The Native Speaker Problem

I’m not a native speaker of English, so as a translator I was obliged to describe my English as “native level” on my résumé and get paid less for it accordingly. I was hired because I could pass for an American, and paid as if I couldn’t.

We do not talk of “native writers,” we talk of native speakers. Perhaps this is to be expected, as speaking is how we’re judged on our Otherness. Native-ness in speaking depends on the speaker’s proximity and time spent with other native speakers, while reading and writing can be learned outside of the natives’ space. The Other can be a reader and a writer, but never a speaker. That is the key distinction between “native speaker” and “native-level speaker”: the latter is an Other who blends in well but never completely. My translation clients were not penalizing me for my English but for my Otherness.

A well-known translator of Korean literature (and native speaker of English) once derided ethnic Korean translators like me, saying Koreans should not be translating into English. Interestingly, I could invert that same argument—non-native speakers of Korean should not translate, as they do not understand the source material well enough to do it justice—but I’m above that kind of self-serving posturing. If one has to say it, it probably isn’t true. Also: racist, much?

I will say this. Racism is not a good attitude for a translator to have. Do find something else to preoccupy yourself.

On Translating Poetry

I like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: it is that which gets lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

—Robert Frost in Conversations on the Craft of Poetry


The above is often misquoted as “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but the substance of Robert Frost’s idea remains the same: the translation of poetry is impossible.

An idea I disagree with, of course.

I have always contended that if literary translation is impossible, then literature itself is impossible. I’ve had profound experiences in reading Wisława Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, and Rabindranath Tagore—all in translation. Can you prove that what I felt was fake, that what I felt was not what the poets themselves felt when they committed their words to paper?

You can try, but you will never convince me. Reading experiences like these, which made my hair stand on end because of how beautiful and true and moving they were, are sacrosanct. I keep these experiences where other people might keep their religions.

But to give Frost the benefit of the doubt: is the misquote “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” indeed what he meant? Or was he making a point that poetry is not words (the thing that is translated) but is the very thing that carries over as is, regardless of language?

The finger that points to the moon may be a Chinese man’s finger or an Englishman’s finger, but the moon is still the moon. Frost may have meant that poems are not poetry—the finger is not the moon—but it is what the poems point to that is poetry. Poetry is not words but the emotion or thought the poetic configuration of words generate. Poetry is the moon.

Language is beautiful and we all love language, but language is not literature. Words are not literature, books are not literature, and poems are not poetry.

Languages may be very different from one another, and it is very easy to pass the time quibbling over what particular turn of wit is “untranslatable,” but I find it more interesting to see what can be translated. Are there not enough similarities between languages for certain emotions, concepts, and experiences—quite a lot of these, in fact—to be just as effectively carried over in one carriage as well as another?

Some things are not translatable, but such things may be fewer (and less important) than you think.

Notes for Young Writers

*I once briefly tutored a thirteen year-old in creative writing. This is what I learned.

1. Learning how to finish a draft is an important skill in itself.

1.2 This skill mostly involves finding and developing a story by “writing out” of the first scenes or impressions you have of your narrative.

1.2.1 This takes a lot of deliberate, vigorously logical thinking. Many people do not know this is what it takes, that the writer has to put aside time and effort for simply thinking things through; they think a story should flow “naturally” from their pen and there should be little or no difficulty involved in thinking out a story from the initial metaphors and impressions to its end. In fact, there is nothing “natural” about the process of finishing a novel. Starting a novel, yes. Finishing one, no. Many inexperienced writers abandon their work at this point.

1.2.2 It helps, also at this point, to have been widely and deeply read, to give you ideas as to the possibility of where you might take your narrative. Formal study in literature or writing workshops will help you here, but only up to a point. What matters more fundamentally is that you’ve seen and consciously thought about how other writers have solved certain problems, how they peg certain “destinations” to orient their energies and write towards; otherwise, a solution may go as far as to introduce itself but you wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

2. A lot of young writers don’t know how to finish a story.

2.1 It may be a matter of skill or a matter of disposition; there may be a biological inability for young writers to have a sense of narration across time, but it’s most likely some combination of all these things.

2.1.1 Younger people tend to have a different conception of time. This may be a clue to the biopsychological reason as to why there are child prodigy mathematicians and musicians but no child prodigy novelists. You may have to have lived a certain stretch of time in order to have a tactile sense of its richness and be able to mine its narrative potential.

2.2 If you’re a young writer, try to write poetry first, or epiphany-based short fiction that does not require too much thinking out about time and narration. Otherwise, wait until you’re older. (If you’re one of the exceptional young writers who can think across time, congratulations. Write away. If you’re not, it’s no big deal. Wait it out a bit more. Live more life and read more books.)

2.2.1 This is not to say long fiction is intellectually superior to poetry (it’s the opposite if anything). It’s just that young people (even children) seem to be able to come up with metaphors and extend them over the essentially “timeless” space of a poem, but not over the “timeful” space of a novel. Metaphor informs the fiction writer in terms of the theme of her narration, but it cannot replace the role of time in narration. Time needs time.