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Speaking Italian, Writing English

How constant use of a foreign language can change one’s writing

Pesto jar with blank label

If you live abroad, using a foreign language all day every day, something very strange happens to your written English. I first noticed it when I moved to Italy as a freelance journalist twenty years ago: within a few months I couldn’t reach out and immediately find the words I wanted. I was slower somehow, and I thought it actually gave me a linguistic edge: rather than grasp the first word which came into my head, I was forced to rummage around the bin-liner of my brain for possible terms and I often came up with alternatives which made, I hoped, my prose a bit more sparkly or surprising.

I’ve got friends who agree that there are advantages to this linguistic exile. Giles Tremlett, a writer who lives in Spain, says that he does sometimes gets ‘paranoid’ about the effect of living and thinking in another language, but suggests that, paradoxically, it broadens your diction since ‘there is often an underused romance synonym for that overused (but punchy) Germanic word.’

But as the years went by, I began to feel as if my grip on my professional currency – English words – was slipping badly. By a process of assimilation, my written language assumed the cadences and rhythms of my spoken language. Thinking in Italian, I found that what I hoped was my succinct, simple style became a bit more rococo: Italians often say that their language has sounds, more than meaning, by which they mean that it’s spoken or written for the pleasure of hearing the syncopated syllables rather than the sense. Italian is notoriously delicate and poised, even prolix, and after a few years living here my prose style had gone from Elmore Leonard to Henry James.

Another problem was that Italian reinforces what is already an occasional weakness in my writing. Anyone who has read Italian journalism knows that the rhetorical dial is always turned to the maximum. Fact is laced with a lot of opinion, and even straight news articles will be overloaded with persuasive techniques: rhetorical questions, first-person-plural chumminess (‘let’s go through this in order’) and incessant outrage (‘shame!’). I’m afraid my writing is already dangerously inclined to be polemical and opinionated, and my daily diet of Italian newspapers reinforced that vice.

I also started to misuse English words just because they were regularly misused in Italian: a ‘gadget’ in Italian is a souvenir or trinket, a ‘mister’ is a football coach. It was as if my two languages weren’t distinct but getting mixed up and confused. ‘Finally’, ‘actually’ and ‘eventually’ are all used slightly differently in Italian, and I inevitably started using them incorrectly in English.

Word order gets mucked up, too, so that your native words get superimposed onto a foreign sentence structure (adjectives after nouns and so on). I saw myself writing Italianisms like ‘two minutes and a half’ instead of ‘two and a half minutes’. (I’m told by my daughter, who has studied Yoda’s speech patterns, that the technical term for this inversion of standard linguistic sequence is ‘anastrophe’.)

In a way it was (and still is) exasperating: when you’re sat at your desk, hoping to be a pro, your fingertips come out with sentences which sound written either by a drunk or by someone for whom English is a foreign language: ‘surprising it is that the woman tall…’ OK, exaggerating I am, but the point you understand. If one were composing poetry it might be advantageous, but as someone writing mainly nonfiction, I just felt it sounded sloppy.

And the longer you’re abroad, the harder it is to capture the language of the streets because you lose touch with contemporary slang and other innovations. When your kids aren’t in an English playground, picking up neologisms, you stay stuck in the sometimes stilted English of the classics or of your own (increasingly distant) teenage years. Everyone knows that languages evolve and mutate, and if you’re not watching that evolution from up-close, you can sound surprisingly fogeyish by using words like ‘miscreant’ instead of ‘villain’ or whatever. It’s almost as if your own language is a train that has gone ahead without you.

Spelling, too, goes to pot because there are Italian equivalents (‘tecnico’, say, or ‘psiche’) which are almost identical. That can cut both ways, however. Giles Tremlett actually (did I use that correctly?) thinks that living in Spain helps his spelling, because, for example, ‘separate’ is easier to remember thanks to the Spanish ‘separar’.

Tremlett also feels that being able to read the literature of another language ‘exposes you to styles that you might never see (or detect when in translation), which you can then adapt for, or incorporate into, your own.’ English literature is obviously enriched by those who have inhabited other literatures and languages: James Joyce’s oeuvre would be very different if he hadn’t come across the Italian writer, Italo Svevo, when he lived in Trieste, and Ernest Hemingway might never have come up with his ‘theory of omission’ if he hadn’t been influenced by the Modernism of Paris in the 1920s. (In A Moveable Feast, he wrote about ‘my new theory that you could omit anything […] and the omitted part would strengthen the story’). The Nadsat slang of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange owed much to his knowledge of Malay and Russian. It’s safe to say, I think, that well-travelled polyglots produce more cutting-edge books than monoglots.

When I rein in my snootiness about Italian linguistic excesses, I find myself revelling in the voluptuousness of their literature. Take this description (which continues over three paragraphs) of a banquet in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘…pink ices, champagne ices, coffee ices, all parfaits and falling apart with a squelch at a knife cleft; a melody in major of crystallised cherries, acid notes of yellow pineapple, and green pistachio paste of those cakes called “Triumphs of Gluttony”, shameless “Virgins’ cakes” shaped like breasts…’ The richness of that quasi-erotica is so common in Italian literature that, as it seeps subconsciously into my writing, it balances my bare, puritanical prose. It’s as if inhabiting Italian has sensitised me to the flavours, colours and contours which I had, with Anglo-Saxon arrogance, previously disdained as merely excesses of superficiality or fashion.

There’s something else within Italian – and specifically Sicilian – literature which has affected my writing. From Luigi Pirandello to Leonardo Sciascia and Lampedusa, there’s a weary cynicism about the possibility of finding truth. ‘Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily;” (this is from The Leopard again) “a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves on the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.’ The verbosity of that single sentence enacts the burial of veracity or fact or truth beneath bluster and chatter. It’s one of the constant themes both of literature and life in Italy, and if a writer of true crime can emulate that loss of truth, it makes narrative, I hope, far more sophisticated. Rather than a swaggering confidence in the writer’s ability to capture ‘true crime’, living in Italy gives you the nuances to write what I call ‘false crime’: you’re as much on the look-out for illusionism and sleight of hand as you are for neat resolutions and conclusions.

So maybe, on balance, it’s good for writing to be buffeted and churned by proximity to another language. It makes you wobbly on your legs, as if you were walking on deck in a storm. But maybe that’s no bad thing. There is, at least, the excitement that neither you, nor the reader, knows quite where your next step is going to land.

Tobias Jones is the author of A Place of Refuge and Blood on the Altar. His latest book is Ultra.

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