This blog was featured on 05/18/2017
[SWP: Behind the Book] Writing the Multi-Lingual Memoir

My memoir Jumping Over Shadows, the story of a German-Jewish love that overcomes the burdens of the past, features two narrative threads, juxtaposing my story with that of my great-aunt: mine mainly takes place in Germany in the mid-1980s, the other happens in Czechoslovakia before, during and after World War II. Therefore, native language of both stories, is not English but German. This meant I had to write in English what had happened in German. In addition, most of the primary sources were German documents, books and archival material. Other languages, namely Yiddish, Hebrew, French and Czech also appear, as characters and places change.

Here are a few things I learned from incorporating more than one language into my writing:

  1. Translating is not the way to go. Most of what I reconstructed of the story of the past is based on my grandfather’s memoirs, a stack of yellowed, onion-skin paper, written in meticulous German. Too boot, my grandfather was a poet and playwright, so his language offers many an enticing turn of phrase that I would have liked to appropriate into English. Alas, that usually does not work. Whenever I found myself translating, or looking up a word, I knew I was on the wrong track. Each language operates in its own realm and good writing is not created by verbatim translation.
  2. Read only literature in the language you are writing in. I abstained from reading German literature for the entire time I was working on my book project. Why? Because reading good literary German turned on that side of my brain—I was thinking in terms of how to express something I was trying to say in German. And that was not what I needed to do for my project! I did read magazines and of course I still spoke a lot of German, I just avoided encouraging the German literary brain.
  3. Use foreign language quotes to highlight. Words in a foreign language in an otherwise English text naturally draw the reader’s attention, so they should be used only when they are worthy of that attention.
  4. Use foreign language quotes sparingly. They should be employed to give the flavor of how people sound and speak, and remind the reader of place and time. Too much foreign verbage gets tedious and possibly even annoying as the reader might feel left out. I would sometimes begin a dialogue with a few German words and then deliver the rest in English.
  5. Include images of foreign language material. If you have images of archival material in other languages, consider including some in your book, particularly if you’re writing memoir or narrative nonfiction. This gives your work wonderful visual texture while also providing documentary authority.
  6. Always provide a translation and find a consistent way of doing that. Following the Chicago Manual of Style, in my book foreign language words are italicized, followed by the translation in plain type, no parentheses.
  7. Some foreign turns of phrase or syntax construction can work in English and can become part of your voice. Some readers have remarked that my prose has some “Germanisms” in it, and that’s fine with me. As long as it’s not clunky, it is part of my unique voice and provides originality.
  8. Use foreign idioms to your advantage. While few idioms work verbatim in more than one language, they can provide an original viewpoint that everyone understands. Case in point: My book’s title, “Jumping Over Shadows” is based on the German idiom “über den eigenen Schatten springen,” which means “to jump over your own shadow,” denoting an impossibility (see How to Come Up with a Book Title). While it is, in English, an unusual combination of words, it makes people pay attention and contemplate the meaning.
  9. Utilize and explain unusual foreign words. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that each language has words that perfectly capture something and yet cannot easily be translated. You can make use of this. Introduce the word and explain it and why it is important to your narrative. I did this with the German term “verjudet,” coined by the Nazis to describe anyone with Jewish connections. I used it as the title for a chapter that goes into what the non-Jewish side of my family experienced because they had Jewish relatives. This kind of exploration and explanation creates texture and brings home the cultural context.
  10. Have a native speaker of each language proof-read your manuscript. I am a native speaker of German, and it drives me nuts when German words are misspelled in English texts; it is just plain sloppy. I therefore battled my copy editor on the issue of capitalization in German. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, foreign language quotes are written in lower case, whether that is correct in that language or not. However, capitalizing nouns is one key feature of German, so that practice bothers me. I also knew a lot of German native speakers would be picking up my book and think I didn’t know what I was doing. So I convinced my copy editor and publisher that we were going to use German the correct way, and I combed through the final pages to make sure the proper capitalizations were in place. Despite my own proficiency in German, however, I had a friend in Germany, who’s a terrific editor and also fluent in English, proof read the manuscript to make sure we had the German spelling right, especially since German spelling rules have changed since I left and I am just not up on them. Other friends double-checked the other languages.

It took a while to figure out how to make all these different linguistic sources and influences work in an English text but because my story traverses historical eras, countries and languages, I felt the text needed to be an amalgam that subtly reflected that.

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  • Barbara Ridley

    So interesting Annette! My copy of your gorgeous book has just arrived - and I am so looking forward to reading it!