Writing In Another Language: The Parallel Universe of the Non-Native English Journalist

By: Ana Ramirez

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I cannot remember precisely the first time that I was asked to write in English. It must have happened during an afternoon English class in my childhood, probably as a pedagogic exercise that seemed fun — and also hinted that learning and writing in another language would come to be a demanding long-term goal.

Fast forward to 2019 and I am here, a writer — occasionally in Spanish and progressively in English. I have a collection of sketches and drafts of pieces I intend to write in English, and dozens of comments in Spanglish for this article, written on a sheet that’s right in front of me.  Please note, I also pay for Grammarly.

The world order still dictates that a vital step for a respected journalist is to write for in-English publications. A quick Google search would suggest that the most popular magazines in the world are written in English although ironically, many of their articles are intended for an international reading community. Having been brought up in a middle-class Mexican household, I can confirm that to this day Mexican media still quotes information from in-English outlets like The Economist, Esquire, the New York Times, Time, The Lancet and similar publications. Citing these sources provides them with a halo of veracity and accuracy. No matter your age or your country, if you seriously contemplate a career in international journalism or writing, English is not only an option; it is a necessity.

…if you seriously contemplate a career in international journalism or writing, Enligh is not only an option; it is a necessity.

Words have a shape and a form of their own, which in a way provides them with a forceful personality. In Spanish, I understand these personalities automatically. I find Spanish exciting and appealing; I like its structure, its grammar, and its specificities. In contrast, when I read books in English, every sentence requires translation and interpretation. I can still see myself sitting in my living room at age 11, with one version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in my right hand, and the English to Spanish Oxford Dictionary in the other one. I was ready to look up every single word I could not understand, but gave up after just 10 minutes and ended up pursuing the humbler goal of searching for those words that seemed strictly necessary. Still, I was proud to read J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece in its original language, while the rest of my friends were reading the much less challenging Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkabán.

I was lucky enough to start writing in English for academic purposes when I was working on my Bachelor’s degree in Sociology. This kind of writing usually follows strict styles and standards, which at the time gave me a sense of security. In my mind there was not much room for failure, because my education in sociology had been mainly in English. The concepts, authors and quotations did not come to my mind in Spanish; they were already translated. When I have to explain sociology, the opposite happens. I worriedly look for the words in Spanish, which makes me feel like a bilingual hybrid. I have always thought that if I had opted to pursue a degree in English Literature or Creative Writing, the experience would have been considerably more distressing. I would have needed to verbalize strong feelings in English, which is where the real challenge lies for me.

We write in English, but while we are doing it, us non-native writers are continually questioning if we are using the right words, if we are respecting the structure of the language, if we are making sense at all. Lukas Hermsmeier, a New York-based journalist who writes in English and his native German, tells me that “writing in English will always take longer.” When an article is finally finished, external proofreading and possible restructuring of sentences by a native English speaker is welcomed and much appreciated. Imagine the pride one feels when they see their writing published. This feeling is intensified for a writer like me, who completed the process in a different language.

We write in English, but while we are doing it, us non-native writers are continually questioning if we are using the right words, if we are respecting the structure of the language, if we are making sense at all.

When asked why he had become a writer Stephen King answered that “there was nothing else I was made to do.” I can understand his sentiment. Writing brings out such strong passions within us, that it can even inspire us to embrace the challenge of taking our thoughts outside our mother tongue. One of my classmates, a fellow non-native speaker, lives by the maxim “if writing is easy then there is something wrong.” This is true, and it becomes incredibly relevant when I write in English.

With time, I have learned to enjoy the puzzle that is writing in another language. I even find the cognitive process intriguing when I simultaneously think in Spanish and write in English. The good news is that if writing in a foreign language doesn’t ever become easy, it does lessen in difficulty. Reading eventually pays off, words start falling into place, and your thoughts eventually align with the language you have been trying to master.

There are some universal truths to writing in another language: you will always believe that your piece would be pure gold if you had been given the chance to write it in your native tongue, and every time you come back to it you will find a thousand better possibilities to express what you have already written. But don’t panic. As long as you are a writer, there will forever be a next article. Most importantly, you already know inside yourself that no matter how hard it is to write in another language, you will find a way. I lived through the slow and sometimes painful process of learning a melodic brand-new alphabet, and eventually being able to translate my thoughts so that others can read these words, and in the best case scenario, understand me.

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