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!
I really enjoyed this post Nicky. I studied German and only lived in Germany a year but remember thinking of a few words in German first when I first came back to England, so it’s really interesting to hear how you think in terms of language having lived here for twenty years, and it’s a real skill that you can write a book in your non-native tongue. Language throws up some interesting situations doesn’t it when there isn’t an exact word in translation for a term in another language. I think you found a fab title with Sophie’s Run.
Hi Lindsay! It’s so lovely to hear from and I am delighted that you connected with my post. Thanks also for your kind comments regarding my writing and the title of my second masterpiece ~ that means a lot! 🙂 Vielleicht koennen wir uns ja irgendwann mal ein bisschen auf Deutsch unterhalten, LOL! Bis dann… Tschuess!
Ziehen Sie das Andere… that cannot be your earnest!
Joking apart, I know exactly what you mean, I still have the odd turn of phrase, although I am incapable of writing in any other language than English. I used to say it was really ‘crowdy’ in the Tube that morning…
Belly laugh! Marina, you crack me up but yes, these are great examples of Germish. I’m glad I’m not the only person who feels they couldn’t write in their mother tongue! And was it really crowdy in the Tube that morning ~ I don’t ever remember you saying that, haw haw haw. Schoenes Wochenende wuensch ich Dir! XX
Being bilingual myself I know precisely what you mean. As you know I took German in college. Your English pronounciation is great, as is your British accent.
I know you’ve probably enjoy when people around you speak German without them having any knowledge that you understand very word they’re saying.
One incident I remember shortly after graduating college is riding on a bus, sitting next to the rear exit. Two women sat in the seat in front facing the front of the bus talking about some personal matters which I couldn’t laugh when I heard it. They turned around looked at me and preceeded to speak in German, and everytime the turned around again and looked at me, I’d covered my face with my hand. When they were about to get off the bus, they stood in front of me next to the next; they looked at me and when the bus stopped, I looked back at them and told them to have a nice day in German; they covered their mouths with their hands and I could sense the embarrassment they must have felt.
As far as the word “aussetzer” is concerned, I somehow translate it as being “dropouts” [I know that “ausfallen” means “drop out.” But then again meanings change when you place two words together.]
When I read that sometimes you think Germish, I had a vision that you’ll be talking about “Germs.” If it was me, I’d have said “Germanish”. But that’s me, and I’m not you.”
The automatic simultaneous translation you spoke about in experienced by everyone who is bilingual [especially orally] You automatically translate one language into the language you primarily use at the present time, going in reverse the process might be a little slower.
Haha, Robin, sorry about the Germ fright. I never had made that connection before! It’s an interesting thing, this bilingual-ness. Many a book has been written on it and I’m not an expert by any means; just reporting back my own experience, a case study of one. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Danke! X
Nicky, I’ve taught quite a few EAL students both at secondary and primary level … and they always think in their first language, even when they’re fluent in English. You can almost see their brains lighting up and processing in their own language before they ‘convert’ it to English!
Interesting post 🙂 x
I know! And that’s what’s meant to happen but somehow, that connection has been bypassed (or rewired) in my brain. I have to work MUCH harder at speaking German, I fumble for works and if in doubt, I revert to English ~ even when speaking to my Mum who, bless her, is really indulgent but must be scretely wondering when her daughted got kidnapped by aliens, LOL. Thanks for visiting and commenting!
When we came to Canada when I was six, I was just learning English. I remember telling the teacher one day that I had to go home because I was feeling “kranky.” I meant I was sick, of course (Krank), but she probably thought, with her class of 42 kids, “Yeah, I’m a bit cranky myself.”
LOL, Anneli, I know it’s not really funny as such but you did give me a smile. Did she let you go, though? My favourite instance from secondary school is a fellow classmate asking ~ this is in year 5, btw, afer only a few weeks of English ~ whether he might be allowed to “go and open his pipeline.” The teacher was somewhat taken aback! Thanks for commenting, I knew you’d appreciate this post. XXX
Yes, she let me go and I think she was glad to get rid of me. She was frustrated that I didn’t understand a lot at first. But my survival instincts kicked in and I learned fast.
I find it fascinating that you took to another language and adopted it so easily and so well – envious, as we often visit France and I struggle. I can speak it much better than I can interpret what comes back when I’m in conversation ha! ha! But I can’t fully appreciate what you say as my brother lived in California for 15 years. When he first went there he was amazed that so many words had different meanings – pants/trousers, jumper/sweater… now who would have though!
LOL, divided by a common language, as they say. Thanks for your lovely comment, Linn! XX
When I studied French and German at O level I used to constantly intersperse my English with those two languages – French, mostly. It was hard to stick to English! Then, returning to France last year after 27 years away, I found the words flooding back more or less when I needed them!
I think if you love language – the sound, the accents, the flavour – then it stays with you in all its guises. But to write in your non-native tongue is amazing, Nicky; yet another superwoman facet!