiar about proper punctuation, and you keep correcting those commas, dashes, and what-not. It is eating up your creative time and causes you to focus more on those small symbols than on plot or style. Then try to write a paragraph without thinking about punctuation, without pausing to think where a comma should be, and only return to edit it once it is fully written. Imagine for a moment that you are writing in another language – one that doesn’t have any punctuation (apart from full stops, I guess).

But the same may apply to larger challenges. Perhaps you told yourself that you need to write that epic fantasy saga in six volumes, and you won’t be satisfied once you achieve this goal. And yet, another part of you would like to try a short, cozy romance instead. But you’re a man, all of your buddies will chuckle because it's so ‘womanly’, right? So again, imagine you are writing in another language – these words you write are you, they are not womanly or manly.

Secondly, trying out other languages (not just imagining to write in them), even just for bits of writing, is a great exercise. It allows you to look at things like semantics, word flow, or clarity from a different angle.

One of the things you can try it out on is dialogues. If your dialogue lines tend to be lengthy and overdone, try first writing them in one of your second languages – one you know well enough to converse in. What should happen is that you will get dialogue lines that are more brief and more focused on conveying the meaning than on style. Now translate them back into your first language.

Following the above, translating as such is a good way to practice of clarity. A translator has to first of all get the meaning of the original right. Is there a long sentence about which some of your readers complained as being unclear and you don't know why they said so? Try translating it to another language then. Are you having trouble with it? Well, then your readers were probably right.

A radical experiment I once conducted was to write an opening page of a novel in English, and then I invented my own language – well, just the very basics of it, simplest grammar and a handful of words – and translated the page into that language. Since the fictional language had no synonyms, and hardly any words with more than one meaning, upon translation it became clearer which words or phrases in the original version could be confusing for the reader. This was because I had to pick a precise equivalent for each English word, and thus had to realise what exact meaning I intended for it. The translation thus mainly became a process of reviewing the original.

And just in case – no, I am definitely not recommending doing it (any kind of translation) for an entire novel (even though Murakami reportedly does this - he writes the first draft in English, then translates into Japanese). This will likely lead you back to my original problem: too much editing, not enough writing. Try it out for your crucial bits, like the opening page or the most important scenes – or the ones about which your readers are complaining.

And I guess that’s all. Powodzenia w pisaniu!

19+ Comments


I’m an AMERICAN! We don’t speak other languages! Anyways…

Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

(and I probably butchered that)

Apr-15 at 01:22


No, you elegantly filleted and plated it to perfection.

Apr-15 at 01:37


I think fellow Pole Joseph Conrad would agree with you. According to him, “English is so plastic—if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France”.

Also, as he put it, “I value our beautiful Polish literature too much to bring into it my clumsy efforts. But for the English my gifts are sufficient and secure my daily bread.” Which says it all really :rofl:

I was fortunate to be educated in German, with its strict and plentiful rules of grammar. Meanwhile, I read voraciously in English by myself, with no one ever telling me what was the right thing to do with the language. I always thought the BFG’s “I is hungry” was spot on.

Apr-15 at 01:51


“I is hungry” is a good one… For me it’s the whole pronouns thing… I write in German and translate it afterwards, and the fact that all your nouns are male, female or neutral really messes with my head, once I need to translate it… Just yesterday I was talking about a Silhouette of a male person… well silhouette is female in German and until they knew the name of the person I was describing him with she/her… But once I translated it the whole thing sounded as if that guy was a girl… I always have one read through just to check if the pronouns are fitting…

Apr-15 at 02:55


Which is why most non-Americans on here speak both English and American :innocent:.

Apr-15 at 04:25


Really interesting!

I’m learning French and German at the moment, and I’m really looking forward to the day when I might be able to actually write in one of those languages (preferably German. I much prefer it.)

And Japanese is really interesting. I use it a lot for section-breakers, and I’ve realised that there are always at least 3 words to mean the same thing as 1 word in English! I pity those trying to write in Japanese. :laughing:

Don’t forget Australian!

Apr-15 at 08:23


Nah, she’ll be right mate!
Ozzie’s and Kiwi’s are so adaptable they can write and understand different versions of english as easily as bunging another banger on the barbie. :smile:

Actually, it’s kind of fun deciphering that the ‘second story’ isn’t the author talking about another book but is actually meant to be the next layer of the building. Not to mention when they have an attempt at metric measurements and say a metre is a meter (I’m not sure how that works if a measuring device is one metre long though :thinking: ‘the parking meter is a meter tall?’

But so long as everyone keeps at least one form of pants on, the sproglets don’t spit the dummy, and the chillybin is chokka with stubbies, then I doubt anything will be too munted and everyone’s stories will end up sweet-as!

Apr-15 at 08:48


Oh, a fellow Polish writer. Nice to see I’m not the only one trying to run before I walk.

I nawzajem, Krzyśku. Świat jeszcze o nas usłyszy. :wink:

Apr-15 at 08:58


Ich auch!
Problem is that the way foreign language is taught in American schools is extremely faulty—it’s all diagrams and worksheets—and very few of us become fluent. I took 4 years of French and could only ever kinda barely read bits of it (couldn’t speak or understand it for the life of me). As an adult, I shelled out for the Rosetta Stone program to learn German, augmented by the free version of Duolingo to mess with in my spare time, and I learned more German in a few months than I did in years of school for French.

Apr-15 at 11:23


This was an interesting blog post and view on writing and unlocking the potential to create by leveraging a different language.

I only speak, read, and write fluently in English (U.S. English). I was born and live in the United States of America. When I was young, I attended about two years of ‘foreign language’ studies in grade school. I chose Italian. Later in college, to graduate with a four-year degree, I had to obtain additional foreign language credits, and I completed the requirements with Spanish classes.

Unfortunately, not having a reason to read, write, or speak day-to-day in either Italian or Spanish had diminished my non-English language comprehension and skills to virtually nothing.

Much later in life (in fact, just this past year), as I begin heading toward my retirement years (which means 50 plus), I decided to learn Spanish, mainly to be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking individuals I now routinely encounter in daily life. (Much so more now than ever before).

At this stage of life (I’ll call it entering my golden years), simply learning to speak and read another language (Spanish) is a great challenge. I’m unsure how I would tackle attempting to write an entire novel in another language. Dialog might be doable. Since I use tools like Google Translate and have tried participating in internet forums and social media exchanges by posting comments back and forth in Spanish to hone my communication skills, I guess it’s similar.

However, until this blog entry, I never considered attempting to write creative fiction in another language. I must say, the thought is intriguing. So, thank you, @Chrisiwa, for giving me something different to think about and consider today.

Apr-15 at 16:29


Nothing American though… At my school (which is a Danish school in Germany that requires that you speak English… So none of these languages are considered foreign at my school) learning Spanish, French or even Russian is an absolute nightmare… I learned the Spanish I know by online tools, friends and trips to Spain… In school I just kept quiet and sometimes corrected mistakes the teacher did…

School is not able to teach foreign languages in the amount of time, that would be justified for that task…

Apr-15 at 16:34


I feel that. The way foreign language is often taught would be, to my mind, like giving piano lessons using theory alone—the students wouldn’t actually get to play a piano, though they might get to listen to a measure or two of real music… sometimes. The rest of the class would just be copying down musical notes out of a textbook with no context for what they mean.

That’s the best metaphor I can come up with to describe how incredibly frustrating language classes are!

Apr-15 at 17:40


Best way I could relearn my korean was visiting Korea and force myself to speak it. School could never do that for me.
Now it feels like everytime I leave, I leave my korean behind. :smiling_face_with_tear:

Apr-15 at 17:46


So… Spanish class is the only class I ever visisted, where I learned a language from scratch… (Learned the language in private then, but I think my point is clear…) So I only experienced this one case of school teaching foreign languages… But our teacher seems to think we already can Spanish… She always comes in and starts in Spanish… Sometimes she explains what she said in Danish afterwards, but the “sometimes” should be written with capitals…

Her way of teaching is very… Lets say repetetive… It is as if she goes through a dictionary and teaches us one word at a time… No repetitions… Sometimes we get to use them in sentences but not much more… How are we supposed to learn an entire language like that… The deal with language-learning is not to know all the words… you can always ask for specific words or go around the ones you are missing…

Apr-15 at 17:46


I was just thinking of this yesterday. I speak 5 languages, Italian as mother language, and sometimes, when I get blocked while writing my book (that is in english), I switch to Italian and say that sentence in my mind that way, to then switch. A lot of times this process also makes my english more colorful. In other moments, I need to use another one of the languages and finally the result is always what I want it to be, thanks to the language gymnastic.
Brains are a great machine!
Thank you for this beautiful reminder!

Apr-16 at 09:01


Very interesting idea one which I’ll try. There are other advantages to being bi-lingual. Bi-lingual readers of Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls will recognise his device of translating (in a literal sense) Spanish dialog to English. For instance he uses Thee and Thou to signify Usted when his Spanish speakers are adressing the American. I doubt he was truly bi-lingual, but by using some simple devices he gives his Spanish characters “voice”.
And it is valid in as much as a speaker of English (or any language) who is not a native speaker will sound different. To take a somewhat comical example my wife will say right before we go out. “I am only wearing my umbrella.” To which my wise ass reply might be “That should be interesting”. In Spanish the verb for wear and carry is the same llevar. I’ve read some really good work by foreign writers who write about foreign lives in English and it works very well, I would say it is more convincing than if an English writer tries to accomplish the same task. Thanks for your post and again I will try your suggestion!

Apr-17 at 11:30


This, and you also don’t really need other languages, English being the modern lingua franca.
Learning languagues (as well as anything) requires motivation and practice.

Apr-18 at 19:21


And yes, distance from the language you’re writing in can be simultaneously limiting and liberating. Words don’t carry the same emotional baggage they do in your native language.

My mother tongue is Russian and I can’t even think about translating my stories into it. In very rare cases, I write a sentence in Russian first and then translate it, when I need to convey something very personal.

Apr-18 at 19:29


I DID need a certain number of Language credits to graduate high school though! Not that those credits meant I actually learned a damn thing.

To my mind, it’s less about necessity and more about self-improvement, which, as you said…

Apr-18 at 19:46
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