Reading in a Foreign Language

It’s been an age since I last picked up a book in French and at the beginning of the week I found I was hankering after one. I dug around a bit and found the book I’d abandoned halfway through, all about a magician’s conference in deepest Tibet where the skeptical son of the greatest of all magicians has gone to receive a tribute to his father. This man – the main protagonist – is a writer and believes that our human desire for illusion, the way we cherish our gullibility, is at the heart of any magical trick. But the magicians are trying to convince him that there is scientific proof of travel between parallel worlds, reincarnation and so on. It’s a fun book full of ideas, but it’s also written in this lovely, smooth French that’s a pleasure to read. As a non-native speaker it’s notable how small differences in style can make for big differences in understanding. If the French is slangy and idiomatic or uses a local dialect I can get very lost. I also get fed up if the writer draws from some huge vocabulary full of esoteric or exotic words. There’s only so much looking up in the dictionary you can take before the sense of a passage goes to pieces in your mind. But generally speaking, after all these years of reading French, I can get through most books without worrying about the problems of the language and just enjoy the completely different music that another tongue makes.

I read my first French novel when I was about 16 – it was an Agatha Christie that I also had in English and I read the two side by side. At that stage of learning a language it’s just too tedious to keep puzzling and puzzling over what things mean, and maintaining the impetus to keep going means taking the easy solution of a published translation. By the time I got to university I was reading the French books on their own, but it was still a slow and sometimes painful process. Nothing is so frustratingly opaque as a sentence in a foreign language that you just cannot make head nor tail of. It’s a strange but undeniable truth that modern language students are some of the flakiest in the average year’s intake; they seem more prone to worry and anxiety than the career-focused lawyers and the laid back natural scientists. The only groups who match them for trips to see their tutors are the English students and the mathematicians, who are absolutely spectacular in their embrace of personal difficulties when they decide to go for it. It’s only a half-baked personal theory, but I do think that trying to work with three different language networks at once is a surefire way to mess with your head. There’s something about the attempt to prise meaning and significance out of complex arrangements of symbols (and what else is maths after all?) that uproots everything familiar, dependable and safe in the mind. By the time I was sitting my finals I was timing myself. I could do 50 pages an hour in English, 40 or so in French, but I was lucky to manage 20 an hour in German.

Anyone who’s ever read any German will understand what the problem is. German is a logical and precise language, but in its adherence to the rules it tends to go faintly internally bonkers. In German the auxiliary verb comes in second place in a sentence, but all the other verbs then line up in a row at the end (I have to the shops been, etc). This means that you can’t ever work out a sentence until you’ve reached the end of it and reshuffled all the verbs to put them in their correct places. It’s tricky when reading, and it makes listening comprehension a complete nightmare. If you’ve ever read a sentence of Kleist in the original, with its strings of sub clauses and its manically intense syntax, you could quite understand why he chose to end his life with the most hyper-organised suicide pact the Western world has ever seen. To my mind the German language shows you exactly why the culture is so frighteningly good at logistics, so absurdly organized. If you grew up from birth learning to make complex mental rearrangements of every sentence you ever heard, I figure you’d be pretty good at creating a timetable. I’m sure that languages do shape a culture’s mentality. Years ago at a party I met a Serbian lawyer who came from a small town called Grk. He said he was convinced that his people would be less aggressive if only their language had more vowels.

Anyhow, I digress. But reading a whole book in another language teaches you that no two languages think the same way. Explaining something to someone in a different language is an incredibly hard thing to do because somehow the steps of logic are all altered. The French person just wouldn’t begin in the same place as the English person, wouldn’t appeal to the same causality, wouldn’t find the same steps of reasoning to be convincing. That’s why reading literature in a different language is so very interesting, because the networks of my English brain get placed on top of the world of the French writer and all kinds of questions rise to the surface. That’s how I learnt to be a literary critic, matching English cultural expectations, even at the level of the sentence, against the French and German ones in the stories I was reading. Trust me – it makes the processes of criticism so much more obvious.

But I’d recommend it to anyone to have a go at a book in a foreign language. You have to allow for a bit of a struggle with the first twenty pages while you work out what’s going on (what we are happy to tolerate as enigmatic in English makes you feel very uncertain whether you haven’t just misunderstood in another language), and get used to the vocabulary of an author. I find I have to look up a lot of words in that first section, and then very few after that, as I’ve grown accustomed to the personal lexicon of the writer. And if you can get that far, and keep going, it won’t be long before the sheer beauty of another language is released from the words that once looked so resistant, and it’s an experience that’s well worth the effort.

15 thoughts on “Reading in a Foreign Language

  1. Moi, je prefère la poésie. Pour essayer à lire avec la mentalité (culturelle, psychologique, etc.) de l’auteur, je le trouve le mieulleur. Et la plupart des poèmes sont brèves.

    But not everyone loves poetry.

    Your culture-mirrors-language theory is compelling. However, I do not know if it holds up historically. Before Italians were the laidback lovers of life that they are today, they ruled the Roman Empire. Granted, they spoke Latin, but they continued to speak the language of law and order long after chaos had begun to hold sway.

    Before Germans were bureaucrats, they were a barbarian horde. (Some would argue that they became too much of the former, while remaining the latter, but I think that power’s capacity to corrupt, not barbarian heritage, is the true issue in WWI&II.)

    Does language create culture, does culture create language, or a little of both? (Or is there a third cause?) German became the organized language that it is today, because of some very organized individuals, especially Martin Luther, whose writings conquered the religious/literary world of the 1500s, and the Prussians (like Bismark), who had pretty much conquered most of the other German-speakers by the mid-1800s. The language and the culture were forced to be organized by the same political circumstances.

    My apologies, but
    un long “post” vaut une longue reponse, non?

  2. I read novels, poetry, short stories and articles in French very frequently. But I find it hard to lose myself in a French novel the way I can in an English one. Unless the novel is really engrossing, I still do a lot of translating in my head. It’s rare that I run into a word that I can’t figure out from context, but once in a while, especially if it’s an old book, a classic maybe, I’ll run into some expression I don’t know and have to google it. It’s sort of like what I said about The Road, that the grammar style kept pulling me out of the story? Pausing over words/phrases I’m not familiar with can pull me out of the story, I guess. Even if I can figure out an unfamiliar word through context clues, I’m yanked out of the story. For this reason, it’s much nicer for me reading newspaper articles in French, because I don’t need to feel immersed, you know? Still, what you said about the beauty of the language makes it worth it, because translations can be so misleading.

    I agree with what faithfool says about poetry. In general, she sounds like my kind of linguistics nerd, and I was disappointed that her name didn’t link to a blog I could read. 🙂 One thing I enjoy is to read a poem in French, then find different translations of it in English, choosing which one I prefer. I can get really nitpicky with English translations of novels or poems I enjoy in French.

  3. In Trevanian’s Shibumi, the protagonist grows up speaking a number of languages, and he, like you, comes to think of them in terms of what they mean culturally. I don’t remember his exact categories, but as I recall, Russian is for important things, French for trivialities, Chinese for the streets (the story begins in Shanghai), and English is the despised language of the merchants. Your post makes me want to go back and re-read some of my French texts just to see if I still can.

  4. This past November I picked up a 3 volume set of the history of German literature published in 1918 and written in German (the old style, I believe). Maybe someday I can brush up on German (which I haven’t touched since high school) and read this wonderful history!

  5. This why I love blogging: that I get to read a classic post like this over my breakfast coffee and not even have to pay for the privilege. The bit about the lawyer from Grk almost resulted in a dangerous coffee-snorting episode. Thanks for making me laugh, Litlove.

    I speak German daily, but almost never read German books for precisely the reason you mention: it takes a lot of effort. I love my English island in the sea of Germany. But perhaps I should harness some patience and work through a text, maybe something like The Reader, which is short and which I have already read in English.

  6. Faithfool – mais j’adore les longues reponses eloquentes comme la votre! Soyez le bienvenu (la bienvenue?) chez mon blog, Faithfool! I’m not going to hold too tight to my theory as it was fun to formulate but far from scientifically proven! But I am interested in the way language changes so much over time, and so quickly too. Writers like Assia Djebar are brilliant on the way that her native language changed both with colonisation and then with liberation. Dew – it’s wonderful that you can read so widely in French! I do know just what you mean about language issues pulling you out of a story. It always helped that I was reading books to study, not just to enjoy the plot. I’m not sure I would have had the patience, reading for pleasure. And thank you for the lovely image of yourself nit-picking with your different translations – I did enjoy picturing that! Hobgoblin – what a brilliant quote – I just love that! I shall have to look out the book. And I’ll bet your French would come right back to you. Sharon – how lovely to hear from you! How marvellous to have found those books, and I’m sure a bit of brushing up would be all that was required for you to read them! Charlotte – I’m so glad you liked that; i thought it very funny at the time. Written German does take a fair amount of effort, but is improved immensely with a translation to hand. I loved writers like Hermann Hesse and Heinrich Boll when I was a student and remember their German to be pretty accessible.

  7. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

  8. You make me want to pick up a book in German, just to give it a try. I have some Hesse and Boll on hand that I’ve read before, years ago, and that might be a good place to start, as they would be familiar. I love languages, but sadly haven’t studied them in the longest time!

  9. If you know other languages then I think it’s simply a crime to read an author in translated form. English is my second language but seeing how dreadful many Spanish-language translations tend to be (both from Spain and from Latin American publishers) there’s really no other option.

  10. Dorothy – I’ll bet it would all come back to you very quickly. I love both Hesse and Boll and just talking about them is making me feel the urge to read them again! GB – And I’m impressed by how wonderfully well you and other English-as-2nd-languagers write on my site! You remind me that I’ve read hardly any Spanish authors and I ought to do something about that.

  11. I read more books in English than in French, my mother tongue. I tend to find novels in English more fluid, smoother, and more charming than novels in French. Ah, exotism…! Actually, it may be because I can’t be as discerning. I’m much more intolerant with badly written books in French. The worse is when I read a English book translated in French: I try and find the original sentence, to see if I can find a better translation! Exhausting… 😉

  12. I used to be decent with Spanish and German. Never read much in Spanish but in college we read a portion of Goethe’s Faust. Difficult but rewarding. Now that I have all but forgotten both languages I have plans to start learning Spanish again before the year is out. Once I get going on it I will take your advice Litlove and attempt reading literature in Spanish. I have several Neruda poetry books with the Spanish poem on one page and an English translation on the other. Those should be a good way to start out.

  13. I completely agree with you on the joys and frustrations of reading in another language. And I love what you have to say about a French person starting that sentence in a different place – so very true. And I agree with you on getting lost in the different music – that’s the joy of reading in another language. I don’t read German but my husband does and we have enough German books around here that I’m often tempted to crack one open and see if I can wrangle my way through. Not bloody likely, I’m afraid. But I dream about reading Durrenmatt and Stefan Zweig in the original. The language I spend most of my time guiltily neglecting is Japanese but I am getting better at getting that reading time in and puzzling through the kanji – it just takes sooooo long to look anything up. 🙂

  14. In the eight years since the original post, e-readers like the Kindle have made it much, much easier to read a foreign novel. With a bilingual dictionary on the device, you only have to press a word to get an instant definition, so you can look up words without breaking the flow of the book. It’s still work, but it’s probably only 10% of the effort it used to be. And, of course, each subsequent book gets easier.

    I’ve written about what I think is the best way to read novels on a Kindle (with lots of screenshots) on my own blog. It’s not monetized, so I hope it’s okay to post a link here:

  15. Pingback: Reading in a foreign language - tips and strategies

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