Exophony: Writing in a non-native language


10 May 2024
Fantasy author Emma Sterner-Radley talks about writing in a second language

What’s that word in English again? A frequent question for a writer with English as a second language. Sometimes it’s answered by asking a native speaker, sometimes by searching dictionaries or even a thesaurus, and sometimes the exophonic writer must accept that there is no translation for that word and spend two hours whinging to your wife about it until she gets bored enough to go for a walk to get a break.

I’ve lived in Britain since 2010 and I still grieve that I can’t specify the time between around 9 am to 12 am with one frequently used word like förmiddag (I know forenoon is technically a thing, but I have yet to find a Brit who uses it.) Or that I need to explain if it’s my maternal grandmother or my paternal one, instead of the already specified mormor or farmor. And that’s before you get to culturally Swedish things like lagom or fika which can’t be easily translated.

This vain search for the right word isn’t made easier when you write fantasy novels, where you must make up new words for fantasy objects and concepts. When you mix your native language with English and add fantasy words, the spell check function in Word is not happy. And neither will your brain be after a long day of writing. And, yes, your editor might have questions too. Especially if you accidentally direct translate.

I have on two occasions said that someone ‘did something from their toes', thereby indicating that they put their whole being into something. That’s a common and sensible thing to say in Swedish. My poor confused editors have had to tell me that it really isn’t in English. And again, the fantasy angle makes it more complicated for any reader. Have I invented some strange turn of phrase or unique-sounding character dialogue here? Or is it just the fact that English isn’t my first language and I’ve made a mistake? That’s tricky territory. Here be grammatically incorrect dragons!

So, is it all bad news for exophonic writers? No of course not. As with the above example, you do end up with a unique voice. Your idioms and metaphors might be fresher than those often used by native speakers. As long as it’s understandable, and works with the used language’s grammar, why not keep it in?

So, how do you know if it’s understandable? You ask native speakers. If they get snagged on someone doing something from the toes and sit there puzzling over that instead of being engaged in the plot, you have a problem. Whether it’s an editor, or your neighbour Ethel the frank octogenarian, let someone with English as their first language read through it. Ethel will no doubt tell you if there’s something that looks out of place. And if you’re using double negatives. And maybe, after reading, she’ll make you a sticky toffee pudding. (Asking for the latter might be pushing your luck, though.)

My love for fantasy books did actually help me familiarize myself with how English is used in fiction. When I grew up, in a village in the deep south of Sweden, foreign books were usually translated into Swedish. Most fantasy books, however, were not. If I wanted to read the works of Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, or Ursula K. Le Guin, I had to get the English paperbacks and try to puzzle out words like alchemy, quiver, and enchantress. It provided a good foundation for someone writing fantasy in English. However, the risk with that method is that one, like readers of George RR Martin, had to look up the word maidenhead to see if that was an actual English word or a fantasy term that he had made up to use instead of maidenhood. (Or was that just me?) Either way, it’s not easy and comes with many pitfalls.  

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Do I, as an exophonic writer, feel it’s worth the effort of writing fantasy in English, then? Absolutely. As much as many of us curse the English language with all its complications and inconsistencies, it’s lovely to write in. It’s full of delicate poetry as well as delicious vulgarities. Most of all, it is a luxury to be able to write in a language that so many people understand. Even if they do have to Google maidenhead. (Which, of course, the googler will find out is a lovely market town in Berkshire.)

Snowblooded by Emma Sternor-Radley is published by Solaris on 9 May


Interested in Nordic fantasy? Read Thilde Kold Holdt's tips for researching Norse history and mythology.