A case for the voice of exophony in lieu of native eloquence
I have recently begun working (again) on a piece of fictional prose that I had been procrastinating over for years — for a large part due to a long struggle with the question whether or not to write it in German. In the following article I try to explain the rationale behind my choosing the English language over my mother tongue.
Aspiring writers of any given genre of fiction will have many things crossing their minds when contemplating a new project: find an overarching theme, develop storylines, characterise your dramatis personae, stage the setting, explore subplots for the various characters — and so on and so forth. One idea, however, is unlikely to make the list: to be writing in a language that you are not a native speaker of.
The phenomenon of writing in assumed languages by non-native speakers has in recent years been referred to as exophony (from the Greek ἔξω, éxō, ‘outer, external’ and φωνή, phōnē, ‘sound, voice’). The term was coined by literary translator Chantal Wright¹, an associate professor at the University of Warwick, who has specialised in the experimental translation of exophonic prose such as Porträt einer Zunge² (‘Portrait of a Tongue’), a text written by German-language writer Yoko Towada’s, who is a native speaker of Japanese. Reasons to get involved with exophonic writing will obviously vary from one author to the next. Some may wish to distance themselves from the cultural environment they were born into, some aim at an audience beyond the limits of their native language, and others seek to explore a kind of inspiration that comes from the use of a language communicating in which you do not take for granted. In my case, it is a combination of these.
My native language is German. My background, as I see it, is that of what I would like to call an ‘in-between author’ — someone experienced in working with language as a profession, who at the same time lacks the practical experience needed to craft a fictional narrative into a functioning piece of catching prose. A copywriter and language and communication specialist by education and profession, I have worked with the German language on a professional basis for many years. Extensive reading, writing, editing and revising German-language material, from press releases to editorial texts, and from blog entries to colourful product descriptions — all that used to come with my job. I have meanwhile switched professions (I mainly work as a tea educator these days), but my life-long dealings with the German language have elevated me to a certain level of self-assuredness regarding my skills. Words finding me effortlessly is what I am accustomed to, editing a German-language text to me is but a delightful excursion into a myriad of syntactic possibilities, and fine-tuning a sentence leaves me thrilled to bits over making it more easily accessible.
Consequently, it may not come as too much of a surprise that, when I tell people (especially those with a monolingual background) that I am working on a novel project — even worse: my first one — and that I have taken it upon myself to pursue (and ultimately realise) said project in English, frequently rather than rarely do I receive puzzled, or even bemused reactions. Why would I choose to leave behind the safe framework of my natively assumed eloquence so easily, when the very act of creative writing is demanding enough a challenge already? Of course, in some cases such a reaction can be explained as a loyal expression of concern about me wasting my time as well as my alleged creative potential while struggling with a foreign language for which I will never be able to get a sufficiently enough grasp to entirely trust my authorial gut feeling. Close friends might feel obliged, and rightly so, to point out to me the difficulties that I will undoubtedly be facing should I dare move forward my audacious endeavour.
Before I proceed, let me add a bit of context here by elaborating to some extent what my novel project at hand is about in the first place. The book on the realisation of which I have been procrastinating since 2010 (sic), is supposed to become a novel set in not too distant a future. Offering an outlook towards a time where humans might have probed further into our solar system, possibly establishing a permanent presence on planets other than Earth. The main characters of this work-in-progress novel live on one of those planetary colonies. One character, a physicist and engineer, hopes to finish her life’s work in the form of some development that will ease the environmental restrictions that the population of one of said planetary colonies has been forced to abide to. Another character, a medical scientist working between the conflicting priorities of science and politics, will be used to paraphrase a comment on the discourse surrounding contemporary concepts of gender and identity. A third character is supposed to bridge the gap between scientific discourse and social dynamics, adding, if you will, a kind of meta-perspective angle to the narrative. Scientific plausibility is — I cannot stress that enough — the very heart of the whole project. I am just a backyard astronomer who, back in school, used to be bad at science; but even though I am not a scientist myself, my layperson passion for planetary science and my affinity for cosmology have based my inspiration on a perception of reality that is deeply rooted in the approach of the scientific method. Consequently, what I really hope to achieve with this project is to create something hat can serve as both a compelling sci-fi-esque read and as a commentary on the social dynamics of the present as I perceive it. Should anyone end up regarding it as inspiring towards the future development of the world society, I shall be a happy person. Here is to hoping I will not end up producing something entirely irrelevant.
Any ambitious literary project will usually require the channelling of deep thoughts, the exploration of vivid nuances in meaning, the creation of enthralling atmosphere evoked by just the right choice of words. One might intuitively assume that those requirements can be met in a sufficiently and sophisticatedly enough manner only through the natural flow of words bestowed upon you by the language(s) acquired early in your childhood — your native tongue(s). Although the joys of text optimisation are not per se limited to your native language, some of the above-mentioned procedures and necessities will be harder to implement when performed in your secondary language. Obviously my experience with language as a professional tool has for the largest part been achieved in and regarding German. Arguably, I should be thankful for my extensive experience in this field and put it to good use. An yet: I have chosen a different path.
Admittedly, the inevitable use of a dictionary, the dependency on a trusted native speaker, insecurities and frustration in the face of ones limited proficiency (especially when being pointed at yet another unnaturally sounding choice of words; at yet another flaw in one’s syntax), the admiration towards people with a native multilingual background — all that can make you feel way inferior a member of the language community of your choosing. In fact, in my case, the feeling of inferior skills made — or should I rather say, has made — me feel so anxious about this question that it repeatedly kept me from proceeding with the writing process altogether — for the past six years of my life. I was, and still am at the time of this very writing, afraid that I might be fooling myself into believing I could pull off a literary project in English. Painfully aware of my insufficiencies compared, not only to native speakers, but also to non-native ones who are immersed in the English language through their living in, say, Britain, I did not feel comfortable in the prospect of putting energy into something that would be meant to fail right from the beginning because of my insufficient language skills. True, English is spoken everywhere in Berlin, all the time; but unfortunately, that does necessarily include the use of naturally sounding grammar, or even vocabulary. Hence, using the English language on a daily basis can, within this wibbly wobbly sphere of exophonic pragmatism, can potentially damage one’s proficiency rather than increase it. After all, there’s only so many Brits in Berlin, only so much Life on Mars to escape to.
So, when my focus should obviously be transposing above-outlined ideas successfully, why is it that I opt to willingly embrace struggling with a grammar that will remain forever foreign and with a vernacular that will inevitably keep leading to ever-so-odd choices of words, weird collocations, and syntactic peculiarities³? Why would I dismiss the promise of a natural flow of words within the safe harbour of native eloquence so easily, in exchange for a creative product writ in every other sentence of which will be an odd reminder that it must undoubtedly have been produced by a foreigner.
“You weave with it so effortlessly, one cant help but be pulled in. It’s not only how you write though that strikes me as surprising but with what ease you convey that sense of pure sci-fi.” — a statement similar to this one (uttered as a reaction to my German-language (back-)translation of some early draft material) will most likely never be written about my English-language prose. My words will not always be well-chosen, they will — regularly rather than occasionally — turn out convoluted, and my syntax will most likely keep that odd German feel for all eternity.
When being asked for advice regarding the conundrum that I had created around the whole English-versus-German question, a native English-language friend of mine suggested I should regard English as a tool which I could access inspiration and information with that otherwise would have been walled off by my German ‘circuitry’. By contrast, another friend encouraged me to do the concepting, outlines and snippets in English, yet to fill any atmospheric gaps in my mother tongue until I would eventually get to work through the material with an English-language editor.
My initial reaction to both the research and the advice I had accumulated was wise, if short-lived. After above-mentioned excitement of my multilingual, close-to-native-level German-language friend about the extend to which I was able to take command of the German language, I experienced an epiphany that made me, or so I felt, reach a decision: It would be wisest to be doing it in German, because that meant no more doubts, no anxiety, and no more unnecessary writer’s block. I had realised that my insisting on English as a creative means of expressing myself had in fact simply been my ego talking. Now that I had analysed what would be most efficient in order to achieve the best possible result for this project, German undoubtedly seemed to be the right choice. I felt inspired, and I was grateful for everyone’s part in the decision-making process. There were no two points about it.
Yet, here I am, almost 2,000 words into an article explaining to you and to myself the rationale behind my ultimately choosing English over German.
Unfortunately for future readers of my literary outpourings, aspects more powerful than the reasoning behind my supposed wisdom turned out to be playing into my aversion behaviour against the use of German. For instance, a sceptic approach towards society in general — which in turn implies: a tongue by any other name would taste as bad. Tough luck, thou “language of Schiller and Kant, Merkel and Schwarzenegger”⁴. Poetic justice, though, in the face of the frustration that derives from no one ever getting my Doctor Who references in Germany.
An approach that really clicked with me is the one demonstrated in the following quote by Czech-German-English-Canadian author Dan Vyleta⁵, whose books have gathered wide international acclaim: „The answer is that English is my own, never mind when I acquired it. That I chose it the way one chooses a spouse, which is to say I fell in love with it. I wrote my first cheque in English; met my life’s companion in English. I can no longer remember a day when I did not think, and dream, in English. There was never a question in my mind that I would write my books in anything else.“⁶
Now, in stark contrast to Vyleta, I lack both the ability to express myself as sophisticatedly in English as I would be able in German, and the experience in crafting a piece of literature. But, as surprising as this may sound, at these early steps I see this as an advantage — not over Vyleta, obviously, but over an hypothetical, ever-so-experienced parallel-universe me. For with my self-assuredness about my command of the German language has come a feeling of routine. A routine that has brought me to me point at which, at least for now, I cannot for the life of it seem to find any motivation in the prospect of crafting a fictional piece in the tongue that is supposed to be my first language.
Maybe I merely appreciate the simplistic kind of ease of the mind that comes from using a language that is less hardwired to neurological folders stored in which is the sum of all the interpretation of what has been my life so far? Could it not be seen an advantage that my thoughts (more linguistically precise: my inner monologues) feels much more structured, rational, and without the kind of emotionally baggaged collocations that inevitably gets carried along with the language you grew up in, got bullied in, met your first romantic partner in, struggled through the challenges of relationships in?
The way I see it, it all comes down to where one’s personal goals and priorities lie. In my case, as I have implicitly stated in the passage above, I do no longer have the ambition to prove to myself or the German-speaking community my decently skilful conduct of the German language. Quite the contrary, there are some linguistic problems I do not even wish to bother with. Grammatical gender, for instance — a concept that, thankfully, the English language got rid of almost a millennium ago⁷. I do not want to sound too escapist though; in everyday conversation I still play my proactive part in the evolution of my mother tongue by, say, using the nominalised present participle (gerund) instead of explicitly male or female forms⁸. The problem is, however, that German speakers are far from reaching any consensus whatsoever about its usage, and I am, quite frankly, fed up with discussing it. Maybe the passion I used to have for the fate and future of the German language has left me — for good?
The vast majority of inspirational resources I have been influenced by gets novelised⁹, reported¹⁰, tweeted¹¹, recorded¹², or otherwise produced¹³ in English. So when I choose to write in English rather than in my native language, I am also seeking to act out on my creativity in the very language that has sparked by imagination in the first place.
For better or worse, as someone with a sometimes decent, sometimes not-so-decent command of the English language, I consciously choose to write my novel in this second language of mine rather than in my mother tongue. If that challenge is what keeps my imagination network active¹⁴, and if my goal is to transpose my ideas in a readable manner: then it seems I have got my work cut out for me.
Even if I fail, the very process can be a first step in slowly, but (hopefully) surely developing a style that I can truly call my own. For example: as much as I abhor the use of nominalisations that is widely spread among native German speakers, curiously enough, I myself love playing with them in English. Similarly, whereas I frequently advise against the use of high-faluting loanwords in my native language, in English anything derived from Latin and Ancient Greek is what makes my linguist heart geek out. Will it stay like this, will my choice of words in time become more natural?
Whether German happens to be your native language, but the time spent in an English-language environment is what sparks your imagination; whether you were born in Japan, but you find German more suitable to express your creativity¹⁵. In a world that is becoming more and more culturally incoherent, I would like to make a case against limiting our creative output to the borders of nations or language that we happened to be born in. Sure, we could easily stick to our native languages, which we have mastered to an extend that can fool us into thinking we basically own them. We can focus on the development of characters and storylines in lieu of continuously worrying about a lack of native-level language proficiency.
Personally though, I would rather take my chances and strive for an immediate connection with an audience who share my curiosity for the unconventional, who are able to connect to my ideas, no matter where on this planet they live — without having to rely on the vague hope that my German-language text might at some point get translated out of my native tongue. I do not envy the editors that will at some point have to deal with my syntactic oddities and my collocational peculiarities. I can only hope they will do so as forgivingly as, in my wishful thinking, any future readers of my purple prose.
A Day In The Life Of… Irregular jottings on a suburban life: 04 Exophonic writing
08 eg: Studierende instead of Studenten (m) or Studentinnen (f)