Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Should you publish in languages other than English? (The answer, obviously, is 'yes'.)

Publishing in languages other than English... to do or not to do?

I've been working on a couple of articles recently, one of which is in Finnish. Everything else I've written has been in English, and quite naturally so. I've been bilingual since I was about four or five, but for the past decade or so English has been my main language and really the only one in which I've been active academically, or even as an adult. From a publishing point of view, writing in English also gives you the largest potential readership. Given the challenge of building an active research profile it would in many ways make sense to focus on a monolingual output.

However, a lot of the literature I deal with is in Finnish, and my primary sources are also in Finnish. I can't help but think it would be somehow wrong to not also publish* in Finnish. If academic service covers things like sitting on committees and reviewing books, surely a linguistic service would involve contributing to a language as well as drawing from it.

I also have very little patience for the assumption that comes up every now and then that "everyone speaks English anyway" so why bother.   We can go into how not everyone, in fact, does speak English, or wants to, or needs to and how that's actually pretty damn rich coming from someone who might otherwise gush on about how great diversity and counter-hegemonic practices are. All that is actually sort of irrelevant. What matters is this: If you have even the slightest chance of living multilingually, then why in the name of puppies, marshmallows and pixies wouldn't you?

I would like to take this opportunity to refer to a couple of recent examples of bilingual awesomeness. The first is Bradley Cooper discussing Hangover 2 on French television, in French. Now, while I would advise anyone with the spare cash to go see Bridesmaids instead, this interview just makes me happy. How often have you seen an American celebrity natter on pretty much fluently in a foreign language? Can you imagine how much better the world would be if this were the norm?

And then there is this. Eddie Izzard, the British comedian I thought couldn't possibly be more awesome if he tried, apparantly can. He's been doing a stand-up routine in Paris in French, gearing up to do the same show first in English and then in French on the same day at the Montreal comedy festival later this year. Consider how difficult it must be to be consistently, professionally funny in one language. You know, like your income depended on it. Two? The man's a wizard. Note how the review points out his French isn't perfect: he's not a native French-English bilingual. What Izzard has done is set himself a spectacuriffic challenge. He's a wizard with balls of steel.

My challenge doesn't involve developing steel testes, or even slightly calcified ovaries. I just need to brush up on the academic use of my native language.

When I started working on the article in February I have to admit to being quite nervous: beyond the odd bit of correspondence here and there I hadn't really written anything in Finnish since 1999. Finnish wasn't a natural academic language for me. There are also some aspects of scholarly Finnish that don't sit quite right with me and I've been keen to avoid as much as possible. English is such a dominant language - and academic terminology so dense - that academic writing in Finnish tends to involve a lot of heavy borrowing from English that just sounds odd when rendered in Finnish. 

Funktio. Paradoksi. Transnationalismi. Eksessiivinen.

It was a problem I came up against a lot, seeing as the text had already been, for the most part, written in English as part of the thesis and my first task was to translate it. I think I've managed reasonable solutions to the problem, but it really was eye-opening how English would still haunt the words, even when writing in Finnish.

It was also striking, but this time in a positive way, how the thought process is different in the two languages. I don't know how to articulate it, because it does work on a very abstract level, but I know that just as I have a slightly different personality speaking in Finnish compared to English, I am also a different kind of an academic in the two languages.

Writing in languages other than English may be a small part of most people's academic output, but I do think it's a necessary one. Without people working in a range of languages we're looking at living in a poorer academic culture. If you have the option, do it. If you're up for an even more epic achievement, learn a language for the sake of it.

We can do it together. Repeat after me: le singe est sur la branche...

*I may be getting ahead of myself here. When I say "publish" I mean "write and send off for potential publication or, alternatively, soul-crushing rejection".


  1. I say if you've got it, flaunt it!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! I love how you feel different writing and speaking in Finnish and English. I have been learning Dutch and I am really looking forward to the time where I can get a 'feel' for the Dutch culture and people by speaking and writing in their language. After a short time learning it I am already getting this sensation. And you are so right that the world (including the academic one) would be a much richer place if more of us - namely native English speakers - took the time to learn a new language. It is such a broadening experience.

    Heather L (ignore my URL I don't use it anymore)

  3. Hi James and Heather!

    On that point about a different language making you think differently it might be worth testing if a different language could help solve writer's block, or clarify a complicated idea. There's the fairly well-known bit of advice that if you're stuck on something you should try to write it out in a different genre (poem, letter to Grandma, short story) to get to the core of the idea without being crippled by the requirements of "what a chapter/essay/etc. should be like". The same would probably work for a language as well, and it's the sort of thing you could do just for yourself if your language skills aren't up to full-on multilingual writing. :-)

  4. Thats a brilliant idea Sanna! I shall test it out with my newly aquired Nederlands skills :-) I will start writing my Honours thesis in July so those tips for getting through writer's block will help me at some stage I'm sure. Finnish looks very difficult to learn as a second language...and I thought the Dutch words were long and complicated!

  5. I'm sure you already have contacts who can edit your finnish work, but if you are looking for someone, one of my friends is a professional translator and total geek, and who I can quite confidently volunteer to read through your work. She is quite brillant. She also edits Johan's writing (in english) for free, and has much better grammer than I do. - Carissa

  6. Thanks Carissa! I wouldn't turn down the contact... :-)

  7. I can relate a lot to you, my first language is Turkish but having a full English education in London since the age of 3 means my Turkish skills are quite inferior to my English. Although I speak T. at home, I can confidently say English is my main language. Nevertheless, I'm fluent at reading, writing and speaking Turkish, and can easily write, say, an essay in Turkish.

    I also agree with you, if I had a blog I'd occasionally post in Turkish, or any other language I'm fluent at; I think I'd go crazy if my English teacher told me to write something in Turkish as homework. I learn French and Greek to, but I'm not fluent enough to think in those languages yet.

    However I read practically EVERYTHING in English, its pretty damn hard finding Turkish books in London unless you ran around Harringay or Hackney for 3 hours. In fact, I've only read one full (proper) fiction book in Turkish, which was HArry Potter. Therefore I do perhaps less translating, but still a lot when I'm having a conversation with my parents about a song or school etc.

    Finally, I definitely agree that the thought process changes when you switch language. My personality if I go to Turkey is a lot more quiet, thoughtful, and just generally quieter (which is saying a lot in my book). I don't know why, but I struggle with conversation unless someone else leads it or I'm joining in, which sucks if I want to make a friend. And also I sound more intelligent in English :P
    My thought process, as you say, just changes. In Turkish, grammar is completely different than to that of English. Words are agglutinative and so much longer, but spelling is easier. I switch languages (when I'm thinking) depending on where I am, who I'm talking to etc. I can speak Turkish and think English too, however, or vice versa.

    Anyway, if you read this whole comment, kudos to you my friend. Hope it wasn't too boring :)

  8. Hi Melissa, not boring at all! Thanks for your thoughts :-)