I do almost all of my fiction writing in English and almost all of my non-fiction writing in Dutch (I’m a journalist and copywriter in the Netherlands). These two languages are, therefore, entwined in both my life and my writing.
Being bilingual has many advantages and I won’t go into that here. But, when it comes to writing or, I should say, when it comes to good writing, bilingualism also has its disadvantages. I always feel like my writing is lacking that special something.
I feel that my lexicon is not sufficient in either language. I know the basic words of most things in both languages, but I do miss a lot of synonyms. I read my work and often think that it could have been written by a fourteen year old because it misses ‘sophisticated’ words.
Sometimes, I’m writing and I think of a great description, but then realise that I’ve already thought of it in the other language, which I need it to be in. I quickly flick to Google translate (a site that’s always open when I’m writing) and look up that word or expression. Nine times out of ten, I simply can’t use the translation. Sometimes it’s due to linguistic issues (alliteration and such), but more often than not, it simply doesn’t make sense in the other language because it just doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.
Whenever we translate between languages, we look for a word with the best one-to-one ratio. With basic nouns, it’s rather simple. A table is een tafel in Dutch and an elephant een olifant. But things get more complicated when, not objects, but ideas and feelings are named. The right translation often depends on context and there’s always that annoying feeling that the word doesn’t exactly mean what it does in the other language.
A word I personally wrestled with when trying to communicate between both languages was the Dutch word uitstraling. It’s a word that can express a kind of inner beauty that is not necessarily connected to someone’s physical appearance.
A translation dictionary gives several options for the (figurative) meaning of the word uitstraling: aura, character, personality, charisma… None of these words have the same connection to beauty that the Dutch word has. Charisma perhaps comes closest, although it’s usually linked with power and authority rather than someone’s pleasing appearance. Also, charisma can have a negative connotation, which uitstraling doesn’t have. Another word that could be an adequate translation is radiant: someone could look radiant. But this word is still connected more to physical beauty rather than their personality, which is visible on the outside.
The fact that there’s not a clear-cut, one-to-one translation between Dutch and English is frustrating when I know what that perfect word I’m looking for is. And this happens all the time when I’m writing, whether it’s in Dutch or in English.
Usually, the time it takes to look up the word already takes the momentum out of my writing. I have to deal with the frustration that I can’t say what I really want to say. I have to got back to writing and find a new way to say it.
Am I the only bilingual writer that feels this way?