Dragan Todorovic is a Serbian journalist and editor who emigrated in 1995 from Yugoslavia to Canada, where he wrote in English and did multimedia work, winning various awards. His latest piece is “In My Language I am Smart (The Immigrant Song),” which is linked from this page of his website; it’s an audio clip a few minutes long consisting of him talking about having to communicate in a new language, mixed with various sounds. It’s very effective; I particularly liked this bit, addressed to a woman he’s trying to make time with: “If we spoke in my language, you would have fallen in love with me three hours ago. Can you just love me now and understand me later?” Oh, and “HMS Concise Oxford comes to my rescue.”
Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to the clip at the moment, read the Notes a bit further down the page:

…Language is acquired with its sound, and the sounds I had picked from records and movies were harsh, aggressive, and presented me in a very different light from who I was and am. Suddenly I realized that somewhere in the process of acquiring the tone of modern English I had lost my identity. It was painful to realize that in my language I was smart, but I sounded stupid in English. Example: while walking with my Canadian friend one day by a church, he started talking about the architecture of that particular building, and while I wanted to say a few things about how I liked the Gothic details on the arch at the entrance, and how I admired the intelligent choice of stones, all I could squeeze out was, “Yeah, it’s cool”.
Acquired meaning is superficial. Sound puts word into context, but the deeper shades of expression are not learned. I responded the way that Clint Eastwood, or some other action hero, would in one of their roles. Back in Serbian language I was connoisseur of arts; in my newly acquired language I was a cop…

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. Garrison Keillor wrote about this when he went to live in (Sweden?) with his new wife. (Since divorced.)
    Humor is even harder. I try hard to look for humor in the many Asian residents and visiting doctors in my hosptial. It’s there to be found, often, but it takes a willingness to see, and a bit of love of charades.
    Years ago, I tried to learn Japanese, to no success at all. But I managed to remember how to say “I don’t speak Japanese.” A joke, I’d hoped. I have had occasion to use it twice in the last month. And to my delight, my accent and pronunciation is good, and the excessive obviousness does come across as funny to Japanese speakers.

  2. That reminds me of how stupid I felt when I got to Helsinki and discovered that the carefully memorized Finnish phrase for “I don’t speak Finnish” was totally useless, since hearing me speak Finnish only encouraged a flood of Finnish, whereas saying it in English made the point far more effectively.

  3. I’ve found that memorizing something like “I don’t understand much, but I want to learn” can be productive.

  4. Alan Gunn says:

    I wonder whether this phenomenon ever occurs in reverse. Did Conrad write things in Polish? If so, were they as good as his writings in English? Are there systematic differences between Nabokov’s works in English and those in Russian?
    I’m not good at any language other than English, but I have read quite a few novels in German. It’s a fascinating experience, and, among other things, I remember the details of books I’ve read in German much better than others, perhaps because I read German more slowly than English and have to concentrate more reading German. Also, in my fairly limited experience, people who have learned English well, but for whom it is a second language, seem to speak a more-grammatical and less-jargon-cluttered English than most of us.
    Just speculating.

  5. It’s something that, being an Indian immigrant in the US, I deeply identify with. Thanks for the link.
    The problem, at least in Indians’ case, is not limited to the immigrants though. It is closer to home and deeper. Majority of the English-educated Indians living *in India* cannot express themselves with decent clarity (let alone with finesse) in English. Still the influence of English as the language of opportunity, not to mention it being a symbol of status and eliteness, makes them continue trying to do so. The worst part, however, is that these English speakers quickly lose their facility and fluency with their native tongue as well.

  6. Did Conrad write things in Polish?
    Nabokov said Conrad never wrote in Polish (in the course of objecting to being compared to Conrad), and that’s good enough for me.
    Are there systematic differences between Nabokov’s works in English and those in Russian?
    They’re certainly different, though they come from the same artistic sensibility. I would say that the wordplay is more subdued and natural-sounding in Russian; in English he goes overboard, showing off how well he’s mastered his second language (though it should always be remembered that he learned English in early childhood and claimed that he learned to write in English before Russian).

  7. I wouldn’t actually immediately trust anything Nabokov said about another writer. He had an enormous ego, plenty of malice, and rather narrow tastes.

  8. Sure, but it seems unlikely he’d lie about something so easily checked. Calling Dostoevsky a lousy writer is a snark of a different color.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    As a language teacher I have observed many students, and also colleagues and other people struggling with a second language – both anglophones learning other languages, and “allophones” (a Canadian term for the non-French or -English speakers) struggling with English or French. I have met many people who are like Dragan Todorovic: so at home, so effortlessly fluent, hence so “smart”, in their own language, that they are extremely frustrated to find themselves tongue-tied in another one. (I, on the other hand, am not a very fluent speaker or writer – it takes me a while to write a paragraph in French or English, because I tend to change my mind before I finish a sentence – but I enjoy the challenge of saying anything in a different language – no doubt like many “hatters”). Some of the worst students in French (and German, Spanish, etc) university classes are English majors, and professional writers are often not the best language learners – Nabokov was a product of the multilingual Russian upper class, who in effect learned more than one first language.
    I have met a number of persons (of various origins) who find themselves teaching their own language abroad but are uncomfortable with the language of the country they live in (especially if they ended up there through the vagaries and tribulations of life rather than by personal choice), and who complain about the poor language abilities of their students, not recognizing that some of those students suffer from the same problem that they themselves have: so the students should “work harder” to learn the words and rules of the teachers’ language while those teachers have been reluctant or unable to learn the students’ own language beyond the minimum necessary for daily life, even after years in their new country.

  10. In my experiences with Asian students of English in my home country, I found something quite interesting and yet a little disturbing. After a couple years of interaction with said peoples, I realized that when watching movies or other artistic works, although my conscious thought was very much well and alive, differentiating between fact and fiction, there remained a part of mind where whatever my senses sensed, there it was interpreted as fact, regardless of what my consciousness knew to be the contra. Similarly, I found that in my relations with the students, my consciousness knew very well that they were intelligent educated adults, but because of their clumsiness and limitations in English (my only fluent language), I was unable, or at least not discovering, these troves of personality and experience. Instead of said learnings, that same, as I like to say, innocent child, inside me, perceived my conversational others as being as mature and ‘advanced’ in terms of human development as their abilities of English speech. Now, our roles have been reversed. I have become the foreigner and language student in a country not mine own, and ‘they’ have become the natives, fluent in every aspect of this culture. As such, I’ve noted the same tendency in them toward me that I observed in myself — because I can’t express my ‘smartness’ in this environment, although not springing from their conscious knowledge, e.g. they know I’ve travelled the world and of what I’ve done in the past, they often treat me like the kindergarten student my speech presents me as.

  11. … because I can’t express my ‘smartness’ in this environment, although not springing from their conscious knowledge, e.g. they know I’ve travelled the world and of what I’ve done in the past, they often treat me like the kindergarten student my speech presents me as.

    Something very motivating towards fluency!

  12. Are there systematic differences between Nabokov’s works in English and those in Russian?
    (A long quote in Russian is left for Language Hat to translate, if he will feel like it)
    В хороших русских изданиях (плохие издания обходятся без этих излишеств) романа Набокова издатели помещают два замечательных набоковских же текста: “О книге, озаглавленной “Лолита” (послесловие к американскому изданию 1958-го года)” в переводе самого Набокова и “Постскриптум к русскому изданию”.
    В конце “американского” послесловия Набокова говорится:
    …Американский критик недавно высказал мысль, что “Лолита” представляет собою отчет о моем “романе с романтическим романом”. Замена последних слов словами “с английским языком” уточнила бы эту изящную формулу. … …Всякая оценка, основанная на моей английской беллетристике, не может не быть приблизительной. Личная моя трагедия … это то, что мне пришлось отказаться от природной речи, от моего ничем не стесненного, богатого, бесконечно послушного мне русского слога ради второстепенного сорта английского языка … .
    Однако постскриптум Набокова к переводу романа на русский язык возражает своему американскому собрату:
    Американскому читателю я так страстно твержу о превосходстве моего русского слога над моим слогом английским, что иной славист может и впрямь подумать, что мой перевод “Лолиты” во сто раз лучше оригинала. Меня же только мутит ныне от дребезжания моих ржавых русских струн. …
    … За полгода работы над русской “Лолитой” я … пришел и к некоторым общим заключениям по поводу взаимной переводимости двух изумительных языков.
    Телодвижения, ужимки, ландшафты, томление деревьев, запахи, дожди, тающие и переливчатые оттенки природы, все нежно-человеческое (как ни странно!), а также все мужицкое, грубое, сочно-похабное, выходит по-русски не хуже, если не лучше, чем по-английски; но столь свойственные английскому тонкие недоговоренности, поэзия мысли, мгновенная перекличка между отвлеченнейшими понятиями, роение односложных эпитетов, все это, а также все относящееся к технике, модам, спорту, естественным наукам и противоестественным страстям — становится по-русски топорным, многословным и часто отвратительным в смысле стиля и ритма. Эта невязка отражает основную разницу в историческом плане между зеленым русским литературным языком и зрелым, как лопающаяся по швам смоква, языком английским … .

  13. I’ll just translate the last two paragraphs, which are what bears on the issue (what comes before is basically him saying you might think his translation of Lolita into Russian would be better than the original, but unfortunately his Russian had gotten very rusty by then):
    …After a half year of work on the Russian Lolita I … have come to some general conclusions regarding the mutual translatability of two amazing languages.
    Movements, grimaces, landscapes, the languishing of trees, odors, rains, the melting and iridescent nuances of nature, everything tenderly human (however strange that may seem!), but also everything loutish, coarse, juicily obscene, comes out in Russian no worse, if not better, than in English; but things characteristic of English, such as subtle reticences, the poetry of thought, a momentary interchange between the most abstract concepts, a swarm of monosyllabic epithets, all of that, but also everything relating to technology, fashion, sports, the natural sciences and unnatural passions — becomes in Russian clumsy, multisyllabic, and often repulsive in style and rhythm. This discrepancy reflects the fundamental historical difference between the green Russian literary language and the English language, ripe as a fig bursting at the seams…

  14. marie-lucie says:

    About authors doing their own translations, there is an interesting book by Julian/Julien Green, published in France as Le langage et son double/Language and its double, containing texts originally written in French or English and translated by the author in the other language. Green wrote in the language of the country where he was living at the time and signed his name accordingly. It is interesting to see his translatios, which often are rather an adaptation or a rewriting. To my mind it seems that the English texts are simpler, less literary than the French ones (although born in an American family, Green in his early years lived in Paris and spent much time in the company of French nannies, so that he did not really speak English until he was 5 or 6 years old). Other works of his have been translated by other people.
    At a time when I was applying for jobs (in Canada), one of the letters of application had to be written in French. I thought I could just translate my already written English-language letter, but that did not work at all – I had to compose an entirely new letter in French.
    English is having a huge influence on written French (in France) nowadays – it is not just the influx of English words used in spoken French and in some printed media (eg. popular magazines), but also the syntax of written French, as a result of the number of texts translated from English, many of them too literally translated, either by overworked professionals having to meet deadlines or by persons who can more or less read English but do not know the subtleties of the language. An example of this is the use of C’est to translate not only It is but This is and That’s, for instance in front of what X said. The result is often “repulsive in style and rhythm” indeed, and such errors not only destroy the flow of a sentence or paragraph but also lead to outright distortions of the meaning.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I thought I could just translate my already written English-language letter, but that did not work at all – I had to compose an entirely new letter in French.


  16. marie-lucie says:

    Because the sentence structure, if translated too closely, was all wrong (and also the general style appropriate to such a letter). The two languages are only superficially similar – they have the same basic SVO (Subject – Verb – Object) structure, and a lot of intellectual vocabulary in common, so that it seems possible to translate word for word in most cases, but the order of presentation of the elements of the sentence can be quite different. This is one more case where literal translations from English lead to a “repulsive rhythm”, etc which is now becoming the norm in some French writing. I don’t mean that English rhythm, etc is repulsive, but each language has not only its own logic but also its own aesthetics, and you can’t just superimpose the one on the other (a poor translation from French into English also has “repulsive” characteristics).
    As an example: in English noun-phrases adjectives are placed before the noun, and you can pile up a large number of adjectives and other modifiers, some of them quite complex, between an article and a noun. In French most of these elements are either placed after the noun, or mentioned separately before or after introducing the noun-phrase. So English is more compact, but French allows more variety in structure as well as more leisurely description. In English media we often find sentences introducing a person in terms such as “The British-born, Oxford-educated, twenty-eight-year-old movie actor …..”, for which the traditional French equivalent would be something like: “Né en Angleterre, âgé de vingt-huit ans, cet acteur de cinéma, après des études à Oxford, …” (and the various modifiers separated by commas could be placed differently depending on the author’s desire to emphasize different descriptors), but now you read things like: “L’acteur de cinéma de 28 ans, né en Angleterre et éduqué à Oxford, …”, with all the modifiers together after the noun, and none of the variety possible when most of the modifying elements are separated. Moreover, the English article the is translated as a French article, whereas traditional French uses the weak demonstrative ce(t) since the name of the person has already been mentioned: using the article in French makes it sound as if this description was intended not just to describe the person but to identify him as opposed to others with similar characteristics (ex l’acteur de 28 ans as opposed to l’acteur de 40 ans). This is one of many, many instances where closely following English results in a flat, colourless style, a sentence that seems to go too fast, and a slight distortion of the meaning.
    People from France used to find official Canadian French (ex. on government documents or public signs) stilted and unnatural, but now they are taking on the same characteristics from English syntax. I find this much more insidious and annoying than simply the use of English words in otherwise French sentences.

  17. michael farris says:

    Similarly in Polish, an avalanche of overly literal translations* is affecting Polish syntax and other questions of style.
    Polish people over 50 or so find the expression ‘miło cię widzieć’ (a calque of ‘nice to see you’) as awful sounding, while it’s completely natural to almost all my students (not anything they’d say, but it sounds fine to them in translated material).
    Also overuse of words like ‘rzecz’ (thing) and ludzie (people) and use of second person as an impersonal form are more and more common.
    *partly due to quality control issues, partly because local taste often runs to literal rather than idiomatic translations

  18. I read an interesting post, probably on this very blog, about how dubbing movies and television from English into German was subtly effecting the German language since the translators often rely on calques to get the sound synched up. For example dubbing “Oh my God!” as “Oh mein Gott!” instead of something more traditionally German like “Ach du lieber Gott!”.

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