You probably know that I’m a prolific writer and a vicious proofer. Of course, occasionally I do make mistakes. I have been known to commit the occasional grammatical faux-pas; sometimes the odd typo or three creeps in, and every now and then, I make genuine spelling mistakes. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t! Further, I have to confess to having a very bad relationship with serial commas, but I do like my apostrophes used correctly.
All these mistakes get fixed and corrected, naturally. Either by myself, during my many rounds of proofing, or by an external proofer.
Yet I have a little secret that may not be immediately obvious to my readers. In fact, many people are terribly surprised when they find out, and I’ve even had a few people disbelieving me entirely (“you’re pulling my leg, right?”).
Here goes. I think, and therefore write, in a language that isn’t my native language. My native language is German, but I find myself utterly unable to string together a narrative in that language. Instead, I prefer English. I have lived and breathed and dreamed English ever since I moved to the UK twenty years ago. In fact, I have lived and breathed and dreamed in English from the moment I started learning the language.
Why, you want to know? I have no idea. I am as baffled as you are. There’s some strange wiring going on in my brain that is beyond bilingualism, because my preference for the use of English has come to the detriment of what is meant to be my infallible, incorruptible mother tongue. Somehow, for me, this is not so.
Moreover, this phenomenon goes deeper than just thinking, speaking or writing. I have been told by the few people who know me ‘fluently’ in both languages that my voice is deeper in English (or goes up three octaves in German, depending on your viewpoint), that my wit is sharper, my confidence stronger and my exuberance more buoyant. (Not my words, I assure you!) That is an awful lot to take in when you’re not even aware that that’s going on.
Suffice it to say that I do feel more comfortable in English, in every respect. I struggle to express emotion in German, which is proving a bit of a problem as I am making a valiant effort at raising my children bilingually. Yet in English, with its infinite nuances and wonderful registers, the metaphors flow and expression is easy. Weird, huh?
That said, when I was working on Sophie’s Turn, and more recently the sequel, Sophie’s Run, I had some very strange things happening to me. After all this time living and working in England, after all this time spent thinking and writing in English, suddenly the Germanisms started popping up in my brain.
This was particularly the case for Sophie’s Run as some parts of the book are set in several places in Germany. “Germish” is one of the official terms for this type of linguistic interference, only it usually refers to English words used (incorrectly or out of context) in German, rather than German expressions creeping into English. But still, you get the idea.
I found myself thinking up turns of phrases or expressions that are unknown to the English-speaking world. For example, I’d say something like, this is quite a plastic description. HUH? In German, a description that is ‘plastisch’ would denote a description so good that it’s 3D, life-like, authentic. In English, this mistranslation is meaningless. Evidently, these instances of Germish gibberish never make it onto the page; instead, I spend some significant time trying to find an appropriate English translation. Very occasionally, I have to give up and take a different English idiomatic approach.
A case in point is the actual title for Sophie’s Run, which drove me to distraction for months. There’s a German word, Aussetzer, that captures perfectly what I wanted to express, but there is no adequate English equivalent. Aussetzer means to undergo a temporary moment of madness where all reason deserts you and you do some weird and wonderful things. That’s a bit of a mouthful ~ you see the predicament? Hiatus doesn’t capture it, neither does folly, break, interlude, intermission, interruption. Mad five minutes isn’t exactly a catchy book title. The closest expression I could come up with was to flip out, which isn’t yet recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary. Therefore I couldn’t be sure that people would interpret this ‘street expression’ accurately and that’s way too risky for a book title. Plus, Sophie Flips Out doesn’t exactly conjure expectations of romantic comedy, rock star glamour and happy endings, now, does it? Therefore, Sophie simply runs. It lacks the German elegance, but it has its own cunning double or even triple meaning.
So there is something about the German language that lodges deeply in my brain and that pops up most unexpectedly. Very occasionally (say, once or twice), I have exercised artistic license and allowed myself to add the Germanisms to the manuscript when I felt that they worked, or that they added a touch of humour, or that the expression should quite simply exist in the English language. After all, that’s how language grows! So if you come across anything a little unusual, a little exotic, do get in touch… I invite you most heartily!