Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 4, 2023

The Challenges of Being a Bilingual Author

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.

In which language to write?

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.

The Time Factor

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?”.

Can I make the story work in the other language?

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.

Let’s not talk about sex…

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.

Story demands

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.

Theory A:

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.

Theory B:

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?

* * * * * *

About Annette

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

Top Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

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15 comments on “The Challenges of Being a Bilingual Author”

  1. Hi Annette,

    Your article has come out at a very interesting time in my career. My award winning debut picture book KARA’S DREAMS is now translated into Spanish. And my second picture book titled, I AM MY LANGUAGE is about how little seven year old me, taught myself the language of my heart, the Punjabi language. I went to an all girls Catholic school and spoke English before speaking the language of my heart. But I felt self propelled to know my own language. In my head, I think in English and in my heart, I feel Punjabi language. Regardless, I love both languages.

    1. Thank you for sharing! Isn't it amazing that our hearts have their own language regardless of the one we learned first? Perhaps it's not as rare as I thought...

  2. This is really interesting. It never occurred to me that cultural differences in language could cause issues with writing scenes.

    I guess some languages lend themselves more easily to romance than others.

    Great post.

    Thank you, Annette.

    1. Cultural differences pose quite a few problems in translations. I often think: Now, Germans are not going to get this. How do I introduce the idea in a manner they will understand? It's important to be really at home in the culture, not just know the language. Which is why I will always need a native speaker to proofread my translations from German to English. I get mixed up with American and British expressions, having read a wide variety of books. Sometimes even a bit of Scots slips in...
      Having lived in the States, it's easiest for me to write in American English, but for my historical novels, I'd like to use British English as they are set in Europe.

  3. I have to admit that I've lost most of my Spanish. When I was a girl, I was a tour guide at a miniature museum and I learned phrases for the most common things in many different languages because our visitors came from all over the world and often didn't speak English. It was a lovely experience and I realized that there were some things that could be conveyed easier in some languages than in others. But I am in awe of anyone who can write in multiple languages. What a joyous talent!

    1. That must have been fun! I love to know words and sentence in multiple languages, even though I have no use for them. Catch me reading the ingredients lists on food in fifteen languages just for fun! LOL
      Or manuals. They are hilarious, especially if they've been machine translated.

  4. I've always THOUGHT in English, even when growing up in Mexico City in the 1960s, even when most of my schooling was in Spanish.

    I barely have enough energy (I'm chronically ill and disabled) to write my mainstream fiction in English, so the thought of writing anything in Spanish, or of translating into it (especially the big fat novels) is literally not possible to accomplish. In another life...

    I find my best readers are those who have a solid background in American and English literature - preferably by choice, but some by education. While I might consider translation some day, I'd be looking more at this point for those who read mostly in English.

    You can't possibly please everyone, and English is widespread, but I WOULD dearly love to have some of those educated readers-in-English come from more countries. I have two readers in India right now (over a third of the second novel happens in India), and I can't wait to see what they will say. I hope they review.

    May you find many more readers for what you love to write.

    1. Thank you! I hope those readers from India will give you feedback. I'd be rather nervous. What if I got something terribly wrong?

      It's really funny to be thinking in another language that is spoken all around you. I think in English when I write in English and think in German when I write in German. As if I had two brains. It does get muddled up in everyday life when I think English and want to speak German. Luckily, my children are fluent in English by now, too, so we just use the first word we can grab hold of, often switching language mid-sentence. Germish.

  5. I used to be able to write fluently in Spanish, but I lost that after college. Use it or lose it is true. I can still read it. I learned it in school. Not of Spanish descent.

    1. Would you believe I lost my German while living in the States? My native tongue disappeared. I could still understand it, but I wasn't able to speak one straight sentence. It was very embarrassing. When I got back to Germany, I spoke crooked German with an American accent. Use it or lose it indeed! Although I haven't lost much of my English despite not using it on a daily basis. Odd.

  6. I absolutely love this! I hang out with a lot of romance writers, so the difference in love scenes made me laugh out loud. Who knew that the translation to German would make that big a difference? I'm in awe of people like you who have become proficient enough in a second language to be creative in it. I'm good with languages, but can't imagine ever becoming fluent enough to think or create in another one besides English.

    I find the "language of birth" connection with the psyche to be utterly fascinating. Many of my friends from other countries have expressed how their native language is the language of their emotions. When something traumatic happens to them, they cannot truly grieve it until they speak it and/or write it in their own language. It gave me an enormous moment of pondering when I realized that.

    1. I keep joking that I am a translingual person - an American accidentally born in a German body. My language for expressing my innermost feelings is not my birth language. There are some very sad reasons for that, I suppose, which I'm not going to go into here.
      Interesting aspect, though! I never thought about it before.

    2. Regarding those 'romantic' scenes... It could be just me. I mean, there are erotic novels out there written by Germans. I've just never read them so couldn't tell you what they're like. But whenever I come across an excerpt, I just shake my head and scroll on.

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