In French or in English? That is the Question.

When my daughter packed for college last fall, she left stacks of books behind. Like me, she reads a lot. Unlike me, she only reads in English. I love it that she didn’t take with her all the books she read in high school. Among them I found several I had also read in high school but always translated in French.

I finally read The Great Gasby, The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and many classics in their original version. I know, I should have done it much sooner, but I’ve met more English speakers who’ve read Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea than Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers or The Stranger than L’Etranger.

In my daughter’s pile of books, I also found The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald.

If you haven’t read this book – I just did, although it was published in 1996 – go for it. It is a rare, beautiful, haunting novel.

When I love a book I get a little obsessive. I read the cover pages, the reviews, the author’s blurb, and even… the copyright and publisher’s information. I know it’s weird.

But this is how I noticed when I was finished reading The Emigrants that, although Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and was the director of The British Centre for Literary Translation for several years – meaning he was proficient in English – he wrote The Emigrants in German, his mother language.

Michael Hulse translated the original Die Ausgewanderten. The English translator also writes award-winning poetry – in English, his mother language.

So, I thought, digesting the information, does it mean that writing can only be done – successfully, that is – in one’s native language?

As I pondered the consequences of this questioning, my friend who is helping me polish a manuscript for submission, e-mailed me.

“You know,” she wrote, “I really think someone will like your work as much as I do.” Nice, I thought. “Now,” she went on, “have you considered writing it in French as well? French readers would like this story, too.”

I closed my Inbox, wondering if I should have written in French in the first place. Since I had not, should I follow my friend’s advice and translate my 250 pages?the emigrants

This could only happen to me.

I cannot even dream of a translator.

Lyrics and Mother Language: Emotions Guaranteed

Sometimes my American friends believe funny things about France.

They believe that it is the most liberal country on earth. Um, the French are now quite divided around the issue of gay marriage.

They believe that everything from health care to education is free. Um, taxes are pretty high in France in order to afford the free stuff.

They also believe that French music is Edith Piaf – they all loved La Vie en Rose – Charles Trenet – they melt under Beyond the Sea, the American version of La Mer – and the accordion.

I must admit that, since my departure from my native land, I listen to old French music, too – I never did when I lived there.

But it’s a mistake to dismiss contemporary French chanson, which is in fact very dynamic.

Once in a while a young French singer or band catches my attention. Last night I heard Granville – their first album Les Voiles has been released two months ago. Okay, I have a confession: the singer is one of my daughters’ age so it made my mother’s heart melt and these young people are from Caen, located in my native Normandy, also where I completed my undergrad studies.

So Granville had two indisputable advantages. Still.

Although their songs are naïve and very much inspired by the French singers of the 60s – Françoise Hardy and France Gall, for instance – and by California bands of the same period of time, the band showcases a soft and yet modern France that my American friends don’t get to discover too often.

Granville’s lyrics are available from their official website. Very convenient: I drove my parents crazy when, as I a teen, I listened to the same record, again and again, until I could copy the lyrics.

I still granvillelike to read lyrics. Even in French. I might write more often in English, French remains my #1 choice when emotions are at stake.

Ask my husband and children: I always choose French whether I’m angry with them or want to comfort them.

That’s why we call our native language “mother language,” I suppose.

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