Ten Insights Gained From Writing A Bilingual Memoir

I’ve lived my life writing in two languages. Born and reared in Greece, I left my home country at the age of 18 and have since been a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. After retirement, I found myself attracted to literature rich in cultural descriptions, fueled by authors who spoke other languages and wrote stories with exotic settings. When I wrote the initial draft of my own memoir, I chose English, but about halfway through, Greek words crept into my attempt to transfer meaning. 

In the course of completing my memoir, ultimately in two languages, ten discoveries came to light.

1. Writing in Phases Leads to New Perspectives

Bilingual memoir may require a series of phases of writing. Initially, when I started writing Return to Thessaloniki / Επιστροφή Στη Θεσσαλονίκη, I intended it to be about genealogy and family roots. That phase lasted for a year and involved interviews with relatives, travel, documentation, and library time. Later I shaped my stories about growing up in Greece and coming to America by researching the post-World War II era and how my family survived.

Only after that could I turn to the main trauma: the story of how my mother left our home when I was seven years old and my parents’ divorce. Through the writing phases, the book turned into a story about love and loss, unanswered questions, and hidden truths. 

That was just the English version. Next, I turned to the major phase of translating the work into Greek.

Having lived in two worlds, on two continents, and speaking two languages, I relate well to people in both countries. This is why, over time, I felt the need to share the story in both languages. The story and I belong to both. The desire to tell and share this story led to seven years of taming the words to complete the book in both languages.

Certainly, having lived for long periods in both Greece and America, I easily shift between Greek and English. But did my acquired second language provide me with the psychological distance I needed to gain perspective and delve into the emotionally tender territory of this memoir? I believe it factored in.

After completing the book in English, revolving back into the Greek edition resulted in a deep sense of completion and the satisfaction of a full-circle journey into my two worlds.

2. Sometimes It’s Really About More than Language

Conjuring up a chronicle, I found, sometimes supersedes language. It is a flow, a train of ideas and events that the author captures on the page. Language and vocabulary are the tools we have to share it with our readers—and those tools can be as limiting as they are illuminating. The heart of the story gets down on paper through the words that capture the essence and intent of thought. At first it is delivered in a matter-of-fact way; it is not artful, but it aims to capture and put some order to the story, its scenes and thoughts.

I found that Greek words often rendered my intended message more accurately. They rang as better choices in a scene, identifying emotion or action. They were too important to let go. Every writer will tell you that when we hit the right word, the right note, an exhilarating feeling overtakes us, making up for all the jarring notes that need to be revised.

My mother tongue was the language of my youth, when I lived the story told by my memoir. During the process of translating the book to Greek, I tried “Google translate” hoping it might help me locate Greek words that had faded in my memory over the years. Instead, it frustrated me, often hitting the wrong chords, choosing words out of context and translating them in an awkward syntax.

3. It May Be Necessary to Create Your Own Lexicon

This frustration led me to the gold mine of keeping my own lexicon. I developed my own dual-language thesaurus, choosing the word seemed best suited, then using a backslash to gather similar words, even whole expressions, in both languages.

Eventually, I had to select the best, but on a first draft it seemed important to collect all possible choices and consider etymology. That is how I came to recognize that the Greek vocabulary at times hit the mark better than English, and the idea of developing the Greek edition of the memoir was born. Just to be clear, I have translated stories before, but I am not a professional translator.

4. The Literal Can Lead You to the Sublime

The next step in writing the story in Greek was to create a literal, word-for-word text, working with the lexicon on a rudimentary level. The flow of the message, the smoothness of the experience, the cultural subtleties, and aesthetic features were missing from that draft. It looked and read like a bumpy Babylonian text. That led me to use a freer approach, one in tune with the message in the English version.

Next, I moved to the complex task of  interspersing metaphors, similes, and personifications. This enriched the text. My best tools were staying immersed in reading and listening in both languages, allowing the quiet subconscious to do its work and find solutions.

5. Translation Sometimes Means Expansion, Sometimes Contraction

The challenges of translation did not always resolve readily. Each language has its own idiosyncratic expressions, grammar, and syntax. In the journey of bridging both cultures and languages, I felt like I was building a map between two lands, interpreting, sorting, and selecting what points to emphasize. It was a process of elucidating ideas, characters, places, and voices with a narrative that invites the reader in to receive the cultural messages.

Sometimes that required an expansion to the text, while other times it called for more succinct language. An abbreviated description often seemed appropriate for the Greek text because readers would readily recognize an object, a location, a historical reference. The same passage of text might require a longer explanation to satisfy the English-speaking reader. For example, there is repeated reference to the primus, a kitchen device that Greek women cooked with in the 40s and 50s. The English version of my memoir builds the picture using context: “She spooned the contents into a pan that was heating over the primus, stirring it for a while, then pausing to taste the sauce.”

6. Cultural Relevance Is Critical to the Story’s Success

I came to understand how essential it was to look for phrases and examples that were both culturally relevantand familiar to readers in both languages. For example I chose to refer to a child as “a Lilliputian in a world of giants,” an expression readily understood by all readers of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. A second example is the selection of an event familiar to all readers as a time signature, to keep the story relevant and relatable. Thus, the memoir refers to John F. Kennedy’s visit to West Berlin, Germany, in 1963 and his often-quoted speech “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

However, there were times when I replaced a segment with another that delivered equivalent information for the target language. For example, in the Greek version, I used a time signature event—the assassination of a parliamentarian, Lambrakis—an event well known to the Greek readers but obscure in the US. In the English version I substituted a line of dialogue to set the conversation during the Vietnam War: “We just need to end the draft. I lost two more dear friends to Canada.”

7. Idiomatic Expressions Require Extra Care

A language represents a way of thinking, colored by native speakers’ unique expressions, often resulting in words that do not allow for a literal translation. For jargon and idiomatic expressions that came up in one language,I looked for words or expressions in the second language that would sing the same message, staying true to the intended meaning while keeping the text natural—without being strictly literal.

For example, to show that the presence of a particular woman at a gathering was undesirable, another character remarks with a wink about her absence: “There is no rush.” The Greek translation would be “there is no hurry” («Δεν υπάρχει βία») and that is the intended message. However, the literal translation of the idiom would be “there is no violence” The latter would be misleading and confusing for the reader and requires a free translation.

8. This Process Improves Writing Skills

To my surprise, this bilingual project helped improve my writing. I gained greater clarity in the message I meant to deliver. This was especially true when I had to make final choices between single words, expressions, and whole sentences. I also found that my sensibilities and fluency as a native Greek speaker were challenged, after years of living in the US.

I had to brush up on skills I had not used for some time. Finally, it was interesting to hear from my Beta readers that when I shared text originally written in Greek or a language mix that required converting Greek to English, the passage delivered a strong crescendo, especially in places laden with strong emotions.

This work required an important partnership with monolingual editors, without whose contribution the final manuscript would still be rough. I am indebted for their part in dealing with grammar and syntax issues and want to acknowledge their significant and necessary contribution to the final publication.

9. Translation Is Like Musical Composition

Bilingual writers and translators, proficient in two languages, face translation puzzles of composition similar to music. It is both challenging and rewarding to observe the interplay of the two worlds—not unlike playing the piano, where the left hand accompanies, complements, and enriches notes on the right. And then, with the change of language the dominant hand flips. I am thrilled to see an increasing presence in this niche of literature.

Each time the focus shifts, each language demands its own exclusive time with its creator. At last, the author fine-tunes to the sound, key, and musicality of that language.

In the unfolding of story scenes and voice, the rhythm and moments of piano, pianissimo, crescendos, and decrescendos carry one through to the end, the denouement.

10. Creation and Interpretation that Bridges Languages.

The notion of “national literature” should be abandoned. The underlying literary universe is truly one, as is humanity. This is the power and contribution of literature to its readers, no matter what the genre or the language. The author and the translator are both creators of equal heft in delivering what is universal, as they create manuscripts and deliver readers decipher meaning.

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  1. Kouidou-Giles examines the challenges of translation with the inquisitive yet passionate eye of an author intimate with two languages. Her thoughtful descent into the depths of the Greek language down to the tricky waters of nuance should resonate with bilingual writers. I work with translators (in my native Filipino) who no doubt can relate to and be enriched by her insights. I’ll be sure to share this article with them.

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