Writing a Book in a Non-Native Language
As a nonfiction book editor, I’m often asked whether it’s possible to publish a book as a non-native speaker or writer, and my answer is always of course you can! In fact, as a freelance editor I work with non-native authors fairly often, and when I worked in-house for a book publisher, around half of the books were written by non-native authors. So, let’s look at the options to publish a book as a non-native writer…
How to get published in a non-native language
There are several options to publish your book in English — or whatever language you’d like the book to end up in (for the purpose of simplicity in this article, I’ll assume it’s English, but the principles are the same for any language). These are:
- Write in your native language and get it translated
- Write in your non-native language and get it edited
- Write in your non-native language using dialect
We’ll look at these options now.
Option 1: Get it translated
The simplest option is perhaps to write the book in your native language and hire a translator to convert it for you. This would give you the option of having the book available in two different languages, which means a larger potential audience. However, you’ll need to hire a good translator and check that the translation has the same desired effect. We’ve all heard the phrase “lost in translation” — and you definitely don’t want this to happen.
Many famous books were written in the author’s native language and translated into other languages. For example, Paulo Coelho’s international bestseller The Alchemist has been translated from Portuguese into 70 different languages! Other famous examples include:
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
- Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
- And my personal favourite book ever: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translation is a great option if you’re not confident about your English writing skills, and has been hugely successful for many authors.
Option 2: Get it edited
If you’re fairly confident speaking English but aren’t 100% sure you’re getting it right, then this is a good option. Write the book in English, then hire a native English copyeditor to check your wording, vocabulary, sentence structure, clarity, and so on. They’ll iron out any errors and ensure your writing sounds like seamless and native English. You can hire editors who specialise in the type of English you want, as there are differences in American English, British English, Indian English, etc.
If you doubt that you can have a big impact as a non-native writer, then it might help to know that plenty of famous non-native authors have published books and been incredibly successful with them. A handful of these are:
- Joseph Conrad — raised to speak Polish, wrote novels in English including Lord Jim
- Yann Martin — French-Canadian but wrote Life of Pi in English
- Jack Kerouac — French-Canadian but wrote On the Road in English
- Milan Kundera — native Czech speaker but also wrote four novels in French
- Vladimir Nabokov — wrote nine novels in Russian then nine in English, including Lolita
If you need help finding an editor, feel free to get in touch or peruse the freelance editors available on book-specific freelancing site Reedsy. You might also want to check out my guide to common grammar and punctuation errors.
Option 3: Just write it
The final option is to write the book in English, but in the dialect you would normally speak, which may differ depending on region or culture. For example, Sam Selvon started writing The Lonely Londoners in standard English, then realised that writing it in Creole-English would better convey the characters’ experience and emotions of immigrating to England. This feature of the novel actually contributed to its fame and success.
Other examples include:
- Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (Scottish)
- Herring Girl, Debbie Taylor (Geordie)
- The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (its own language)
However, it’s worth noting that this technique only really works for fiction, where your aim is to portray a specific personality, culture, or viewpoint. It can also restrict your potential audience, as it may still be difficult for readers to understand, and novels that have employed this technique are loved and loathed in seemingly equal measure.
This technique definitely wouldn’t work for nonfiction — where the author’s primary aim is to educate, inform, or motivate readers in the clearest and most effective way possible. Using non-standard English would make this task pretty troublesome!
The final word
In short, you don’t need to be a native speaker to publish a book — as there are options open to you. Whether you decide to hire a translator or an editor, or write the next amazing book in dialect, there are many authors who have paved the way for you, showing you that it’s certainly possible.
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by Ameesha Green