by Annette Spratte
Being bilingual is a wonderful thing. Almost all my life, I have enjoyed being able to communicate fluently in two languages and to read books in the language they were written in, not having to rely on translations. Being a bilingual author, however, does have its challenges.
Since I’m a native German, you might think it odd that I wrote my debut novel in English. The reason is fairly simple: The story is set in the US, so why would I write it in German? Besides, I love English, I mostly read in English, and I write my diary in English (for the original reason that my mother doesn’t speak English, hence wouldn’t have been able to read it should she ever have stumbled across it). Enough reasons, right?
I had no idea what I was doing or if I would get anywhere, so I only started worrying about the language when it was clear I would actually finish the story and want to publish it. Finding a publisher was utopic under the circumstances, so I took the route of self-publishing.
The next project was a series of children’s books I wrote for my kids – in German, obviously. At the time they weren’t fluent in English (that has changed by now). To my surprise the series was picked up by a German publisher and I made the decision to focus on writing in German. You have to go through the door that’s open.
But then The Silent Maid showed up in my brain. Set in England, everyone in the story spoke English. Guess what language I started writing in!
Fast forward to today: Eventually, all of my books will be available in both languages, but the setting dictates whether I first write in English or in German.
Writing a book takes time. My historical novels take me about half a year to write, not counting all the research that goes into the story before I even start writing. Translating a book also takes time. Not quite as much as writing one, but two to three months at least. It’s a constant juggling of priorities.
Do I want the translation finished or write a new book? Working parallel on two stories in two languages doesn’t always work out very well. And even if I choose to use a translation machine to save typing time, my editing time doubles because machine translations are not very elegant, if not downright hilarious, as I’ve pointed out in my post “Should I use Google to translate my novel?”.
Well, I would be a terrible translator if I couldn’t do that, but it is a challenge, especially where the form of address is concerned. German enables me to establish relationships between people in finely tuned nuances without ever having to describe them simply by the form of address I’m using. That gets lost in the translation.
On the other hand, English has so many words that require bumbling descriptions in German – which is why a German translation usually turns out longer than the original work. Often, a direct translation will sound clumsy, so to make a story work I need to step up a level from translating mere meaning to transporting the underlying atmosphere, linguistic beauty, and emotions. For this reason, under German law, a translation is regarded as a creative work having the same copyrights as an original book.
There’s a reason why I will not translate erotica under any circumstances. I really have no idea why this is so, but the German language is utterly unsuited to describing sex without sounding either blatantly obscene or absolutely silly.
Most of my books are clean reads, but I do have stories that involve sex scenes. I don’t mind writing them, as long as it’s in English.
In the German version of the Way of Life series, the wedding night is a LOT shorter than in the English version. Don’t name things, use hints, and focus on what the protagonists feel rather than what they do, and you can worm your way through a German sex scene without falling apart, while the same scene in English may be created easily with a beautiful, romantic flow.
Maybe it’s just me. I don’t need explicit scenes unless they really fit into the story. In English, I often skip over them if I find them too excessive. In German? No. Just no.
Looking back on eight years of writing in two languages, I detect a pattern. The stories I write in English tend to be much more demanding than the ones I write in German. Every story draws me in until the characters become real, and I’m not one of those authors who spend much time procrastinating instead of writing. And yet the English stories dominate my waking thoughts to a greater degree than the German ones. There could be two reasons for this.
Having a wonderfully supportive German publisher behind me makes me search for ideas to work into stories that will fit their portfolio. They involve a lot of research which slows up the writing process.
The stories I write in English seek me out and pester me until I give in and write them despite having other things scheduled. I keep them bottled up until they burst forth with the force of a tsunami.
As a teenager, I found English to be the language of my heart. If I could choose, I wouldn’t be writing in German at all. Unfortunately, I’m very bad at marketing, so having a publisher is a definite argument for writing in German. But writing in English is so much more fun!
So yes, being bilingual is cool, but if you want to publish books in both languages, discipline and time management are vital.
Do you read or write in more than one language? Have you noticed thoughts being lost in the translation?
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Annette Spratte is an award-winning bilingual author and translator living in Germany. With nine books traditionally published in German so far, she has translated and self-published her most successful historical novels The Silent Maid and The Potbaker’s Niece into English (more to come). Her trademarks are life-like characters and a vivid writing style that glues readers to the pages.
Her translation schedule is tight, so if you wish to make use of her skills, you need to plan well ahead.
Learn more about Annette on her website http://annettespratte.org
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