When we are young, perhaps reading a favorite book, we come across new words. I vividly recall frantically flipping through the dictionary in search of the word “immured” which appears Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. For those who have not followed the adventures of Mr. Badger of Mr. Toad, “immured” means “to be imprisoned.” This process of learning new words as children mirrors the process of learning new words in another language, except that one must explain and dissect new words with words one already knows; what makes learning a new language for authors is when one confronts a word that possesses no direct translation.
One of my favorite phrases that exemplify this conundrum: de mal de pays, the name of a Franz Litszt song that translates usually as “homesickness,” though according to a character in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, this phrase really means, “the ungrounded sadness of feels when looking upon a beautiful landscape and remembering home.” In German, one encounters several of these words including Wanderlust, Backpfeifengesicht, and Schadenfreude. For those not in the knows, Backpfeifengesicht means “a face that begs for a fist,” roughly speaking. In addition to expanding one’s lexicon, one learns new ways of speaking. I have noticed, for example, that both in fiction and personal essays, I have absconded with the use of complicated words in favor of words-that-are-hyphenated-that-together-means-one-word, which plays on the German compound word. Almost any complicated word in German can be found out by combining two, three, or more smaller words. When I must describe something that does not have a clear and well-known set of description words (for example, technical jargon or sometimes the language of music,) I opt instead for the insanely-long-compound-phrase.
The true learned skill of adopting a new language, however, is that one must communicate with others in the new language. Because the writer might be in a class, he may likely not enroll with others who speak English; of course English-speakers possess a global privilege to travel almost anywhere and be able to speak English with locals. The English language has infected Europe with better efficiency than the Black Plague. When one does however seek to explain concepts in German, a language through which I can only express the simplest expressions, one must fashion precise speech. When speaking with international students, one learns to explain complicated ideas in simplified terms. This teaches the writer to exorcise the jargon from his writing, composing sentences with clarity and economy.
Naturally, I have not performed correct archeology of this subject, the relative skills that bridge writing in one’s mother tongue and also a new language; here, we have only grazed the top soil. Of course I too have learned only German, and I enjoy the language, unlike Mark Twain. When one begins to explore new languages, one learns new idiosyncrasies. I have heard (only through reading books in translation), that to read a manuscript in its original language is an act not unlike sleeping in your own bed after weeks abroad. If you have ever undertaken the challenge of learning a new language or anything new (be it rocket science or funeral undertaking), what have you learned? How has the new-found knowledge affected your writing tendencies?