Previous articles in these pages have discussed techniques for improving one’s speaking, reading, and listening abilities in a foreign language. This focus is understandable, as most language students will have as their primary goal the speedy acquisition of conversational proficiency. Until now, however, little attention has been paid to the area of written proficiency: that is, how to improve one’s abilities to write compositions in a foreign language. It is a neglected topic that merits discussion. Writing proficiency is, after all, the capstone of language mastery; and the ambitious student will not shy away from accepting this challenge. Sooner or later, there will be occasions when we will need to write, in our target language, a letter, email, resume, a short essay, or some other extended composition.
The arts of composition and translation involve a different set of skills than those required for speaking and listening. Prose composition sharpens the linguistic abilities, focuses our artistic impulses, and drives us to discipline our wayward grammar. We will discuss some general principles that will provide a foundation for future study.
Composition is the art of rendering a passage from one’s native language (for most readers here, English) into the target language. From the start, the student must be guided by attention to the following three things: (1) precision of expression; (2) grammatical accuracy; and (3) grace of style. Precision of expression is the ability to write passages that accurately convey the meaning and spirit of the original. Grammatical accuracy is fidelity to all the nuances and minutiae of our target language’s rules, syntax, and orthography. Grace of style is the ability to write a passage that is more than just a clumsy, wooden reproduction of the original English. Stylistic elegance is an art attained only by constant practice and exposure to good writings in our target language.
Ideally, our goal should be to produce a composition that a native speaker might recognize as something linguistically honorable and worthy of his own pen. How to achieve these three elements of good composition? We will discuss each of them in greater detail.
Precision Of Expression
Precision of expression is essentially the efficient use of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences to convey the meaning of the original English into the target language. One must develop an instinct of what is correct or preferred usage, and what is not. A helpful technique here is the concept of the exemplar: we must seek out paragons of written style in our target language, and strive to write like them. Precise expression first begins with imitation. A writer works with his target language in the same way that a pizza-maker rolls and stretches his dough: handling skills must first come from imitation of a master, combined with constant practice.
Every language has writers or sources that are generally considered paragons of good style. Our task is to seek out such exemplars of style, and imitate them, in order to acquire a feel for what is good. We cannot produce good words if we are not reading good words. I would suggest here that students seek out the most respected news and current affairs websites in their target language, and constantly read the short articles or essays found there. The language of the modern media is vital to master. In the modern media will be found the most current words, expressions, cultural references, idioms, metaphors, and concepts of the day. This can be supplemented by reading one or more excellent modern literary authors in the target language. Short stories or books of children’s fables are well suited for this purpose.
The student of Brazilian Portuguese, for example, might study and imitate the written styles found in the articles of the website for O Globo; the student of Arabic, Al Jazeera; the student of Latin, the writings of Caesar, Livy, Celsus, Quintilian, or Augustine, as well as the excellent Nuntii Latini website. Every language has such recognized media sites or respected stylistic masters. When reading these articles or passages, we should take particular note of cultural references, common constructions, and idiomatic expressions that cannot be found in textbooks. A good exemplar should produce writing that is lucid, relatively simple, and vigorous.
Prose is preferred to poetry. The language of poetry does not make for good style, and should be avoided. Poets write for aesthetic effect, and their constructions (often employing archaisms and unusual words or word order) do not conform to standard usage. We should also avoid using excessively colloquial usages, as well as very antiquated language. Such things are fine for quotations, but not as models of proper written style. In general, older writers have a more solid, consistent masculine force, in contrast to much of the rather insipid and undisciplined writing encountered today.
Grammatical accuracy is a function of two quantities: syntax (the arrangement of words and phrases in proper order), and orthography (correct spelling). Here again, correct grammar can only be acquired by constant exposure to our good exemplars, as noted above. In the beginning stages of composition, it will be necessary to follow (slavishly if necessary) our exemplars in all they do. Once a firm footing has been achieved, we can bring our own “personality” to bear on our compositions. Grammar and construction drills done in language textbooks are a good start here, but they must be followed up by actual exposure to passages from good exemplars.
Grace Of Style
Grace of style is perhaps the area in which talent or innate ability has the most leeway. To compose or translate well, one must himself be a good stylist. A good translation stands as a work of art unto itself; and even a mediocre piece of writing may be elevated by a spirited rendition in another language. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, for example, was little known in the West until Edward Fitzgerald’s masterful translation of the original Persian brought it to life.
In general, the following common stylistic pitfalls are to be avoided: (1) a monotonous series of short, staccato sentences; (2) repetitious use of the same constructions or words; (3) clumsy arrangement of words that might not be pleasing to a native speaker; (4) improperly balanced sentences where one or more subordinate clauses do not properly connect to the main idea of the sentence. A good test of stylistic grace is to read your composition aloud to a native speaker. If he or she winces during your delivery, you will know what needs to be corrected. There are foreign language listservs, chatrooms, and interactive websites where students can find immediate (and brutal) feedback on their writing efforts.
From my own experience, the following points also should be kept in mind:
1. Beware irregular verbs, metaphors, and idiomatic expressions. Every language has its own vexatious irregular verbs. Unfortunately for us, the most difficult irregular verbs are also the most commonly used ones (e.g., verbs of saying, thinking, being, giving, having, going, being able to, wanting, putting, coming, bringing, etc). We must be especially sensitive to such verbs and to their correct employment. Proper use comes only with practice, cultural exposure, and attention to detail.
2. Do not be afraid of the language. Use a wide variety of constructions: passive voice, indirect statements, subjunctive mood, and others. Some commenters offer artificial “rules” that say you should or should not use certain types of stylistic flourishes (e.g., “avoid the passive voice”). This view is unreasonably narrow-minded, and restricts the expressive beauty of the target language. My personal advice, which I will enjoin, is to dive in, roll around in your language’s words and phrases, bathe yourself in them, and use whatever you will. Nearly anything is fair game, as long as it is pleasing to the palate. As Virgil says (Aeneid. III.436) we must “repeat, and urge, and repeat again.”
3. Translate thoughts, not exact words. Any written passage can be seen as both a construct of words, and as a construct of ideas. We must be mindful of the whole, while showing deference to the constituent parts. Before translating a passage, read it through completely to get a sense of its full meaning. Do not try to aim constantly for a literal translation. Our goal should be a translation that is faithful to the original wording, but not just a pale imitation of it. Different languages have quite different ways of expressing the same idea, and we must not try to force our target language into accepting the same constructions of our mother tongue.
4. Beware the computer. Online translation services like Google Translate, and commercially available software translation services, are limited. I have nothing against these services per se—I use them myself—but we should be mindful of their limitations. Google Translate simply cannot produce a product that is both grammatically correct and stylistically pleasing. They may be fine for short, simple sentences, but you cannot rely on these computer crutches. I was recently reminded of the severe limitations of the computer when I bought a software dictation package (which I will not name here). It supposedly could render one’s spoken words into coherent written text. In practice, it was nearly useless, turning out only streams of gibberish.
On the other hand, the internet has opened up opportunities for Skype-related interactions and tutoring with native speakers. I have no personal experiences with such services, but anecdotal accounts related to me thus far have been positive.
5. Free yourself from your resources. Too much reference to your dictionary or grammar books will only deflect your progress. Cut loose from your moorings, and sail freely in these rough waters. No dictionary or grammar book can give you a precise knowledge of what word or phrase to use in a particular circumstance. The best preparation for composition is, as I have already said, the reading of vast amounts of text in your target language. You will never be able to ride your composition bicycle until you remove your training wheels. It is not a legitimate excuse to plead that one does not have the time to master these arts. It is only a matter of will and priorities. Effective study takes far less time than is generally believed, and the rewards far exceed anything that can be generated by idle leisure.
I will say one final word on these matters. We should be mindful of Quintilian’s admonition (Inst. Orat. XII.3) on the importance of good character in speaking and writing well. He sagely counsels us that
No one can be a proper orator unless he speaks with honor, knows honor, and hears honor.
Nothing good, in other words, will flow from our mouth or pen unless we ourselves are good and decent men. This should be our ultimate object. For our writing, as well as our speaking, is a mirror of our soul and of its mortal health.