A Writer Reads: In the Shadows of Language …

(A post from guest author Mary Burns)

Since I have been living for part of each year in Quebec, I have been reading in French.  Far from fluently bi-lingual, but still trying, I was advised to choose children’s books.  But what actually tweaked my interest in learning the language in the first place was a book, Dans la vallée des larmes, that a Parisian friend, Patric Antraux, wrote and sent to me.  I wanted to be able to read it as he had written it.  Well it took me months, and I can’t say the experience was enjoyable – not because of the book, but because of the painstaking process.  I’m a stubborn one, though.  How hard could it be for someone who reads, writes, thinks about (ie, is involved with) language every day?

My French has improved with each sejour, which undoubtedly helps, but the secret I discovered to reading in my second languageLa petite fille de monsieur Linh is the same that applies in ma langue maternelle; find a rivetting story, beautifully told.  Although I have completed several novels now, two of the most compelling were the wonderful, La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh (Philippe Claudel), and, most recently, the much larger and complex L’Ombre du Vent, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  For those who don’t know this internationally renowned work, it is modeled on the literary trope of a story within a story, except in this case, there are stories within stories within stories.  I am nearly finished with the 500 or so pages, and new plot points are still being revealed.

L'ombre du ventTrue, I skip over a lot of words.  Depending on my mood I will either keep my net book on my lap, open to Google Translate, flip through a dictionary (which is more disruptive), or, especially while reading in bed, just plough through, satisfied to be seizing the general sense of the story, the voice of the author, the nature of the characters.  A bonus, though, has been the way a single word will stop me, un mot en français that has a synchronistic effect on my understanding of the English equivalent.  I like the way the definition of the term sparks my imagination.  For example, “mobile” in French literally translates to motive, while mobile in English means able to move.  Of course, to move one has to have a reason.  The same goes with déclencher, or déclencheur, which a Québecoise friend used recently to describe the introduction of a conference.  It makes sense that an introduction should be an unclenching of the status quo, a setting off of new ideas or relationships.  Songe is a word Zafon uses often in L’Ombre du Vent, and one I had not known meant the same as rêve, a dream.  A serious writer tries to avoid repetition, unless a word has particular significance.  In a text as carefully created as Zafon’s, I pay attention to those I see again and again; je les songe, I consider them, I think about them.  Songer, to consider, songe a dream. Especially appropriate in this story of dreams dreamt and dashed.  Is to think, perchance to dream? (To misquote another well known author.)

Francophones, serious translators, teachers and language theorists, might find my observations questionable, but from a writer’s point of view, new possibilities for using language appear unexpectedly, and that’s always a good thing.

By the way, both La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh and L’Ombre du Vent are available in English.  In fact, I might even read them again, to see if I missed anything.

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