How listening to foreign languages can enrich your writing

An author and essayist listens to stories in in their native tongues to hear new rhythms, phrasing and metaphor

It was while listening to a story in Tamil on Spotify that the thought occurred to me: listening to stories in vernacular Indian languages had changed my writing.

Some of the influence came from the cadences of speech. Some came from how Tamil authors phrased and composed their thoughts into words. And some traced to metaphors that were quite different from the English ones I was used to hearing.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, coming up with an original turn of phrase is central to a writer’s craft.

 There are many ways to do this. Some writers, like David Sedaris, carry a notebook at all times to jot down phrases that appeal to them. Others begin the day with journaling in the hope that unconscious and hopefully original thoughts bubble up to consciousness. Still others, like Margaret Atwood, read aloud everything they write to get the rhythm right.

Here is one more option: start thinking in other languages.

The simplest way to do that is to listen to podcasts or watch shows in other tongues, preferably ones that are geographically distant from English.

Metaphors that reflect culture

My mother tongue is Tamil, a language that is spoken in Sri Lanka and my native state, Tamilnadu, India. I also speak other Indic languages —- Hindi, Kannada, and Sanskrit, although not fluently. I started learning English in kindergarten, and it has now become my default language. Since moving back to India from New York City several years ago, I listen to Bollywood music in Hindi. I now live in Bangalore, where the language on the street is Kannada. But the language of my family is Tamil, and it is this language that seems richest to me.

Take a common metaphor in Tamil, used often to describe a person who went from rags to riches (and remains a good, even noble character): “He is like a lotus flower that grows in slush.” What is implied is not beauty but character, since the lotus is the purest of flowers in Indian culture. In other words, this particular metaphor cannot apply to robber barons, even if they go from rags to riches because the assumption is that they used devious means to gain their wealth and status.

Similes and metaphors have traditionally been the tools of a writer’s trade. A simile with its straight comparisons is usually what we English-language writers first gravitate towards. My mother tongue, however, prefers the more complex form — the metaphor — with its layered meanings. Rather than going for the obvious — “He is as beautiful as a lotus.” — Tamil prose and poetry preferr to observe a lotus’s location and behavior and use that in their writing. Comparing a lotus to a person’s character take a bit of digging into the collective consciousness of a culture.

Kalidasa, a 5th century Sanskrit poet who is often considered one of India’s greatest classical writers, uses metaphors and similes in startlingly original yet supremely apt ways —for the Indian reader, that is. Rivers and elephants for example, make a frequent appearance in his works. In one poem, he compares the frothy River Ganga, or the Ganges as it is known which flows on a moonlit night to an elephant’s skin cleansed with sacred, white ash (used in Hindu temples as adornment). This particular comparison may not make sense for a Western reader, but is both specific and vivid for Indians.

Or how about birds flying in the sky in a formation that looks like a garland hung between the frames of a door? Can you visualize that specific soft V-formation? It, too, is used by Kalidasa.

How, then, do you access this rich vein of metaphors, phrases, adjectives and similes?

It helps if you are bilingual.

The cadences of Spanish, Sinhala or Swahili are different from English.

Another way is to listen to stories in another language.  Translations are a great option, whether they happen to be translated from Russian to English or Italian to English.  The other approach is to actually listen to stories in those languages that you have a rudimentary proficiency in, whether they are French, Spanish or Chinese. 

I began by listening to stories in the Tamil language. Fortunately, these are now widely available. The one I was listening to on Spotify was Ponniyin Selvan, is a sprawling historical tale. As I listened to it daily on my morning walk, I discovered that the influence of its tales was making my English writing change. My words were becoming more emotional, more intimate. For example, one of the things I held as cardinal was to stop using adverbs.  This was emphasized by my professors at the Columbia Journalism program and from my own readings of The Paris Review Interviews.  My goal was to write Hemingwayesque declarative sentences where the dialogues revealed the emotion.  My native tongue, Tamil is not like this.  It is filled with adjectives and adverbs. “Nala and his charioteer argued heatedly.” “The king looked on in wonderment at the spectacle.” “The elephant lumbered majestically through the forest of which it was king.”

One author who I love, and who writes in this “Indian” way is Salman Rushdie with his exuberantly long sentences, particularly in Midnight’s Children, with their multiple adjectives and feeling-tone words.  The previous sentence somewhat mimics the Indian way of thinking.  My professors at Columbia would perhaps have a fit and break down the multiple clauses into succinct sentence: one idea per sentence, as it were.

This makes sense. English has become the global lingua franca.  But for those who are bilingual like me, our “mother tongue” is the language that we use to instinctively coo to our children, complain to our mothers, curse at other drivers and murmur when we have sex. Speak — or write — in your native tongue, and you will become more vulnerable, more open, more like the baby that you once were when you first heard the language from your parents.

Some of it is simply sentence construction. Different languages put together nouns, verbs, and adjectives in particular permutations and combinations. In Tamil, for example, a fairy tale does not begin with “Once upon a time,” but “In a town, there was a king.” The feminist in me wishes there were queens, but usually, there were princesses (lovelorn of course) or kings. Indian tales use place instead of time as the anchor — geography instead of history. The Jataka tales, written around 300 B.C. are some 500 tales about the previous births of prince Siddhartha Gautama, before he became the Buddha.  The word, Jataka means birth—and it is stories about the Buddha’s previous births. These tales which are anchored in Buddhism, most often begin with the phrase, “Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares….” In other words, tales anchored in both space or place—Benares, and time.tales were anchored on the time before the Buddha became, well, the Buddha. The Arabian Nights, on the other hand, have a different way of organizing tales; each night, the storyteller, Shahrazad, simply breaks off the tale in the middle, lending to its suspense — and keeping her alive as the evil king becomes enchanted with the story. This is quite unlike how we organize creative material these days.

For this reason, historical fiction is a rich vein to tap. Even English translations of these ancient tales can offer a window into a way of writing that is quite different from, say, The New Yorker.

When a prince flirts with a princess, the Tamil phrase could be translated thus: “She heaved, turned red. Blushing, she dropped her head.” The natural rhythm of Tamil, it turns out creates a rhyme in English.  

Acclaimed writer Vivek Shanbhag says that “English is not the language of the street anywhere in India.” He lives in my city, Bangalore, and writes exclusively in Kannada, his native tongue. Shanbhag speaks fluent English, as seen in this explanation that he gave at the Jaipur Literature Festival about the origins of his novel. But he saves English for his professional work; he is an engineer by training.

When he writes in his native tongue, he told me, many things bubble up from the unconscious, many of them images from memory. As he tries to explain all this, he says, “They appear because there is a deep connection you have with the language.  Which is why, we are surprised, many times, where did it come from?”

His last phrase is a typical Indian-language construction. 

Vivek Shanbhag

His English emails and professional work carry a different rhythm — one that is devoid of emotion. His creative writing taps into a part of his brain that goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years, he says. And the vehicle to tap into this creative liminal self is his native tongue.

Shanbhag approves of the English language translation of his most famous work, Ghachar Ghochar. As he said in an interview in Mint, “A translation is not about getting the meaning of one sentence in another language. (To explain, his first reference here about literal meaning, rather than deeper levels of meaning.) It’s about bringing that unsaid (element). That has happened well here. He (the translator) has understood what the unsaid in Kannada is and has brought that in.”

Poetry as it was written

Yes, but what if you are not bilingual? What if your mother tongue is English? Can you expand your linguistic imagination somehow? For this experiment, I decided to try Spanish and French, two languages I have heard spoken while living in America but had no real proficiency in.

I began with Pablo Neruda. I took to playing his love poems as background when I did chores. There was one in particular, Love Poem XVI, that I grew to love even though I didn’t understand it. As I played it continuously, in loop, some phrases jumped out at me. “Infinitos suenos….suenos solitarios….” What did it mean I wasn’t sure. But my brain had put together the phrases as “infinitos solitarios,” or infinite solitude, sparking in me a certain kind of pathos. Infinite solitude conjured up mountains, midnight, defeat in love, death, the depths of the ocean. All these images were useful to me. They enriched the mood of my writing.

As I listened to poems in Spanish, French and Slovenian, I came upon a page that had poets speaking in a buffet of languages. You simply had to click on the country, and then choose poems with a video icon to access poets reciting their work in a variety of tongues, or the headphones icon to choose poems with just audio. One of my favorites was a young Russian poet, Galina Rymboe, reciting her poem, “There is a monster living in my ovary.” I listened to this poem in Russian, even though I don’t know the language at all.

Listening to her — I must have heard this poem more than a hundred times —awoke certain feelings, long held but mostly forgotten. I found myself sighing, caught up in a certain sadness that infused my writing.

In many cultures, pathos is often seen as a route to virtue, character, and creativity. You have to be dissatisfied to create is the assumption. To quote poet Lang Leav, “I don’t think all writers are sad. It is the other way round. All sad people write.” In my normal life, I took happiness courses, wrote a gratitude journal and tried to keep depression, pathos and sadness at bay. I had not reckoned that maybe this instigated pathos would help me write better. Perhaps poetry in foreign tongues was the engine to writing discipline. At least, it turned out to be true for me.

Different languages; same feelings

Languages also are, of course, subject to stereotypes. Many people think of Russian as rough; it is, in fact, not. Italian is considered musical; it is also staccato. Chinese is often referred to as sing-song because of its tones; and, indeed, it is. Listen to Hu Xudong recite his poem, The River Bank, and you will hear this instantly.

As I worked my way through the website that is linked above, choosing to listen to voices from Brazil and Burma, Egypt and Estonia, the United States and Uganda, I marveled at the dazzlingly different ways that humans have invented to express their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, ideas and convictions, conflicts and confusions.

The more I listened however, what touched me most profoundly was not the variety but the commonality. Underneath it all, when you stripped away grammar, sentences, verbs and tongues, all that remained were a few constants — actually just two: feelings and ideas. All the languages that we humans have invented have been vehicles to express those two things. How marvelous then to have so many permutations and combinations to do so?

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