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The good, long story of foreign language literature

books literature foreign languageI didn’t learn English only for holidays and work. These are the most popular motivations for foreign language learning – but mine was slightly different. Tonight I’m thinking about two women and their contributions to literature; both of them inspire me to think about learners of languages in a new perspective.

1. Doris Lessing and Anthea Bell: describing the invisible

Doris Lessing‘s way of storytelling is too difficult to describe here. But both in her large works and short stories, she always found a way to write about a completely new experience. I remember her story “An Old Woman and Her Cat,” in which two lives were presented in a simple way that makes you discover new things about your way of life. I know this doesn’t do it justice – what I mean is that even a simple story can make you think “I had no idea that…” – and that’s its power.
Anthea Bell is another master of words and languages – but you’d be forgiven for not knowing her work. She translated the adventures of Asterix into English (there’s a brilliant interview with her which you can read here) and for her, translators should always aspire to become invisible. If a reader can be tricked into thinking she’s reading an original and not a translation, then a translator has succeeded.

2. Looking for the invisible: learning languages and learning literatures

There was one sentence in the interview I mentioned above that got my attention: Anthea Bell was said to have learned the languages quickly just to “get to the literature” written in that language. That, for me, is an exotic but very attractive language learning motivation.
It’s hard to expect that from a language school, but quite rewarding to set up your own learning regime that way. Reading – especially extensive reading – is a solitary, focused experience, and increasingly one that is ignored in language schools (since learners can be expected to do it for homework…theoretically).
So what are the rewards? Let’s go back to Doris Lessing for a while. Her work is exceptional in that a whole new fragment of human experience is so vividly described. Even readers in Lessing’s native language will find enlightening, inspiring moments in her books.
Now imagine discovering good books in the language you’re learning. Imagine new places being discovered, new customs, ways of behaving, dressing, living. You don’t even need a good author for that – although it helps – all that’s required is a new world, new reality written down in a new language.
The invisible becomes something you can deduce, imagine, learn about. That’s a big reward.

3. Read more foreign books: six quick ways to get started

– Read more. This is a hard first step for many: busy lives and smart phones may mean less time for reading. But pick something up and start reading – at this stage, I don’t care what it is.
– Read more books. This is the next step – graduating from a Metro article to a book may be daunting, but hey – it’s still in your language at this stage. Go with the story, follow the plot. Work it out. If it’s a bad book, I still don’t care here.
– Read more good books. Before you become completely disappointed with that whole book thing, let’s get you hooked on some good books. Most of them are, incidentally, available for free on websites such as Project Gutenberg – worth checking back once in a while. This is when you’re likely to reap rewards of a good story told expertly – the “I didn’t know that…” moments. Still in your own language, no problem.
– Read more good translated books. This is beyond the pale for many monolingual people – especially if your first language happens to be English. So many books get written in your language – why go for the ones which needed to be translated? Well, the reason is a new worldview and new reality brought to you. And if the books are translated, you’ll soon develop the hunger for new and strange stories – without (yet) having to grapple with the foreign language.
– Read more foreign language stories. This is the first stage at which I’m going to ask you to read in a foreign language. Go for the easy ones if you wish (I’ve found Grimm fairy tales super-useful for German), and enjoy them for their strangeness (not in spite of them).
– Read more good foreign language stories. The last step. Don’t go for translations any more – Nobel prize laureates come in all shapes, sizes and languages – time to read the original! Once again, Project Gutenberg can be your friend. Failing that, go for the national literary award winners – they are usually easier to order and more readily available.

I know this may not be the most popular post – as reading for pleasure is not something many people do. Getting into the habit of doing this in a foreign language, though, may be super-enjoyable and beneficial. Let me know how you’re doing!

(Photo credit: eltpics / some rights reserved)


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5 Responsesso far.

  1. That’s a good point that you need an appreciation of reading in your own language before moving on to foreign language literate.

    I’ve got steps 1-4 down but while I adore reading in my native tongue (English) I’ve never managed to find the same joy while reading in a foreign language. I think it’s because it’s because it requires too much effort when all I want to do is get lost in a story.

  2. Thanks for this, Ruth! My motivation for reading in a foreign language comes exactly from the fact that it’s so hard: dealing with new syntax and vocabulary makes the story more strange and unfamiliar. But I appreciate it doesn’t work every time (Nietzsche was too much, no contest :).

  3. Eleanor Goold says:

    I like point 4. I have just read Eclipse of the Crescent Moon which is a Hungarian book translated into English (my native language)…I am a Hungarian language learner and I found the book very enjoyable and learned lots about culture, history and ways of speaking. Do you have any posts related to Hungarian at all? Many thanks for this post.

  4. I’m happy you liked it, Eleanor. Hungarian is out of my reach at the moment – I know Benny did a mission, though: http://www.fluentin3months.com/hungarian-mission/

  5. Eleanor Goold says:

    I have seen that. It was amazing what he achieved in such a short time. Hungarian doesn’t appear to be covered in much detail anywhere online unfortunately.