Being able to write, just as being good at translation, is a gift. Writing to convey information or a story in an interesting way that engages the reader and uses words to paint a vivid picture is something not every person is able to do when they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.

To succeed as a writer, a person needs to “grow roots into that language”, according to Costica Bradata, associate professor of honours at Texas Tech University, writing in a blog for the New York Times’ Opinionator. “As such, if for any reason the writer has to change languages, the experience is nothing short of life-threatening,” he warns.

Mastering the craft

It makes sense. An artist might be able to depict a scene in oil paints so lifelike it looks like a photograph. However, take away their paints and replace them with a different tool, such as pastel crayons, and they may struggle to get such pristine results.

An artist has to be able to paint lifelike images in every medium before they can break the rules and go abstract. They need to excel when following the rules before they can break them. Similarly, a writer needs to understand the rules of their mother tongue in its written form before they can bend them to their will. However, every language comes with its own set of rules and being an expert in one does not automatically qualify someone as an expert in another.

Because of this, Mr Bradatan notes that changing language is “not for the fainthearted”. The language a person speaks influences how they perceive the world. For instance, an English writer may describe an ocean as blue, but a Russian writer will be guided by the exact shade of the water, as the Russian language features two different colours – light blue and dark blue. As a result, it could be said Russian speakers see more shades of blue than English speakers.

Mr Bradatan suggests that for a writer, changing language is akin to a death and rebirth experience. This is an apt description as while it takes time to be familiar enough with the new language to manipulate it in the way the writer did with their mother tongue, their knowledge of their native language starts to become less familiar. Language is a constantly-evolving entity, which means that to master it and stay a master of it a writer has to remain a student of it; always learning and understanding any changes it goes through.

“Becoming a writer in a language that is not yours by birth, though, goes against nature; there is nothing organic in this process, only artifice,” Mr Bradatan warns. What he means is that writing no longer comes naturally when working in a second or third language and instead a person has to take time and care to pick out what word they will use and compose their sentence a certain way. Of course, this may have some drawbacks, but it can also lead to improvement.

Just as writing requires knowledge of a language inside and out, so too does translation. Not only must the translator be an expert in the source language, but they must also be able to wrangle the target language with the aplomb of the author they are translating – all without losing the texture and nuance the original writer created.

The enigma of writer-translators

Translation is not simply a process of switching words one by one from one language to another. Translators have to capture the voice of the author and recreate it faithfully in the target language. This means having a knowledge and experience of writing and a passion for reading in order to find that voice and reproduce it correctly.

It is a real skill and because of this few authors are also translators. One exception to this rule is David Mitchell, who wrote era-spanning novel Cloud Atlas; since made into a Hollywood film. He recently translated Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump – the author’s own account of growing up with autism. Mitchell worked alongside his wife to translate the Japanese text into English and also provided a forward for the translated version.

However, often authors do not like working as a translator as it means translating someone else’s work, rather than their own. Meanwhile, there are a handful of authors who write their own work in more than one language. For example, Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland and so his mother tongue was English, but he learnt French and began to write in this language too.

Vladimir Nabokov is another author to have gained as much acclaim for the books he wrote in his native language – Russian – as those he wrote in his second – English. Indeed, arguably his most famous and critically well received books is Lolita, which Nabokov wrote in his second language. Despite not speaking English as a native, the author was able to play with the writing style and words of the language with as much aplomb as he did with Russian.

Some authors actually prefer to write in their second language, such as Beckett. Another was Joseph Conrad, who was born in Russia, came from Polish nobility and who moved to England later in life. After moving to the UK, he wrote exclusively in English. This was despite him not learning the language until he was in his twenties. However, while Conrad was well able to write his own material in English, it did not simply follow that he was an expert translator too.

Zdzisław Najder, one of the leading scholars of the author’s work, described in his book Joseph Conrad: A Life Conrad’s decision to translate a short Polish play into English. Because Conrad lived in England and no longer heard much everyday Polish being spoken, Najder noted that he missed “many amusing nuances”.

Translation best practice

These details may have been lost in translation because, while there is no denying Conrad was a talented and skilled writer, he failed to follow best practice when it came to translating the work. To ensure the best results, a translator will typically be fluent in the source language and a native speaker of the target language. They will also be based in the country where the target language is spoken so they are familiar with the dialect, slang and the other contemporary nuances of the language. This allows them to produce a translation that is an accurate representation of the original but that also reads fluently to readers of the target language.

While changing language could diminish an author’s ability to write, changing the language of the work itself should never be seen as a bad thing. It may be rare for a writer to also be a translator or vice versa, but these are certainly two professions that need each other to thrive. After all, without translation, an author can’t hope to see their work enjoyed all over the world.