Monday, July 19, 2010

Ce N'est Pas Anglais!

(That's Not English!)

Every now and then, I'll be listening to a song with French lyrics or reading a book in French or something will happen and I'll start talking in French (yes, I do that, even to non-French speaks. Just ask my best friend,) and I'll get inspired.

Yep, scenes or characters or dialogue will pop into my head. The kicker: It's not in English!

Am I the only one this happens to?

I like to pretend my French is pretty good. But pretend is the important part of that sentence. Without a lengthy and in-depth dictionary, I've a tendency to get stuck on ordinary, and often necessary, words like window-blinds or carpeting, not to mention words I might reach for in conversation, like sanctimonious, and Court of Appeals. (Because, quite frankly, if I can't call someone a sanctimonious git, I don't know if I'll be able to bicker effectively, and, I'm sure, I'll one day land myself in a situation in a french speaking country when I need a Court of Appeals. It's always that place you don't know the word for you desperately need to find, isn't it?)

Now, I'm in awe of people, such as Chinua Achebe or Joseph Conrad, who wrote books in languages that are not their mother tongue. I'm impressed. I really am. But I'm not one of those people. It wouldn't take me five minutes to run into a situation where I can't find the word I want. I can see myself now beating my head on a wall thinking, 'Is there a way to say 'flaming imbecile' in French? I DON'T KNOW ENOUGH WORDS!! AAHH!!' Yes, I would lose my mind that fast. Am I alone in this?

And, sometimes, even worse, it's my English that fails me. I'll hear or read a nifty line or saying in French and think, "This doesn't work nearly so well in English." I get this feeling about song lyrics a lot. I'll love the lyrics and try to explain to someone else why it's brilliant, but the poetry seems lacking when I translate it. Maybe it's me, maybe it's English. Maybe I need a second opinion...

Sorry to ramble, but this has been nibbling at my brain for a while, and I've been wondering if anyone else has found themselves in a similar situation. Do you occasionally hear something great or think something great in one language and have trouble putting it in the language you generally use? Have you ever tried writing a novel, short story, or poetry in your non-primary language?


  1. Oui! I am not close to fluent in any other language, but I often read a piece of poetry or hear a song lyric in another language (Spanish, Italian, French, or German) and get the chills, because there is no way to express that exact flow of thought so beautifully or precisely in English.

    It works both ways, though. Sometimes things written in English don't translate well into another language. I feel, though, that English is not as poetic as many other languages.

    That's why my husband and I are on a "six languages in six months" learning whirlwind. I'm afraid we're not being very diligent students, but we are watching lots of Almodovar movies (July is Spanish month), listening to Jaguares, and reading Pablo Neruda poetry to develop our appreciation.

    I've never tried writing a whole piece in another language, but I often write stories that incorporate phrases or sentences in other languages.

  2. Genie -- Wow, six languages in six months sounds intense. It also sounds fun. Let me know how it goes.