Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Writing in a foreign language

As translators, we are not supposed to work into our second language, only from it. However, we have to write in a foreign language when we live and work in a foreign country: We need to be able to write it well to correspond with our customers and colleagues, to give classes and presentations, to write resumes and applications. If we want to communicate more broadly, we may decide that a more widespread language (like English) opens to us a wider stage.

We should strive to write our second language as well as possible, with elegance and precision, style, restraint, and power. We may even find that writing in a foreign language is easier than translating into it: when we translate, we are bound to the path chosen for us by the original author; when we write, we are making our own way.

I came to love English, to appreciate its difficulties and beauty, its subtleties, its style. Over time I learned to think in English, now I often dream in it. Do I write like a native? I don't think so: we are often blind to our faults. But I'm attuned to the way good English is written: for certain things, it is a more flexible tool than Italian.

In English a good standard is saying things in a simple manner, trying to be concise, to use the active voice. Far too often, in Italian we find instead convoluted sentences, needlessly complex syntax, the use of language not to communicate but as a way to show off. Hence, so much legal and bureaucratic verbiage, and also the misplaced love for half-learned, and one-fourth-understood foreign (especially English) words when Italian ones would do.


  1. Portuguese also has a lot of old structures and verbose. I believe English morphological rules allow it to accept a greater number of loan words and that provides for a certain freshness of the language.

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  3. People prize different things in well-written prose, depending on the language in question. A language like German has relatively few actual words (lexemes), so complexity of thought is expressed less through word choice but through syntax--this is why German writing is so "convoluted"; this is how you express erudition in German-speaking cultures, by being able to write (and read) complex syntax.

    English, by contrast, has fairly "easy" syntax, but is a language full of synonyms. It is said that English has the largest vocabulary of any world language, and given the size of the largest dictionaries this appears to be true. One simple example: in English we draw distinctions between "freedom" and "liberty," where German has only "Freiheit" and French has only "liberte." Yet, freedom and liberty do not mean precisely the same thing. The nuance of proper word choice is where the complexity of English resides, and people express erudition in writing and reading by being able to deal with the subtle nuances of synonyms well.

    One thing standing in the way for nonnative speakers of English in becoming stronger writers in English is not only using very clear, logical syntax but also focusing on making the right word choice, and selecting just the right nuance for the context at hand. Indeed, most native speakers of English are inadequate at this, too (evidenced by my verbosity here!).

    Great post.

  4. Very good information....
    Thanks !

  5. I fully agree with your last paragraph - my native language is Polish and it can be equally and unnecessarily complex. And unfortunately, the over-reliance on some English words and phrases is sometimes mind-blowing May favourite example was the word 'merchandiser' used instead of its simpler Polish equivalent.
    Good blog.

  6. Very, VERY interesting comment. I think the mark of a good translator is his/her ability to be able to create in a/the foreign language.


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