Perks of being a bilingual writer: Lessons from an ‘amazing Danish master of English prose’

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Anyone who ever owned a set of English-Danish dictionaries knows that one is heavier than the other. To the Danes, the English vocabulary seems almost inexhaustible-the accuracy with which you are able to construct a sentence is extraordinary-while Danish and other Scandinavian tongues are more condensed.

In school, we are introduced to English as a mandatory subject from an early age. This is where we are acquainted with the aforementioned set of dictionaries, and many of us start immersing ourselves in English and American music, literature and film.

Later, if the curiosity of this other language develops further, we might start testing the waters. Is it possible for me to write coherently and purposefully in English? What if I choose the wrong word out of ignorance?

In her piece ‘Do bilingual writers write differently’, Arianna Dagnino, researcher at The University of British Columbia, describes bilingualism as a ‘disorienting’ and ‘humbling’ experience.

This is right on the nose. Being fluent-but-not-native is an experience often riddled with insecurities, and the possible linguistic and grammatical pitfalls can seem daunting. And I believe, many of us are often transfixed by our limitations rather than celebrating the opportunities connected to our knowledge of multiple languages.

‘I had begun to think in English’

As a Danish-English bilingual writer, I find comfort in how the Danish born author Karen Blixen approached her work. You may know one of her pen names, e.g. Isak Dinesen, Pierre Andrézel and Tania Blixen.

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Karen Blixen in 1961. Photo: Rungstedlund

Born in 1885, Karen Blixen grew up in Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen. In her mid-twenties, she moved to British East Africa and married her half-cousin, the Swedish nobleman Bror von Blixen, with whom she ran a coffee plantation.

Storytelling became a growing part of Karen Blixen’s life, and her talent was unquestionable. When her first books were published, she was celebrated internationally. This was printet on the pages of The New York Times Book Review when her second book, Out of Africa, was published in in 1938:

After dazzling the public with what Dorothy Canfield called “the strange slanting beauty and controlled fantasy” of the first book, this amazing Danish master of English prose has stepped now into the clearest reality, the utmost classic simplicity, the most direct-yet the most exquisitely restrained-truth.

Katherine Woods in The New York Times Book Review, 1938

Writing in English felt natural for Karen Blixen. As she explains in a 1956 interview with The Paris Review, she ‘had been seeing only English people in Africa really, I had spoken English or Swahili for twenty years-after all, I was partly schooled in England, and I don’t know, I had begun to think in English.’

Blixen turned her bilingualism into a greater advantage

Karen Blixen published most of her books in English, adn she often embarked on a Danish translation herself, just like Samuel Beckett translated some of his French work to English.

But in fact, as Professor of Literature Poul Behrendt reveals in an interview with Politiken, the Danish editions of the Blixen books were beyond mere translations: ‘When she translated the texts, she was still wearing the author’s cap, and in doing so, she developed a new version in the process.’

In her life, Karen Blixen overcame many adversities: the bankruptcy of her African coffee plantation, the tragic death of her second husband and living with a syphilis diagnosis, just to mention a few.

While I have no way of knowing whether she suffered under the ‘disorienting’ and ‘humbling’ experience of bilingualism, it certainly seems as if she took advantage of her linguistic talents rather than feeling limited by (possible) shortcomings.

As Arianna Dagnino adds to her conclusion in ‘Do bilingual writers write differently’, bilingual writers encompass abilities beyond translating-abilities of which Karen Blixen’s extraordinary works are perfect examples:

‘The adoption of any language other than the native/maternal one in creative writing leads to a self-transforming suspended dimension open to a multiplicity of perspectives, genres, and semantic codes.

‘In that translingual and, consequently, transcultural dimension authors are able to experiment more freely with new combinations of meaning and new layers of imagery.’

This is a comforting perspective for those of us who started out with a set of dictionaries and later have ‘begun to think in English’.

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Photo: Børge Noer

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