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Using foreign languages to develop your writing

September 21, 2011

I first came across this idea when reading Ezra Pound’s Do’s and Dont’s.  One of the Do’s is to translate a poem that one is having trouble redrafting.  I used this technique during the M.A. module in Writing poetry for Publication and Performance to sort out the emotions embedded in a first draft of Jupiter. By translating the text into French, I discovered that it was in fact two poems, which I untangled into Jupiter and Venus. The underpinning emotions in the first are anger/loathing as opposed to love/longing in the second. The French verbs were more powerful in conveying the feelings of Jupiter. The redrafted English versions are simmering until the mood takes me to work on developing them again.

The question of whether or not one can convey the same feelings/moods/colours in a foreign language came up during the workshop for Crook Writers. I believe that the answer is ‘sometimes but not always’ and depends upon the skill of the translator.  However it is impossible to replicate the rhythms of a language, each having its own music.  Whilst living and working in France, I realised that each language seems to have a different compartment in my brain.  There are expressions in each language that seem more appropriate to a moment, almost as if one accesses different modes of thought.

One of the pleasures for me whilst on holiday in Corfu this summer was that the hotel bookshop offered reading material in English, French and German.  It was like being a child in a sweet shop. My first purchase was a book of Greek myths written in French which I proceeded to devour/savour on the beach.  The brother of a friend of mine spends his summers teaching poetry on the beach in France. (Can’t see it happening on the North East coast of England). I am grateful to him for giving me permission to print the front cover of his pamphlet as the image for this post.  My favourite poem from his collection is:


les arbres rassemblent

leurs os

secs et froids

et tirent


la nuit sure la terre.

I leave you to work it out for yourself. You can google further references to his work by searching under  ‘Christian Laballery’.

Christian Laballery

Should this inspire you to have a go at writing in a foreign language yourself, I have come across a Haiku exercise which encourages you to: think of a colour, list words associated with that colour in your native tongue, look them up in a bilingual dictionary, arrange them into a haiku. Translate them back into your native tongue.

I chose ‘blue’ and worked from English to German to  come up with:

Die marineblau Baume                    The navy blue trees

blumen kalt und hell                        bloom cold and bright

wie Eis im Dunkelhimmel              like ice in a dark sky.

This reminded me of two separate poems I wrote in 2009 as part of a presentation on using Renoir’s paintings as a stimulus for writing;

Le rouge et Renoir                                                   The Rainbow Palette

Mets du bleu dans le noir                                                Blue is the new black,

et du rouge dans le blanc.                                                just as pink is the new white.

Et voila!                                                                              A whole new spectrum.

I hope you have fun experimenting with this approach.


From → Poetry

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