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.
6 thoughts on “Dilemma: language, culture and style”
1st, I believe that what you are writing should have an effect on your style as well as who you want to read it… Do you care if racist elitists that snub non-English 1st language writers? Or… maybe that is the exact audience that will benefit the most from what you are sharing.
One ‘rule of thumb’ says that any prose in quotations, or is a 1st person recount can get away with more rule breaking based on style than the 3rd person autonomous recounting.
In essence… who do you want to reach with these stories? As much as we’d like to stand on creative license, if we try to insist our reader suffer through our creation the end result is it won’t be read by some groups of readers.
This is not always a bad thing… the 80/20 rule in business applies to writing just as well. If you write in a style that only people who love your work will read, (the 20% that will rave and give the work great reviews), then though your audience goes down, the effective quality of your work goes up. (The quality is based on the readers ratings, not the reader’s numbers.)
Not having an intimate detail of your intentions means I may be full of poop! Lol. Just some thoughts I could not stop myself from sharing. Hope they help in some small way.
(Wonders how many grammar rules I broke in this reply?) Lol.
My first reaction is to write as you would write, including your ‘Eastern European’ flavor. After all, if you really want people to appreciate your stories, they should have the right accent.
I absolutely think that you should forge ahead and allow your culture and dialect to seep into your writing, aesthetically correct or not. I would be rather interested in the content than the grammar… and I know many Eastern Europeans that become “stuck” looking for the right word to express themselves in English when they know a beautiful word in Russian, Ukrainian or Polish that perfectly describes what might take five minutes to explain in English. Personally, I rather like reading stuff written from those for whom English isn’t a native language… but I often find that their vocabulary far exceeds that of native English speakers 😉 Molodets!
I am from Oklahoma.
I tend to walk, talk and act like a Yankee in the real world. I don’t wear cowboy hats, blue jeans, belt buckles or cowboys boots. You won’t catch me dead in anything other than tennis shoes.
If someone were to meet me on the street, the only hint they would have as to my origin is a few Texas colloquialisms I picked up when I lived there for a few years, “y’all come back now, ya he’er.” And they may pick up on the fact that I talk slower than most Yankees.
However, when I am writing, I immerse myself in the words, phrases and nuances of my local culture. Instead of saying “guys” or “you,” I always say “folks,” just like most proper southerners do.
I am often seen to write about “taking someone behind the barn,” “a one-horse town,” “Okies,” “good ole’ boys,” “fellows” and “rattling on.”
When I write, I deliberately bring in the words and phrases that people in rural Oklahoma use, because I want to stand out in a world of people who write and speak in the same style that most educated folks think is proper.
A few Yankees might look down their noses at me, disregarding the message of my words, but those folks are not in my target audience. I find that people either love what I write or they scoff at me whenever I speak. So be it.
You cannot please all of the people all of the time, and if you try, you will end up pleasing none of the people most of the time.
Writing in my own style is a calculated risk, and I calculate that the people who like what I write enjoy or don’t care if I use Okie colloquialisms, and the people who do care just don’t matter. 🙂
I think it is important for all of us to write in a way that will help us stand out from the masses of people competing for eyeballs. It is important for people to be able to recognize our personal writing styles.
People will either love or hate our writing styles, and that is fine for them to do so. The people who hate our writing styles can simply go fly a kite and bugger off.
The people who love your writing style or are at least willing to accept it will allow you to be you without much concern for your word choices.
The only time I believe that we should reconsider the words or phrases we use when writing is when we include what I call “stop words.” What I am talking about is words that cause a reader to stop and have to think about what you said.
Ideally, we want people to read what we have written, from beginning to end, without distraction.
Those “stop words” create a distraction where there should be no distraction.
As far as I am concerned, the only rule that should apply to what we write is making sure that we don’t have “stop words” that will break the flow of the story we are telling.
Your friend might mean well when he is telling you to talk to your audience, but does he truly understand who your real audience is? Most people haven’t a clue who ones real audience is, and they certainly don’t understand who another person’s audience is.
Trust your gut. If you know who your target audience is, you will get the words right, even if you are talking in a style that reveals that English is not your first language.
You write better in English as a fourth language than many of the native English speakers in the US so you really don’t have any worries on that score. Is there a sense of not-from-around-here in your prose? Yes, but it adds richness, just as adding a bit of seasoning can make a dish so much more than what went into the pot.
There are times where it’s important to talk the audience’s language and be extra careful at avoiding cognitive interruption and confusion. There are other times where it would actually take some of the nuances and richness from the work to ‘Americanize’ it. In the case of the stories you wish to tell, I believe that it would be a shame to do that.
Good morning Istvan,
Whether what you’re writing is an essay or an article is, to a degree, an inferred label. Literary organs and the op ed pages of newspapers prefer to call their printed output essays. It sounds classy and less “commercial.” Yet many, employing the traditional North American practice of article writing, (tell ’em what you’re going to tell them | tell them | tell ’em what you told them) could fairly be dubbed articles. So much for that.
There are talented writers who can be all things to all people. You want Faulkner, they’ll give you Faulkner. The same for Heinlein or Hiassen. One wonders, where is their voice?
For each of us our writing style has evolved from our culture, language and education. Formal education tends to stamp out clone writers. Often clones of the teacher. Often to the dismay of said teachers.
The writers we most respect develop their own style. (So do some of the writers we least respect.)
You are you. Your experiences are unique and you wish to share them. They’re personal observations and recollections of non-North American life and culture and should not be strained through an American sieve.
Write your book in the style most comfortable and natural to you. If you wish to explain the style do so with an “About the author” piece or a forward. Not a disclaimer.
I look forward to reading your book.
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