How my love of French influences my writing

How my love of French influences my writing

How my love of French influences my writing

‘The French language is a woman. And this woman is so beautiful, so proud, so modest, so adventurous, touching, sensual, chaste, noble, crazy, wise… that we love her with all our heart and soul.’ – Anatole France

I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, and you may think, therefore, that my first language is Arabic. In fact, growing up Arabic was my third language. French was my first language, and English my second.

Allow me to explain… My parents were both brought up speaking English, because they had English nannies, and they spoke English with me and my sister at home to encourage us to learn the language. However, our governess, Zula, with whom we spent a great deal of time, was half-French, and she would speak only French to us; and then, when it came time to attend school, my sister and I were enrolled at a French convent school. French, then, was my first language, and the one in which I conducted my studies at school. I loved French so much, I went on to read French Literature at the University of Alexandria.

Fluency in English came a little later for me, after I came to England to stay with my aunt and enrolled in an English language course to deepen my knowledge of the language. Then I met my husband, who is English, and from that point on, as we made a home together and raised our children in England, it was natural for me to speak in English. I even switched from reading books in French and read in English; it was fascinating to re-read the works of favourite authors like Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Molière translated into English.

By this point, living in England and speaking only English at home, I was very used to operating in the language – even thinking in English by now. Still, when I wrote my first novel, Burning Embers, I wrote in French; this was what felt most natural to me.

I wrote Burning Embers a good number of years before I published it. It was very much an experiment in whether I could write a novel, a dream I had dreamed since my teenage years. The answer was yes, I could, and I loved every moment of it! But also: the time for writing wasn’t quite right for me; I was still very busy with my family and with my business renovating little cottages in Kent. So I put the manuscript of Burning Embers away in a drawer, and only when I was ready, years later, did I take it out and begin to prepare it for publication.

Step one in that long journey from draft to printed book was translating the novel from French into English. Being somewhat daunted by the task – I had handwritten the manuscript, and the pile of pages was tall indeed – I hired a translator. When I read the translated book, though, I found I wasn’t happy with it; somehow the words just didn’t feel like mine, and it felt like so much had been lost in the translation. So I undertook the translation myself, and I was so glad that I did, for it proved most illuminating for me in understanding my own style and how I wish to write.

The gazebo at my home in France, where I write, translate and study dictionaries

French is so melodic and beautiful both on the page and on the ear when read aloud. Take this quotation from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo:

How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill?

A kiss, and all was said.

Beautiful, certainly, but I think the writing is so much more evocative in the original French:

Comment se fit-il que leurs lèvres se rencontrèrent? Comment se fait-il que l’oiseau chante, que la neige fonde, que la rose s’ouvre, que mai s’épanouisse, que l’aube blanchisse derrière les arbres noirs au sommet frissonnant des collines?

Un baiser, et ce fut tout.

Given that I write descriptive romance novels, French is the perfect language for me, and I write so easily in French. But after all the work translating Burning Embers into English, I realised I would need to write in English from that point onwards, and indeed I have, from my second novel, The Echoes of Love, through to my eighth, Song of the Nile, and my current work in progress. I do not find this difficult, because I am fluent in English and I am well read in English literature.

But in choosing to write in English, have I abandoned my French? I don’t believe so. French is my foundation, the language in which I learned how to read and write, and thus it underpins my writing style. When I write, I always strive to choose the best word, craft a sentence in the best way, in order to create that sense of poeticism that is inherent in French. I want to infuse my writing with some of richness and melodiousness and passion of French.

I write in English because that has become my core language, but always, always, I draw on French, le langage de l’amour… the language of love.

Picture credits 1) Page Frederique/Shutterstock; 2) Hannah Fielding; 3) Leon Rafael/Shutterstock.

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Jennifer McNish
Jennifer McNish
1 month ago

Very interesting Hannah!