Difficulties with words

A salute to novelists who write in a foreign tongue
Ben Macintyre

Published 15 february 2007, the Times, London


After two weeks wrestling with the musical mysteries of Mandarin, it is a relief to hear a Chinese person complain about the difficulties of learning English.

“The main problem is tenses, verbs and structure: which word comes before which,” says the novelist Xiaolu Guo.

Then again, language difficulties are relative. I am still having trouble distinguishing my mother (ma) from my horse (ma). Xiaolu, on the other hand, has just written an entire novel in English.

“When I came here four years ago, I arrived in April and started writing in December. I finished the novel five months later, straight into English,” she says, without a hint of immodesty. Her novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, is deliberately written in raw, broken English, but even so it is a remarkable testament to Xiaolu’s capacity to absorb and render idiomatic English.

It takes a particular sort of mentality to be able to absorb a language organically, but a brain of an altogether different order to be able to write well in another tongue.

Joseph Conrad wrote wonderful English, even though it was his third language (after Polish and French); Samuel Beckett wrote in French, but offered his adopted language a rather backhanded compliment: “ En Français, c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style.” (In French it is easier to write without style.) The Ameri-can-born Spanish-resident novelist Jonathan Littell has wowed literary France with a 900-page novel, Les Bienveil-lantes, written entirely in French. Even Conrad had to hew his prose from the living rock of an adopted language. “I had to work like a coal-min-er in his pit quarrying all my English sentences out of a black night.”

Perhaps it takes a novelist’s mentality to immerse oneself utterly in another language. “As a writer I am fascinated by words and vocabulary,” says Xiaolu. “At first I kept notes for every single word.”

In my very small way I, too, have begun to take notes on particularly attractive Mandarin words. When I ask Gong Zheng, a Chinese journalist studying English at the London School of Economics, to tell me his favourite Mandarin words, he seizes my notebook and writes: “he”, which means friendly, cooperation, harmony, mixture and family union; and “ren”, which means kindness, generous, moral and sympathy.

Gong is passionate about his language. “If you want to understand the Chinese people, the best way, the greatest way, is to speak Chinese.”

True, there are far more Chinese authors writing in English than the reverse – Ha Jin, Qiu Xiaolong and Jung Chang immediately come to mind – but there are numerous examples of Britons who have been absorbed by the language and culture of the Middle Kingdom.

One of the most notable was Reginald Fleming Johnston, a Scottish diplomat who became tutor to Puyi, the last emperor of China. He ended his career a professor of Chinese at London University and then retired to the island of Eilean Righ on Loch Craignish, where his ashes were scattered in 1938.

Craignish is near where I was brought up in Scotland: it is said locally that at night on the Craignish islands you can still hear the ghost of Reginald Fleming Johnston, chattering in Chinese. I wish to take Reg as my role model.

What, I ask Xiaolu, are my chances of picking up Mandarin in a mere five months? “Not unless you are really crazy and mad. For Mandarin you really need to go there and have a Chinese lover.”

This is not an altogether bad idea. But finding a Chinese lover is not on the curriculum of the teach-yourself Mandarin course.





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