Why Write a Novel in a Second Language?

There are several scenes in the Japanese-language movie Shin-Godzilla (2016) in which Satomi Ishihara’s character speaks in English. While it’s supposed to emphasise her position as the envoy to the United States, for an English-speaking audience, it’s both jarring and bizarre. The actress herself stressed that having to talk in English was frustrating and made her “want to cry” during filming.

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Using non-native languages in media is always a bit of a difficult sell. Unless you’re inventing them from scratch, as J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin did in their respective works, you risk alienating your audience by including entire passages that the reader cannot understand. Worse, if you don’t have a true grasp of the language, you can wind up making a fool of yourself in front of those who do know it back-to-front. With all that in mind, why would somebody write a novel in a language that’s not their mother tongue?


Access to language learning opportunities has grown exponentially since the mobile phone joined us on our daily commute, so it’s only natural that a growing number of writers want to attempt a story in a newly acquired vocabulary. The online learning hub Preply utilises one-to-one tuition to give budding bilinguals the foundation of writing in English, French, Spanish, and several other options, a model that introduces students to natural language much earlier than book-learning does.

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Writing in another language doesn’t have to serve any other purpose than self-advancement. However, authors such as Dom Cutrupi have chosen a second language over their first in order to capture the most appropriate audience for a particular story. In this case, Cutrupi’s novel The Abyss of Lumberwitch was written in English instead of Italian and touches on subjects like speech disorders and cultural divides.

Reinvent and Rediscover

If you need more inspiration, Polish author Joseph Conrad did not speak English fluently yet wrote several enduring works in the language, including Heart of Darkness (1899). The need to reinvent and rediscover your own writing style can be central to a decision to write in a second or third language, as you may find that your work has a different tone or even a new personality when put to paper this way.

Source: Preply. English is sometimes an awkward language

Experimenting with writing in a new language can also produce better results than translation efforts, which still cause problems today. The Danish and Dutch translations of A Song of Ice and Fire are notably poor, while the Swedish-to-English version of Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, retitled in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has won little praise from fans of the late author Stieg Larsson.

Of course, there’s a catch, which can be a financial one. Unless you are approaching fluency, the need for editors, proofreaders, and native friends to refine your work can prove a large barrier to entry when considering writing in a new language. Still, on a more casual basis, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you from starting out. You can always re-jig it later when you’re more comfortable with your new verbs and nouns.

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