Bilingual Wordsmiths: The Challenges of Writing in Two Languages


SLPTWRK/Flickr Vladimir Nabokov, whose first language was Russian, wrote several books in Russian before writing many in English, such as the groundbreaking Lolita.

Writing in more than one language may be a difficult challenge, a liberating experience and a triumph all at once–we’ll take you through the obstacles that you might face during this process.

Most bilinguals are aware that there isn’t always a one-to-one correspondence between words in the different languages that they speak. The same is true for almost all aspects of language, from sounds to concepts: when you say ‘schadenfreude’ in German, you don’t actually mean ‘harm-joy’ in English.

If you want to write in more than one language, you will have to understand how these differences apply, and what changes you will have to make to your style in order to keep the impact the same.

Stylistic Differences

François Grosjean, Ph.D writes a great column in Psychology Today on life as a bilingual. In one of his columns, he outlines the difficulties that he faced when he, a native English speaker, wrote a book in French.

While he has no trouble speaking, writing and lecturing in French, he encountered great difficulty when it came to taking on the large and personal project of writing an entire book in the language.

He observes how his personal writing style, which has been influenced by years of writing in English, is not really very compatible with French. The short and punchy sentences that he enjoyed using in English did not work as well in French, which requires longer sentences with more clauses.

Moreover, Grosjean found that written French requires a far more formal tone than he was used to using in his English work.

Differences of Background

If you’re bilingual, try saying a phone number that you only use in one language, in another language: tricky isn’t it?

This, Grosjean explains in another Psychology Today column, is caused by the fact that, in most cases, bilinguals are used to using the different languages they know in distinct areas of their life, usually with different people. Because of this, languages become customized according to how they are used.

This means that if a French person works as a political journalist in the USA, speaking English for work and French at home, they might have a lot of trouble if someone asked them to write a book on US politics in French.

While finding the right French word for ‘filibuster,’ or ‘Libertarian Republican’ is hard enough, the words in French might actually mean something very different in France than they do in the US.

We can then surmise that if our political journalist wanted to write a book on American politics for the French, they would need to make a significant effort to develop a specialized vocabulary in order to properly express their ideas in the second language.

Knowing How to Write Well in Another Language

William Zinsser, writing in American Scholar, comments that foreign bilingual students who find themselves in the USA are rarely taught about the principles of good English. He observes how what is considered ‘good’ writing in most other languages is not the same as in English.

For example, Arabic is highly ornate, full off adjectives, and frequently features proverbs to express quite basic statements. Such construction would not create a very readable essay or non-fiction book in English, while English’s punchy sentences and economy might not produce very good Arabic.

Novels are different, of course: a new and different style is good. But remember, when injecting material from another language into your book that it must be familiar, otherwise people will feel alienated.

Once you understand what good writing is, then it will be time to experiment and modulate how you use the language at your disposal to make your writing more powerful. For example, in English, ‘talk’ and ‘communicate’ are, on some level, synonymous–but they don’t mean the same thing, and you can use them in different places in your writing to increase impact.

Watch Out for False Friends

In another of his Psychology Today columns, François Grosjean warns bilinguals against the perils of ‘false friends’, or words and patterns which seem to resemble those of your mother tongue, but actually mean something else.

On the most basic level, the word for ‘library’ in French is ‘bibliothèque,’ though many people, under stress or during the rites of creativity, might wrongly reach for ‘librairie,’ which means bookstore.

It is also important to remember that metaphors don’t translate between languages–at least not literally. In French, you don’t say ‘I’m kidding myself,’ but rather, ‘I’m telling myself stories’ (‘Je me raconte des histoires’).

Here’s one to amuse your friends at dinner: In Welsh, when it is raining heavily, you say that it is ‘raining old women and sticks’ (‘mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn’)–not, it’s ‘Raining cats and dogs’.

So before reaching for your laptop to get started on your book in a second or third (or fourth or fifth) language, remember that you might find more challenges than you imagined. Nonetheless, it will definitely increase your ability to use that language on a number of new levels that you might not have experienced before.

Think that you’re ready to start your first book in French? Try our French Level Test to see how you score! Or, if you’re looking at literature in another language, check out our expansive collection of free online language level tests to gauge your skill level.