Due to circumstances that are not in themselves very interesting, I'm writing fiction in English, even though I'm a native speaker of German. At this point, writing fiction in English feels natural. Writing fiction in German, on the other hand, feels wrong.
It's not that I dislike my mother tongue. On the contrary: I love writing letters or emails home. I love speaking German, and the slightly unfamiliar feeling it gives my tongue and mouth. I love reading German books written by others.
So why this resistance against writing fiction in German? While living in the U.S., I was able to concoct some pseudo-rational reasons for my preference, all of which involved strange terms like "market" and "audience." When I moved back to Europe, the reproachful squirrel of guilt started gnawing at my heart.
Isn't it time to go back to my roots and write like a German? In German? Voice, identity, sentences that need to be parsed with the help of three-dimensional diagrams, and words like "Fassungslosigkeit," Stimmungsaufheller" and "Querschnitt"
What's not to like?
I wondered whether I wasn't sabotaging my own success by trying to express myself in a second language. I mean, who, being perfectly happy with their first language, does that? It's dumb.
A few months ago, I decided, as a kind of experiment, to translate a few chapters of one of my novels into German. It was an interesting experience. Simple sentences unfolded into unwieldy constructions. Easy word-choices ceased to be easy. I gave myself permission to translate freely, i.e., with an emphasis on feel and flavor, and without the precision required of professional translators. Still, it was hard. The resulting translation was, I'm pleased to say, readable and grammatically correct. In places, I even managed to capture some shades of humor. The text was written in perfectly acceptable German, but to me it felt utterly alien. I knew that, had I written the novel in German, I would have chosen different words, different sentences, and certainly a different tone. I would have written a different book.
A better book? At first, I thought: Yes, absolutely! A much funnier book, for one. A book dished up with the confident wit and the verbal pyrotechnics that are forever the privilege of the native speaker. It would have been a smarter, more complex, more surprising book. It would have been, let's face it, a more impressive book.
But as I kept looking at the alien, almost-but-not-quite-normal German sentences that were supposed to be my words, I realized what I had done. By keeping my mind busy with translation issues (first from Idea to English, then from English to German), I had managed to distract myself from trying to impress. If you fret about the least painful way to translate a word like fret, you have no resources left for fretting about the readers' wow button. At least I don't. I'm limited that way.
What happened in my translation experiment was the following: while I struggled with the technical details, the story seized its chance to do its thing. Unexpected details made the cut, while others were sacrificed to the demands of sentence structure. Writing in English had been the first step away from what would have been the obvious way of telling the story, but translating the thing back into German had stripped off even more of my over-used tricks and idiosyncrasies. I read the text and saw less of Steffi, more of story. Very helpful.
Who knows, maybe this will be my route back to writing in German: the two-step revision process. Maybe even this will be insufficient at some point, and I will have to use a third language to achieve the same kind of distance. And maybe I will decide that I don't have time for this anymore.
[And to think that there are people who are writing wonderful, unique, non-irritating fiction just fine in their native language. It's so unfair.]
I can recommend the above experiment to all writers who are interested in foreign languages, and who are bored/ frustrated/ fed up with their revision process (and which writer isn't from time to time?). Provided, that is, you have a story that interests you enough to justify the effort.
That last point is as obvious as it's crucial. I'm mentioning it because, when my fascination with my experiment threatened to wear off, I tried to salvage some of my very early writing attempts by translating them into English. By "very early writing attempts" I mean "stuff I wrote in my notebook when I was 19, because I felt I wanted to be a writer, and had no clue what to write about."
The following will suffice to illustrate the problem: He is sitting down on a bench. Only rarely is this a mistake. A student sitting down on a bench: Is there anything more normal?
Did the English translation in any way salvage this piece of writing? Hardly. It sounds like the empty small talk of someone who keeps on babbling because he can't handle silence. Fortunately, I stopped writing not long after that, and focused on other things for more than ten years.
This brings us back to the most difficult aspect of writing: The place where you start. Empty small talk will not do. You need to make stuff up—no matter in which language. That's how all the books you love are born. For the rest, there's translation.