Dilemma: language, culture and style

Recently I wrote a short essay and the feedback I got about it reminded me of an old story.

Many years ago I was enrolled in a North American master (MA) program in applied linguistics. One of my professors was especially close to me, maybe because he was what I like to respect in a teacher: a scholar with great knowledge and a very approachable person. As I was older than the majority of the students, we often talked about various topics, quite often about the cultural differences. He was among the few that were aware of the different ways we have been taught to write a text, be it a short essay (as everybody likes to call it on this continent) or an article or just a simple school composition (as we called it in my previous life). Yes, we were also taught to have a brief introduction, then to elaborate on the subject and, finally, to have a conclusion or summary or ending… whatever you want to call it. Yet, the end result is often different.

Randy, my friendly professor, told me that my style of writing reminded him of other Eastern European students he had before. According to him, there is nothing wrong with how we write, it’s just a different approach of the topic and, maybe, a less rigorous application of what is regarded here as rules.

I almost forgot about this until the other day, when I sent my little article to a friend of mine. As the subject of the writing was a person with close ties to Freemasonry, I asked a Mason to provide me a feedback. Well, I got more than I was asking for.

Before my beloved readers would think I am an ungrateful bastard not appreciating the help and feedback that I occasionally receive from my distinguished “first readers” — I have to say I am extremely thankful to anyone that takes the time to go through my texts, warning me about typos (when I forget to turn on the spell checker), about the unusual phrases I come up with and about structures that nobody uses, even if they are theoretically correct.

My Masonic critic was completely OK with the factual part regarding his beloved Craft. He also understood that typos and omissions (like a missing “it” before a verb) can and do happen. Then he said something that brought back those memories:

— I would work on it to bring the style closer to the targeted audience.
I must have looked strangely at him because he went on to explain:
— You see, if somebody knows you personally, they would immediately say, yes, it was written by Istvan. But if somebody doesn’t know you, they might give up reading and say, this person didn’t go to school in North America…

Not that is anything wrong with that, was my Seinfeldian thought immediately. However, it brings up a more general question about writing in another language.

Of course, nobody wants to sound in their writing so much “foreign” as to turn off and away the readers. If there are any. On the other hand, how far can and should a writer go (regardless of his status) in abandoning the ways he expresses himself – for the sake of conformity with the expectations that govern this new culture where he is a misfit?

Let’s make abstraction of the obvious mistakes and errors or grammatically incorrect structures, which can be fixed by an empathetic editor. The real dilemma comes beyond those. Should I listen to the obviously very well-intentioned advice of nice and helpful English speakers regarding my writing style and the handling of this my fourth language, or should I go on my way and follow the thoughts in my head that want to be expressed in a specific way, no matter the language. Actually, that’s a lie. Those ideas and thoughts in my head are searching for their own English language-ware, they don’t want to dress into the natural flow of the first language that causes joy and pain on the waves of the emotional roller coaster called memory lane by cheap lyrics authors.

This is not a theoretical dilemma. Since I am “secretly” writing the book about the stories that were handed to me by ancestors and villages, by grandmothers, a great-grandmother and professional meat cuts and sausages, by Chechen bodyguards and Bosnian rivers, by lovers and rivals and the places with history. My places, and all my places have history – and stories. Something is telling me this is the time when I must write about all and in this language, which I love more and more with every sentence I succeed to finish. Or hate, which is often the same.

It is a real dilemma.