The Multilingual Blogger
(This article was originally published as a Guest Post on afortnightaway.com)
Most people speak different languages. That reality has recently benefited from the help of different advocates. In 1998, the UNESCO has declared Human Languages part of Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. The 21st of February is now the International Day of Mother Tongues. Linguists all over the world are fighting to preserve our linguistic diversity. I will not go into further details about these facts, but I encourage you guys to get informed about it. This can start by this short introductive video from the Unesco and by a more personal post by fellow blogger ReelCarina.
Being multilingual is being a medium, or even an advocate, for linguistic diversity around the world. And what is true in our interactions with people down our street, is also true in our interactions as bloggers.
Blogging is about providing an audience with content; it’s about interacting with people and helping others. In that perspective, should multilingual bloggers go ahead and blog in multiple languages? Depending on the blogger’s objectives, there certainly are pros and cons, and different how’s and why’s.
I recently wrote a very personal, emotional account of my experience as a bilingual blogger. I’ll have now a more practical take on it. Let’s address the Who’s, What’s and How’s of multilingual blogging. I won’t address the Why’s. Your reasons may vary, from “just because I can”, to “widening my audience”, to “being an advocate for my language”. This would be your story, one that can’t be covered here. Hopefully, the following will come in useful.
It is crucial to be aware of the way you relate to the languages you speak. Even if you stick to the practical issues, you won’t change a fact: language is intimate; it’s emotional. Most bloggers fall into three types of multilingualism, and sometimes somewhere in between those three types. What about you?
Type 1: Dominant — Vehicular
- Your mother tongue is a dominant language (one that benefits from a substantial political representation, like being the actual, official language of a country),
- and your second language is a vehicular language (a lingua franca you use to connect with people whose language you do not speak).
For instance, my mother tongue is French and my second language is International English.
Type 2: Dominant — Dominant
- Your mother tongue is a dominant language,
- and you just happen to have learned several other dominant languages, including maybe a vehicular language.
For instance, your mother tongue is German and your other languages are French and International English; or your mother tongue is Punjabi and your other languages are Urdu and Hindu.
Type 3: Minor-Dominant
- Your mother tongue is a minor language (for instance a rare language or one that is not the official language of a country), maybe even a minorized language (i.e. one that experiences discrimination and cultural bullying),
- and your main other language is the dominant language that took over your mother tongue by way of colonization or acculturation. That dominant language may also be a vehicular language.
For instance, your mother tongue is Quechua and your second language is Peruvian Spanish, or your mother tongue is Inuktitut and your second language is American English, or your mother tongue is Alsacian and your second language is French.
Your linguistic identity as a multilingual blogger definitely influences the way you blog and also determines your needs in terms of content and format, whether you want it or not.
Maintaining a multilingual blog raises obvious formatting and practical questions. Here are a few of them to help you out.
Basically: Are you fluent enough in every language you’re going to use? I’m not saying that your grammar should be perfect. My English-speaking readers were so far kind enough not to point out my mistakes and erroneous phrasings to me (or they just gave up on my blog, and didn’t tell me).
You can definitely sound foreign. But your language skills must not impede reading. Personally, I can’t concentrate if I read an article written in approximative English. Therefore, it’s not about the reader’s skills; it’s about yours.
Will you need to use different writing systems? If so, make sure to select fully compatible, Unicode font sets. A common blogging advice is to use easy-to-read, sans serif fonts. Whether you normally follow that advice or not, consider it when juggling with different writing systems on the same website, blog, not to mention on the same page!
If one of your languages comes with different options in terms of writing systems (for instance hanzi and pinyin for Mandarin Chinese), go for the one that is the most widely used by the native speakers of that language. Don’t try to encourage your other readers to read you in that language: most of them won’t, and you’ll lose those who were your primary readers in that language.
Also be conscious that computer sciences are awfully Roman-centered. Roman characters (namely, those you’re reading right now) are considerably favorized. Using other writing systems for typing can be very frustrating and lead to formatting and compatibility issues. I’m not saying this should stop you; I’m just saying that you must prepare your writing tools properly and examine the options offered by your blogging platform, laptop and software.
Here again, fundamental questions should stick to your mind:
- How are you going to organize your blog? Will every page be multilingual, or just your Homepage and About pages?
- Is your readership multilingual (very likely if you’re in India), or monolingual (very likely if you’re in France)? Do you have one bulk of readers, or separate batches? I know for instance that I have two completely different batches of readers: those who can only read French and those who can only read English. Very few among them can read both languages fluently enough to read all my blog posts.
A balance needs to be kept: your blog must both look nicely organized and easy to navigate, and remain accessible for readers who just want to get asap to posts they can actually read.
I have personally been struggling with this. My whole website is based on English, but my Homepage presents French content, well, in French. I’ve put here and there the mention that some articles are actually available both in English and French. But the reader needs to click on the synopsis image of the article to find that out — except for articles in the “Last Published” section, where the languages available are systematically mentioned.
I probably need to reorganize all this. The most straightforward thing I’ve done so far is to create an “En français” tag for my posts, so that if the reader clicks on the “En français” category in the sidebar of my blog, then only my French posts will show up. Thus, my French posts have topic tags (travel, equal rights, women…), and a linguistic tag (en français).
That special tag for monolingual French readers really defines my blog as English-based. Most of my posts are in English, in such a way that I feel the need to help French readers out. But that was my choice when I started blogging in the first place, as I envisioned my blog as training ground for future freelance writing opportunities abroad, in English-speaking countries.
Maintaining a multilingual blog is not just about format. It’s about content: you’re going to post in several languages. There’s basically two ways to handle this:
- Either you publish each or some of your posts in several languages (multiple posting),
- or you use a different language depending on the topic or format of the post (thematic posting).
The third logical option would be to mix several languages in one post, which I would not recommend unless you have a good reason (thematic constraint, rhythmic or stylistic purpose).
Finally, you need to think about how to express your multilingualism in social media.
There’s not two ways around it: multiple posting means translation. I do not believe that you can simultaneously write one post in several languages, unless you are coldly writing a purely matter-of-fact post that serves a purely perfunctory purpose (advertising, analytics, very short practical list post, recipe) — and in that case I suppose you can start writing in whichever language and then translate.
Therefore, most of the time, you write about something that you experienced or care about. In other words, something that you emotionally connect to — and here comes language as a medium for your emotions. Personally, English will come first when I blog about travel, about my wife and about writing. It really comes first. Many times, I’ve opened a new draft, struggled with my mother tongue, and then deleted the draft, and switched to English. Conversely, French will come first if I blog about political issues such as LGBTQ+ rights.
I already wrote about how excruciating the process of self-translation may feel for a writer. I can only repeat here how it felt to me:
“Self-translation is a difficult exercise for the author. It is, in fact, a bit frightening, because it changes the words that one has felt, thought, written. It makes them, literally, foreign. The point is, it doesn’t matter whether the target language is your native language. The words you’re translating were not born in that language. They are made of backpacker consonants and hobo vowels that have seen the world. They are part of a web that ties you to places, people, scents. Lights.” (Excerpt from “Writing in Two Languages”)
Translating some of my articles into French or into English has felt terrible. I still feel uncomfortable reading their translation. It sounds discordant, badly written. It sounds, well, translated. The emotion is gone. It sounds foreign to me. Conversely, translating some other articles felt quite ok. The words just flowed. Beats me.
As a multilingual blogger, you’ll have to deal with translation. Cope with would be an even better word. To put it simply, as the saying goes: “Traduttore, traditore” (“Translator, betrayer”). Faithful translation won’t always be possible. Try embracing the target language rather than trying to preserve every detail of the source language. Information and stylistic twists are bound to be lost. It’s better to lose a nice phrasing altogether than to maim it. And of course, the more straightforward and practical the style of your original post, the easier it will be to translate. So try and systematically translate those straightforward posts. It’ll be easy work and it makes sense, because such posts have a higher tendency to contain tips and advice for your audience.
Now in terms of format, systematically hosting the two versions of one post on your blog may result in a chaotic blog architecture. Personally, I keep the original version on my blog (as it is the version with which I feel the most comfortable) and I insert a link to the translation, which I post on Medium. That is a matter of choice; think it carefully.
All in all, my blog is relatively unbalanced, because I do not translate all my posts, and most of my posts address travel and travel writing — and are, therefore, written in English. In order to restore some linguistic balance, I’ve been relying on thematic posting.
Instead of relying of translation, you can thematically choose the language of your posts, for instance by creating different series in different languages. I wanted my French readers to read some of my travel writing, so I created a French-spoken series called “Sensations” (that word was borrowed into English, so the title of the series is still technically multilingual.) I ran it until I reached 10 posts, and it’s been read by most of my monolingual readers at the time. I’ll start another French-spoken series soon.
If your blog is about international politics and minorities’ rights in your country, ask yourself which of these topics should be read by whom. For example, do you want to discuss these minorities’ rights with the people of your country, or do you want foreign people to be aware of what’s going on in your country? And whom do you want to discuss international politics with?
Do you get my point?
Finally, if one of your languages is a minor or “minorized” language, ask yourself if you want to write for your community or on behalf of your community (or both). Advocating the linguistic rights of your community and inform people might require using another language. But producing content in your community’s language is also a big action in terms of advocacy.
Handling social media
Watch out for any difference in the cultural practices of your readers regarding social media. Some social media are very popular in some countries, while some are not; some areas developed local social media that will prove to be the most direct way to local readers.
For example, I know that Medium is not the best platform to find monolingual French readers; but that is changing rapidly. Facebook on the contrary is really mainstream and much more multilingual.
On my Facebook and Google+ pages, each of my posts is bilingual. On Twitter, the limited number of characters forces me to tweet different tweets in different languages. I try to keep it balanced. I pin content from both my English and French posts on Pinterest. As for my Tumblr project, it’s completely bilingual.
If your blog is multilingual, it is important that your social media profiles be multilingual as well, because this is where your readers will meet you and, crucially, meet each other and share your content.
aka CARRIE SPEAKING,
Travel Writer, Blogger.
Visit my blog @ http://carriespeaking.com