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I currently write in Russian, but I think of switching to English to gain more audience and to play with both languages and linguistics.

So could I ever reach the level of native English writers and maybe even gain some honor as a good one? I know that writing doesn't stick with language, but what is the price of switching? How much I'll have to learn?

While answering, please abstract from Russian and English, let them be Hindi and Japan, or something else.

  • 2
    Ask Vladimir Nabakov. – EvilSnack Apr 25 '17 at 0:16

13 Answers 13

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It is certainly not easy, but I'd like to point to a possible advantage of coming from a different culture with a different language: it might also give you an edge!

When I read manga (japanese comic books) for instance, I always gravitate towards the type of manga which draws its inspiration from western culture. The manga that talk about eastern culture, like ninja or samurai stories don't interest me. It's the ones about pirates and bounty hunters.

On the other hand, the comic books treating the same themes do not interest me at all. Why? It's precisely because of the refreshing look of japanese manga artists on our culture. They view it totally differently, bring in aspects from their own culture into it, and that's what makes it so very fresh and entertaining.

Something similar must be true for literature. Wasn't Nabokov, the great Russian writer, writing in English, French and Russian? Often drawing inspiration from the various languages.

Certainly, the task ahead is not an easy one, but nothing worthwhile is easy, don't let it discourage you!

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    Sorry to break it to you, but Nabokov has been dead for 35 years. He's not writing in any language. – temporary_user_name Jun 20 '13 at 19:05
  • this answer, while being accepted by the OP, actually doesn't answer the question – Ooker Aug 4 '16 at 13:14
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Knowing some native speaker/writers, I'd say it's certainly possible. What kind of writing are you doing? I can see pros and cons for literary versus genre fiction.

Literary fiction is, I think, much more dependent on the words used to get the story across. I think of it as long free-form poetry, a poetic prose. Perhaps others would disagree, but the language itself is important to the reader. As someone who would have to think carefully about word choices, I could see writing as a non-native speaker might be helpful because you'd have to be intentional. The phrasing differences between English and Whatever could either help or hinder the writer's work. It could either be fresh or confusing for the reader.

In genre fiction, however, the language of the writing is not quite as important. Obviously if something is too "off", the reader will pick up on it (I would note that this is the case for me even between British and U.S. English).

However, you might get into the idiomatic issue depending on your setting. I think you'd be safer placing your writing in a context that would be familiar to you, even if you're writing in a non-native language. So your story would take place in Russia if you're a Russian speaker, as opposed to setting it in pre-World War II Japan, for example.

And if you're writing in a first person perspective and your main character isn't a native speaker, then people might be a little more forgiving as readers. To join along with the struggles of another.

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Probably the greatest example of a non-native speaker who wrote in English would be Joseph Conrad: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Conrad. Also, Oscar Wilde wrote in French (Salome) as did Samuel Beckett (after Waiting for Godot).

My recommendation would be: listen and read. Hear as much spoken English as you can to get the rhythm and flow; read as much as you can to see it put together. Journal in English.

But yes, you will be rediscovering both your style and your voice in English. The process may come faster, but it's going to be a process similar to what you have already completed in Russian.

An aside on translators: Translation is, in of itself, a creative act. A "good translator" is very hard to find, and as subjective as "good art".

I was fluent in French, and have written some in French when it was appropriate for what I wanted from the piece, but I never quite felt I reached the clarity of style or voice I have in English.

Also, the English language may have simple rules, but the exceptions are near endless. I suspect that would make it a difficult language in which to achieve a fluid style.

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  • "Joseph Conrad"? sure be the exception, Just need to be born in an intellectual environment, learn some English as a child as well as other languages that are roots English, become a British citizen, master the intricacies of the English language and literature during the next 16 years, then write a novel whose potential published judges as "uncertain whether the English was good enough for publication." – Reed -SE is a Fish on Dry Land Jul 27 '16 at 21:34
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It's certainly possible, it's just more difficult, because a writer needs to get the idioms and subtle differences in connotation that a casual speaker may miss and still get his or her message across.

If you can, spend some time in an English-speaking country, or at least consume their media and talk to native speakers online. The more you use it, the better you'll get.

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    As a note on idioms, I know two non-native English speakers (Serbian + French) who are fluent in English and come up with much more interestingly turned phrases and idioms. So as a non-native English writer, I'm sure you'd come up with some very refreshing and non-cliché language. – Maddy Byahoo Sep 25 '12 at 18:45
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Yes.

Proof:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead A famous, brilliant comedy play by Tom Stoppard, who wasn't a native speaker of English (admittedly, he did learn it when he was an older child, not as an adult).

(but don't dismiss the idea of writing in Russian and then finding a really good translator - that would certainly be much easier. I speak Japanese pretty well, but I'd never try to compose a novel in it)

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3

You absolutely can be a success as a writer if you don't speak (or write) English as a native language. One of my best freelance writers is German. I think he spoke English fluently before he began writing in English, but that may not be the case.

It may mean that you have to work harder during the edit process. But working hard isn't a bad thing!

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2

It is definitely possible. As an example, Hannu Rajanemi has recently had his first novel-length work published, written entirely (well, there are the occasional Finnish word in there, but that is due to one of the viewpoint characters being Finnish-ethnic) in English. His mother tongue is Finnish.

However, it probably requires a fair bit of work on behalf of the writer and probably benefits from immersion in "the target language".

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Whether you take her seriously or not, Ayn Rand's language and style were impeccable. She knew practically no English at all when she moved to the United States in 1925, at the age of twenty. So there's no reason you can't develop an original and respectable style as a writer in a language that isn't your own, once you've developed a strong base in its grammar and syntax.

(I was at first going to mention Vladimir Nabokov, a writer whose style was so rich and wordplay so brilliant that it's a wonder he never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he was for all practical purposes trilingual.)

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  • Yeah, I think Nabokov is an unfair example-- he was a linguistic genius almost without peer. And moreover, he grew up in a trilingual household, so I wouldn't say his situation was entirely analogous. – temporary_user_name Jun 20 '13 at 19:08
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Read this, Daniel Excinsky: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/books/writing-in-english-novelists-find-inventive-new-voices.html?_r=0

That's all, folks!

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    Please summarize the contents of what you're linking to and why you think it's important, in case the link no longer works in the future. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 8 '15 at 14:59
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I posted a comment an answer commented on, so I decided to post an answer... My answer concerns novels, for technical writing most don't care about style and even legibility if you are an expert in your field

A side note for the OP, you also asked about bilingual play of words and linguistic puns...it is a bad idea and most likely would require your readers to fluent in both languages too, and so would severely limit your audience which goes contrary to the avowed goal of reaching a broader readership.

Short answer: Yes it is possible but highly unlikely

In my comment about Joseph Conrad maybe I was wrong about some details, but my point was mostly that he is one of the very, very, few that achieved that and is often brandished as an example... As if that happened every other day... Ask the poor tens of thousandths Indian wannabe authors, for whom English is almost a first language as many schools teach in it, who desperately try to get published in English, and are as "successful" at it as Russians, Ethiopians, Mexicans, or Chinese ... So yes it is technically possible but the odds are stacked against you, and even more so if you are not currently living in an English speaking country. It is already near impossible to get published as a native speaker in your own country, imagine the odds of being published as a non-native speaker living in a foreign country...

Let me illustrate from my own life. I do want to believe since I do want to try to make a living out of being published in English, although I often despair I will ever reach that level. I am a French native speaker, fluent in 4 languages, I got good grades in English in high school, I briefly majored in Litt and I obtained a top score in the TOEFL before studying in an American University (a couple of years later I retook the test and got an near perfect score) I lived, and studied, in the US for nearly a decade and wrote countless papers, probably amounting to a million words, and a 500-page long thesis, while I was not an English major I took several writing, composition, and literature classes where I got the top grades and left native speakers biting the dust. I also got very interested, in writing, storytelling, screenwriting, fiction writing, I have read somewhere between one and two thousand English written books too. But then I had to leave and return to my native country, for a while I relocated to England where I stayed a few years, but I had to move back home. That is the main issue I think, not living in an English speaking environment, not being surrounded by Anglo-Saxon culture, though I still almost exclusively read and watch Netflix in English...

For me, one of the many reminders that I may never reach that level is when I write something in StackExchange and a kind native speaker edits it, rightly so, and reminds me I am just a pleb foreigner, an alien who will always be other

Some elements of the writing, such a plot, are not language-specific though are often culturally determined but many others are. On top of my head, the hardest things to get right are sentence structure, idioms, rhythm, and dialogue.

Some people argue that foreigners write interesting sentences, maybe so but their "weirdness" is also jarring and don't flow right, and can take the native reader right off the illusion, which is imo the worst thing a fiction writer can do.

So here I am palely loitering, despondent about ever reaching native-like fluency. Now, on the one hand, I might just not be any good at writing, and it's true I don't always pay attention to my grammar, on the other hand I think that if someone with my background struggles so much trying and failing, flailing really, to write like a native, it must be awfully difficult to do so.

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go ahead! start writing in English and then be your own judge. you definitely will get an answer yourself. you cant learn swimming until you've jumped into the water. don't be afraid of drowning. i am a native Urdu speaker and i write articles both in English and Urdu. and you'll be interested to know that iv won prizes for my writings in English but none in Urdu!

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I think,if you want to be a non-native english writer you have to do more and more hard work.It's depands on your around circumstances,is it helpful for english practising.If not.IT will be more challenging for you.In this situation you may take help of english movie,news,news paper,talkshow,variety cultural program and english speaking with native speaker in online.

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Absolutely. Example: Gregory Rabassa, an English-speaking U.S. citizen, grew up to translate many prominent Latin American works into English. Gabriel García Márquez, one of the most prominent Spanish-language authors of all time, considered Rabassh's English translation of his novel Cien Años de Soledad to be better than the original Spanish version.

Although this is a slightly different case, it demonstrates that you can achieve mastery in the mechanics of a language you didn't learn as your first.

Best of luck!

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  • Lol why did this get downvoted? – Jack Lynch May 25 at 13:35

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