This will be a looong post – I’m warning you 😀
Today I want to tell you about my experience translating a novel versus writing it from scratch in a foreign language.
But in order to do that, I think I need to explain how it all started, and why I decided to switch to writing my stories in English.
I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. I can’t remember much of my childhood before the age of four, but I remember that I was afraid of the darkness, and almost every night I lay in bed, hiding under the blanket and shivering, convinced there were monsters all around me. To soothe myself, I started telling myself stories. They helped me dive into parallel worlds where no one could hurt me. At one point, it became such a habit I couldn’t fall asleep without these stories and even started looking forward to the time when I could reconnect with my characters and their worlds.
By the time I was five or six, I couldn’t hold it all inside any longer. I had to find a way to let those stories out. So I found my grandfather’s old typewriter and slowly started bringing those stories into the physical world.
A lot of things happened since then, and don’t worry – I’m not planning to tell you my whole life story in this blog post 😉
But all in all, I wasn’t even thinking about sharing my stories with other people before the age of twelve, and after that, even though I knew it was the one thing that brought me the most joy, I didn’t consider it being more than a hobby until I turned fifteen.
I think it was then, or maybe a year or two later, that I started thinking of publishing my stories.
But then came the inevitable question – how?
I came to the realization that I didn’t want to traditionally publish pretty soon after that. To be honest, I realized it as soon as I knew that self-publishing was an option. It may sound weird to someone – a lot of people assume that every author dreams of traditionally publishing their novels and only goes the self-publishing route because they’d failed to do it the other way. But that’s not true.
I’m not totally against traditional publishing. Actually, I’m not against it at all. But there are a few good reasons I stopped considering it as an option a long time ago.
Again, I can write a whole blog post on those reasons, but I won’t do that. Some of those reasons are personal, and I don’t want to share them online – at least not now. But in short – when it comes to my stories, I like being in control of everything. What I write, how I write it, who my characters are, where and how they live, how they are named, how the book is titled, what is on the cover.
I never wrote for money, or fame, or to please other people. I do it because there’s a feeling deeply ingrained in me that I was born for this. I don’t know where it came from, or when it all started, but it’s a part of me; almost like the essence of my being.
Some would call it stubbornness, but I think a person has a right to have their own values. Something non-negotiable; something they are not willing to compromise on. And this is that one thing for me.
In my country, if you want to traditionally publish your book, there aren’t too many options. Most of them imply changing your book to fit the publisher’s requirements. And something else I don’t want to talk about.
And when it comes to self-publishing, there aren’t too many options, either. There are actually more of them now than there were a couple of years ago, but still. I see more and more authors consider translating their novels into English to be able to upload them to Amazon and other worldwide platforms. To share their stories with the whole world – not just one country that may not understand them.
I started thinking that I want to translate my stories into English a long time ago. The main reason for that is probably that I never wrote about the country where I live. I don’t know why, to be honest. From an early age, I was obsessed with English (and other foreign) names, and so when it came to naming my characters, I gave them those names. Naturally, it meant that they had to live in another country or in a whole different world altogether. Actually, I always imagined them living in a different world, even if that world was almost identical to ours. And to this day, I still see it that way. I rarely mention real places, countries, or cities in my stories, and even when I do, I never mean that exact place. This is how I see it in my head: copy-paste Earth, then make some changes in it. After all, the characters themselves don’t exist in our world, so why would the cities be exactly how they are in reality? I never strived to sound realistic, and that’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to self-publish 😉
So, considering all that, I’ve always been a little curious how it all would sound if my characters were speaking English. Almost like when you’re watching a dubbed movie and you’re wondering how it would sound in the original language.
At one point, I started imagining the whole dialogues in my head in English. And slowly, the idea of translating something seeped into my mind.
Besides my native language, English is probably the only language I have deep feelings toward. I live very close to a tourist area, so since the early childhood, I was used to seeing English words everywhere. And besides that, I think it’s almost impossible to escape English nowadays 😀 So even though I started learning it only at the age of seven, it was a part of my life in some way long before that.
Someone would come to visit and give me a colorful book in English, and I would sit for hours and stare at the words, mesmerized by them for some reason. I would sit and watch Disney movies – which weren’t dubbed back then – entranced by the songs and the way the characters spoke, even though I couldn’t understand them. So, I don’t know why, but the English language always meant something to me. I truly believe that I wouldn’t be able to learn it if I weren’t so enchanted by it.
A couple of years ago, at the end of 2016, I felt like I was ready to try translating one of my novels.
To say it was hard in the beginning would be an understatement. It was maddening.
My native language is very different from English, so to translate, you have to reverse the entire sentences, almost turn them upside down, then inside out. After doing it over and over again for an hour or more, you feel like you start going crazy. All those words in two different languages merge in your head to the point that you don’t even know what you’re doing.
But as with everything, if you do something long enough, your mind gets used to it.
I started translating one novel, then realized I wanted to rewrite it completely and abandoned that project. I had another novel in mind – the one that I’d written during NaNoWriMo 2014 – and I thought I might do better translating it. Out of all the novels that I’d written over the years, this one I actually loved rereading. I thought it turned out to be interesting; most importantly – it was complete, and I didn’t want to change too many things about it. So I started translating it instead.
Soon I’d worked out a system. It’s easier for me to write on a small screen laptop, so I switched to working on it. I opened two word documents – one with the text of my original novel, the other one with the translated text. Each of them took up a half of the already small screen, but I got used to that quickly. I would read a sentence and translate it into English right away. Sometimes I would read an entire paragraph and rework it to sound better in translation.
There comes a point when you’re doing something long enough it becomes almost automatic. You see a sentence and almost instantly translate it in your head. At some point, I felt like I didn’t even see the original text – I understood its meaning and typed it in English immediately. I was working long hours, until my head started to spin from exhaustion (literally; I’m not exaggerating), and that was usually the indication that I had to stop and take a break.
You need discipline to complete a project such as this, of course. I can’t say I never missed a day or even the entire week due to being too busy, overwhelmed, or just wondering if it all was worth it. But I had a strong motivation to finish my translation – basically, I didn’t have another choice. So I finished it.
And then I reread what I translated 🙄 And it was barely readable.
Not all of it, of course. But I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me, to shape it into something.
Besides everything, I knew I wanted to add three more chapters to the story. It wasn’t in my original plan, and mostly I wanted to add those chapters to puzzle readers even more 😀 But I had to write them.
I’d almost never attempted to write fiction in English in the past. I remember, back in school, we had an assignment once to write a short story in English, but that was so long ago, and my language skills were much worse then. Still, I was afraid. I think my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t know what to write. That I would just sit and stare at the screen, my mind completely blank.
I knew how to write fiction in my native language. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do the same in English.
To prove to myself that I would be able to come up with something, I started journaling in English. I wrote about my fears, and after some time, I started to believe that maybe I could do this.
I remember, one day – or actually, it was late at night – I was reading something when I suddenly wanted to try it out.
I thought about that abandoned mermaid project, and for some reason, I wanted to write a scene from it.
So, before the motivation had dwindled, I opened up a new word document and wrote the first sentence that came to my mind.
And then… something magical happened.
I don’t know how else to describe it. Don’t even know if there are words to describe it.
I started writing, and the words just came. They emerged from some depths of my mind, and I couldn’t tell how I even remembered them. It felt very different from writing in my native language. Everything was different, but somehow… it all felt so right. Almost as if it was the way things were supposed to be.
I finished writing that scene and felt exhilarated. I’ll never forget that feeling. All of that time, I was doubting myself, doubting my decision to switch to writing in English. I even cried once or twice, thinking that maybe I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. But that experience – writing my first piece of fiction in English late at night – was the one and only proof that I needed to keep going.
I wanted to experience it again.
From that day forward, I knew I’d never translate a novel again. I’m happy that I’ve had that experience, and I’m able to help out friends when they ask me to translate something for them. There are also a few novels that I’ve started writing and that I’m planning to partially translate (including the novel that I’m writing right now – there are some scenes in it that I’d partially translated because I liked the original version and wanted to save some of it), but mostly, I switched to writing in English from scratch, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s wondering what would be better for them.
Although I don’t know – for someone, translating might be better. But I know a couple of people besides myself who came to a similar conclusion.
I understand it. When you wrote for so many years, poured your heart into your stories, and then one day you wake up and realize that you have to switch to writing in the entirely different language in order to make your dream of publishing your book come true – it’s hard. It’s frustrating. You’re asking yourself, “Why?”.
And it’s not easy. One time, when I was still writing in my native language, I had a thought that it would be easier for me if I switched to writing in English. Not that it would be easier to write fiction in a foreign language – I think what I meant by that is that it would be somehow easier to express myself in English. And also, descriptions – I’ve always struggled with them in the past, and I’ve definitely found it easier to write them in English.
One of the hardest parts was punctuation. It follows a completely different logic, and it takes time to understand that logic, but I think I’ve made a lot of progress in it.
I also think that one of the common fears is that you won’t be able to express yourself fully in a foreign language. And for someone, it might be true. But at one point, you start to understand that all the words in your head are connected to a feeling, or to an image, or to something else. So you just need to trust yourself; trust your brain that it will come up with exactly the words you need. And it will – I promise you. You will be amazed at the words that will somehow emerge from the depths of your mind at the right moment.
I still use translator from time to time – it’s always open when I’m writing – mostly when I’m blanking on certain words or remember how the word sounds but not sure how it is written. Sometimes I check the meaning of the most obvious words just to be sure I’m using them correctly, and I try not to use synonyms I see for the first time. (And the most frustrating thing is when you know what you want to say, but you can’t think of a word in ANY language 😀 ).
The more you write, the easier it becomes, of course. But I think the most important thing is your relationship with the language itself.
In one of those journal entries I wrote back then, I talked about it. How my relationship with English has evolved into something bigger. How I almost feel like I was supposed to take that path. I’ve always been escaping the reality with my stories… and what better way to escape it completely than writing them in a different language?
Language is so much more than just words. You really start seeing the world differently when you learn a new one. And English really is so beautiful. It sounds like a song; like a poem that would appeal even to me 🙂
As of now, I’ve translated one novel into English, wrote one in English from scratch, and started writing a few more. And I was also able to finally self-publish two of my books 🙂
And I keep moving forward. I’m curious where this path will take me.
It kind of feels surreal sometimes.
If you’ve read this post till the end – thank you 🙂 Truly, thank you.
I hope you got something from it.