Have you ever loved a book so much, you wished you could read it again for the first time? The good news is that you can . . . if you read it in another language!
I discovered this when reading German translations of familiar novels, from Der Kleine Prinz (originally Le Petit Prince) to Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (originally Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). And I am experiencing it yet again with my latest book. A friend of mine is rereading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and I am reading along with the German version Stolz und Vorurteil.
For the benefits of reading “old books” in a new language, please see my previous post Reading Translations. This post is about an unexpected effect of this exercise.
Have you met your L2-reading self?
Do you know the idea that we have different personalities when we speak different languages? (Source) I had thought it would take a longer time for me to notice differences between my German-speaking self and my English-speaking self, but my German-reading self was quick to introduce herself. And she is almost a different person!
I noticed, for instance, that although I could remember plots quite well, I could still feel surprised by the events I was expecting. It was as if I had split into two different readers. With plot-driven novels like Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, the English reader knew all the “spoilers,” but did not reveal any of them to the German reader. And the more complex the book, the more divergent my reactions. The English reader, who had always seen The Little Prince as light satire, was stunned when the German reader almost cried from the deep emotion of Der Kleine Prinz.
But nothing could have prepared the English reader for the German reader’s first impressions of Stolz und Vorurteil.
Did you know that First Impressions was the original title of Pride and Prejudice? My English-reading self certainly does! I discovered this classic through a comic book as a child, read the novel for extra credit in high school, studied it again in university, watched several screen adaptations, and am very aware of the huge “Austen industry” surrounding it and Jane Austen’s other books. My German-reading self, on the other hand, has none of that baggage.
I’m sure that Jane Austen is also famous in the German-speaking world; but because I did not grow up in that world, I have no German frames of reference. So when I started Stolz und Vorurteil, it was so fresh that I felt as if I were one of its original readers from 1813! And I soon had some new “first impressions” that the English reader never expected.
Believe it or not, the German reader does not like Lizzy Benett! On the other hand, she sympathizes with Mr. Darcy, who is clearly a fellow introvert. His rudeness at the first ball comes from feeling overwhelmed by all the new people. You could say that the German reader takes Lizzy’s severe judgment of Darcy a little personally! The English reader is trying to defend one of her favorite characters; but it is hard to do without giving away what happens to Lizzy’s judgments in the middle of the story.
Are you worried about reading a classic because the language might be too difficult? I admit that the language of Stolz und Vorurteil is very difficult for me! But there are two great advantages to reading it anyway. First, I am learning new vocabulary words and new sentence patterns all the time. I don’t remember everything, of course, but every gain is a good thing. And second, I am enjoying the confidence boost of understanding even without full comprehension.
For instance, I didn’t know what every word in the following passage means:
Bingley konnte sicher sein, Sympathie zu finden, wo immer er erschien; Darcy erregte ständig Anstoß. Die Art und Weise, wie beide über den Ball in Meryton urteilten, war bezeichnend dafür.
But only one of them confused me enough that I had to check a dictionary. My vocabulary is big enough (and German is precise enough) that I can understand unfamiliar words because I already knew related words. “Urteilen,” for example, is close enough to “Vorurteil” for us to know it has something to do with judgment.
I’m sure that if you try reading your favorite classic in your target language, you will be surprised by how much of the “difficult” language you can understand!
And you will be reading a beloved book as if it were the first time.
For more on Stolz und Vorurteil, follow me on Twitter: @Linguavert