It's on the tip of my tongue
Idiom that works both in English and in French
That was the best I could come up with in a translation exam (from French to English), having never come across the word “udder”.
This episode remains to this day one of the most cringe in my studies, albeit an iconic one: my friend Sarah who teaches translation to undergraduates today, reassures them by telling the story of that friend of hers who translated “udder” as “milking organ” in a final exam and still passed.
My anglophone readers won’t be surprised to learn that English is not my first language. Having learnt it as a teenager mostly through American TV, I’ve certainly become fluent in Gossip Girl dialect, but less so in that of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. I’ve made peace with the fact that my writing can be “awkward”, and my husband who takes on the role of my editor (so that I never send out anything as horrific as “milking organ” ever again) often points out that I tend to juxtapose very formal words and non-English phrasings together, thus producing a rather unfamiliar style.
So why do I choose to write in English then? To answer that, I first have to ask that question the other way around: why don’t I just write in French?
After all, it is my first language. I grew up reading a lot of French and it was my favourite subject at school (which I went on to study at University), mostly because I preferred crossing books off reading lists than learning the GDPs of America and Europe in Geography class. What was also extremely appealing about French class was the writing part: I loved darkening blank pages to discuss fascinating texts, or even try my hand at creative writing. Writing in French always felt natural, rewarding and it therefore made me confident.
Until… I got crushed by negative feedback. And not just any: feedback coming from actual professors who were in a position to judge my French and grade it. “Bad style”, “No structure”, “Inaccurate syntax”, “Superficial” (if you wonder why these are so deeply rooted in my memory, the answer is right over here). These negative comments hurt a lot, especially because they were so at odds with other very positive assessments I’d received for my French over the years. However, such mixed reviews helped me grow regarding my approach to writing: indeed, I want my writing to be personal, an outlet for voicing who I am and what I think. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that if not everyone welcomes my personality and/or my opinions, then my writing and my style won’t appeal to everyone either.
If I shouldn’t be insecure about my French not being appreciated unanimously, then the same should apply to my English. In fact, I now embrace its awkwardness: because it reflects my own relationship with the language, but also because it’s much harder for me judge my own style in English, so I end up mostly focusing on getting my message through, with the means I have (when the word “udder” isn’t part of my vocabulary for instance). Unexpectedly, struggling to write in English has made me a better French writer: I’ve learnt to scrutinise my own style to strip it of superfluous tricks and only keep what brings real nuance to my content.
Still, writing in English doesn’t flow out of me as easily as writing in French does, and each sentence and paragraph are a struggle to produce. But it is the obstacle of not writing in my native language that actually brings me closer to what I want my writing experience to be: a mindful effort to try and articulate my ideas and emotions, in order to translate as faithfully as possible who I am and how I view the world, in the hope it can resonate with my readers. And if my writing can speak to so much as one of them, however imprecisely it may have been written, that means my words were able to ring some truth, and it’s what counts. Kind of like “milking organ”… At least you knew what I meant, right?
In her newsletter “farm life”, Chiara writes beautiful pieces that are both vulnerable and brilliant, including this one about the way rivalry between female characters serves as a mirror for the Other in literature AND in Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”. She orchestrated a Swiftie conversation with yours truly which will be coming out soon, so stay tuned!
Image credit: La laitière by Julien Dupré