Writing different languages

An old manuscript with a poem by Joost van den VondelWhat language do you write in? On the Dutch NaNoWriMo forums it is an ever returning topic: Dutch or English? And I am certain that there are many writers whose mother tongue is not English who ask themselves this question on a regular basis. This is one of those issues that probably never ever occurs to Americans and Brits, but which can be a big problem for others. For many writers it is a struggle.

Why a struggle? What I see on the NaNo forums is that a lot of people write fantasy, and fantasy just doesn’t ‘sound’ so great in Dutch. It’s like translating band names (or lyrics): in English they sound perfectly alright, but once you translate them to Dutch it’s completely ridiculous: De Kevers, Koninging, De Rollende Stenen, De Scheenbenen, De Vloot Vossen, etc. Interestingly, this issue is much more potent in fantasy and science-fiction genres than it is in more ‘realistic’ fiction. So, based on genre these Dutchies would prefer to write in English. They are pretty good English speakers, too, but they are not native speakers. And that is the counter argument: a writer should write in his/her mother tongue, because that is the language in which (s)he is perfectly fluent.

Mother, moeder, Mutter, mêre, mater, mem, madre

So these writers are torn: both languages have their own advantages and disadvantages and it is a tough choice! I guess there is something to be said for learning only one language after all! Perhaps I should mention that the Dutch are generally very good when it comes to languages. Unlike the French and Germans, foreign films and tv shows are not dubbed, but simply provided with subtitles. As most films and tv are in English, the Dutch hear English from infancy onwards. But that is not all. In high school, everyone takes at least a couple of years of French and German as well. And those who go to grammar school also take Latin and Ancient Greek. I personally went through:

– 6 years of Dutch (mother tongue)
– 1 year of Frisian (the minority language in my area)
– 6 years of English
– 6 years of French
– 5 years of German
– 2 years of Ancient Greek
– 6 years of Latin
– 2 years of Hebrew (old Hebrew, for fun)

Personally, I occasionally struggle with my language choice too, but for different reasons than the majority of people as described above. My choice is between English and Dutch too, but I am as fluent in English as I am in Dutch, so there is no problem there. I suppose it comes down to lots of practice, but I truly am at the level of a native speaker when it comes to English (if you don’t believe me, I’m happy to send you my MA thesis!). 🙂

House, huis, Haus, hûs, domus, maison, casa

After writing both English and Dutch short stories, I eventually chose English as my main language. Only when the subject-matter dictates it, will I write in Dutch (writing a short story in Dutch at the moment). So why did I chose English over Dutch? There are three main reasons:

  • I feel that English has a much wider vocabulary than Dutch. I don’t know if this actually true, but it definitely feels like there are more English words than Dutch words. And I like variety. 🙂
  • I feel that English allows slightly more freedom in grammatical constructions than Dutch. Again, this might be nothing but my own imagination, but I like shaping sentences exactly the way I want them. English seems to have more options.
  • English has a wider audience. This is an argument that most non-English writers will take into account, I think. The Dutch market is simply tiny. That is why Dutch books are so expensive.

Happiness, geluk, felicidad, bonheur, Glück, felicitas, lok

And so I write in English now, and from the feedback I have received I seem to be doing it pretty well (thank goodness!). I suppose every language has its advantages and disadvantages. I have written basic texts in German and I found that German has these wonderfully sharp-sounding words. I don’t think there is a language that says ‘blitzschnellen Gitarrenriffs’ better than German does!

So, what is your mother tongue? Do you write in that language or another? Why did you choose that language? Which is your favourite language and why? I would love to hear it!

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