Novel writing: Babel revisited

In an article written almost four years ago (He did there confound all the languages of the Earth), I discussed the problem of learning many languages from a writer’s point of view. Learning other languages is very cool, but many people don’t realise how much time it takes. This inevitably means that you can’t spend that much time with languages you already know. Just look at my time log from last week: 67 hours Chinese, 29 hours English and 2 hours Swedish.

The backside of learning more languages

For most people, this isn’t  a problem, because knowing your native language to a certain level or knowing English to the level I have learnt it is enough in most cases. However, for people who aspire to become authors (meaning someone who at least tries to realise dreams of living off writing things), learning foreign languages becomes a problem, at least superficially. I have spent at least ten thousand hours learning Chinese and several times as much learning English. I have also spent some time learning French, albeit not that much. If I would have spent that time honing only my Swedish skills, I would have a mastery of my native language far superior to what I have now.

Similarly, if I hadn’t started learning Chinese, my English would probably be much better today than it actually is. Instead of spending all that time learning a new language, I could have read hundreds of novels in English and possible written a handful myself. I chose, Chinese, however, and I haven’t written a single novel in English, even if I do have a draft of a novel in Swedish (more about that later). I read a total of one (that’s right, one) novel in English last year. Compare that to my average reading pace which was close to one hundred books per year before I started learning Chinese.

Two sides of the same coin

Now, it might be argued that the entire discussion is bunk. What if I can write more interesting things in English or Swedish precisely because I have learnt other languages? What if the experiences I gained on the way enables me to write novels that no-one else can write? Besides, most things about writing is, I believe, not related to the specific language in question. Writing a novel is about much more than the words; it’s about much more than language.

Should I write in Swedish or English?

However, novels still need to be projected through language, regardless of which one it is. The question for me is which language I should choose, which is the core question of this article. As mentioned above, I have a draft of a novel written in Swedish. I think it has potential, I think it could become pretty good if I rewrite it and incorporate all the changes I know the story needs. In short, I think the book is too interesting not to finish.

Roughly a month ago, the idea popped up that I might want to rewrite the novel in English instead of Swedish. This felt a bit wild and crazy at first, but I now have a slightly more balanced opinion (I think).

English vs. Swedish

Why I might want to write the novel in English:

  • I like the English language
  • More people can read it
  • It’s an interesting experiment

Why I might want to write the novel in Swedish:

  • I write better in Swedish
  • It’s an opportunity to reconnect with Swedish
  • The draft is already written in Swedish

External vs. internal factors

One relevant question is whether external factors matter or not. One reason for writing the novel in English is that more people are likely to read it (I’m much more well-known in English than in Swedish, mostly because of Hacking Chinese, but also because few of people I know who speak Chinese also speak Swedish). Still, the chances of being picked up by a real publisher is close to zero (that’s probably  true in Swedish as well, though, especially for this novel).

The fact that a Swedish version of the novel would be better is also mostly an external factor. If I care very much about what other people think of my writing, I should write in Swedish simply because I’ll do a better job. If I don’t care, the language choice doesn’t matter in terms of whether the novel is well-written or not.

At first, I thought that the draft being in Swedish was a limiting factor, but I’m now convinced that it isn’t. The reason is that I would need to rewrite the novel entirely anyway (too many things need editing), so doing it in another language might actually feel more worthwhile. It would allow me to change all the details without feeling I’m just editing a vast number of sentences.

Conclusion

To be honest, the conclusion is quite obvious. However, I only figured that out after writing this article, so what you’ve just read is a journey through my own decision making process. The conclusion is obvious because the choice I make doesn’t necessarily limit future choices. It’s not like I choose between English or Swedish and that I can never use the other language for future novels if I feel like it. This means that the choice isn’t all that important.

Thus, the conclusion is that I should simply use the language I feel like using and don’t care too much about any other factors. I won’t start rewriting the novel until this summer in any case, but right now it feels like I want to try to write in English and see what it feels like (and what other people think about it).

If it doesn’t work or I don’t like it, I’ll know and I can write in Swedish thereafter. If it turns out well and I like it, I guess I’ll have to make the same choice again each time I start a new project. With time, I might even complicate the matter further by adding Chinese to the list of options, although that prospect is still very distant.

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  1. Gwiylm James’s avatar

    Swedish novels sell well in the UK, and all across the world. I say get the ideas across in your native language, then spend time translating it another time. Either is good. It will have to be translated into English eventually because the Swedish readership is too small.

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    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Translating it myself is probably out of question, it would take way too much time. It would be a job, not creative writing, and it would most likely be a job with no money. I think the odds that someone else wants to do it for me is very close to zero. I’m much more likely to write two novels than one novel in two languages. :)

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