Thoughts on literary writing in another language

Last month, I told my Korean teacher about staying up really late to finish an assignment for an online YA fantasy writing course I was taking, and she semi-jokingly suggested that I should try writing a novel in Korean.

Now, I don’t think this is something I’ll ever do or even be interested in doing — it’s hard enough to write a novel in English and I’ve been trying for a decade! — but it did make me wonder about bilingual writers who choose not to write in their mother tongue.

In the case of the diasporic writer, I get it. You become more fluent in English or the primary language of wherever you are educated. But what about writers like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Nabokov (Lolita), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road), who chose to write in English when they were more than literate in their native languages?

Granted, you could argue that choosing to write in English is a practical move since it makes your writing accessible (and marketable) to the broadest possible audience… but as much as writing is a business, it is also a very personal and emotionally taxing endeavor that language has no small part in.

I thought back on the times that I’ve been compelled to write in Korean, not just for the sake of practicing writing, but because Korean came intuitively to me in that moment. Sometimes it was because there were specific words or sentence constructions that fit what I was feeling more closely in Korean than English. Most of the time, writing about my fears, my insecurities, and disappointments came difficult in English and more easily in Korean. As limited as my writing ability was, I found it easier to be honest with myself and express myself feelings in Korean than English.

In her memoir, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, who chooses only to write in English, perfectly captured what I was beginning to realize:

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even, to arrive at a thought that one does not know to be there.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. Sometimes I think it is this distancing that marks me as cold-hearted and selfish. To forget the past is a betrayal, we were taught in school when young; to disown memories is a sin.

What language does one use to feel; or, does one need a language to feel? In the hospital, I visited a class of medical students studying minds and brains. After an interview, the doctor who led the class asked about feelings. I said it was beyond my ability to describe what might as well be indescribable.

If you can be articulate about your thoughts, why can’t you articulate your feelings? asked the doctor.

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.


There is definitely a sense of detachment and distance that I feel when I write about something intense and/or emotional in Korean. In English, the same sentiments come across as strangely warped or fake because it’s difficult, in a way, to properly admit that I feel those things. Conveying a worry or a painful memory in an adopted language might feel almost dissociative, but it’s also relieving.

(Side note: There’s a great line in Li’s memoir where she writes about finding comfort in Katherine Mansfield’s journals: “Is it possible that one can be held hostage by someone else’s words? What I underlined and reread: Are they her thoughts or mine?” This is exactly how I felt reading Li’s entire memoir. I have something highlighted on almost every single page. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of reading/writing and have struggled with mental illness.)

In fact, a few days ago, I wrote a short poem in Korean about why I write in Korean. It’s not very good but it surprised me that I even wanted to do it; it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything in Korean that’s not a journal entry, a translation, or a TOPIK essay, and I haven’t written poetry of any kind since high school. Something about writing it in Korean made it feel more sincere and natural.

As a reader, I’ve always found poetry difficult to enjoy because bad poetry is really really bad and good poetry is usually too honest for me to stomach. But I’ve now come to enjoy the works of certain Korean poets, and many Korean writers as well, whose works I would have found difficult to get through in English. Their subjects and themes resonate strongly with me, yet also more remotely.

A lot of bilingual writers have said some variation of what Li says in her memoir — that writing in a non-native language offers them a sense of distance, that words have less personal context and therefore less “baggage.” Maybe there are some stories and subjects that fit with some languages more naturally than others.

Either way, it makes me grateful to know another language — that as a writer and a reader, I have that much more opportunity to be moved by literature.

2018 language goals

In all honesty, I never liked setting personal goals because why bother when there’s good chance that I’ll just fail and make myself feel bad?

There are a few different things wrong with that attitude, yes, but one major reason for it is that my goals were always either 1) grossly unrealistic or 2) not concrete enough.

Re: #1, I used to live by that terribly tired quote, “Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Why not pile up more on your plate than you can handle or make your to-do list infinitely long, when even just accomplishing some of those things is an achievement, right? Objectively, that’s true. But a glass half empty-type person like me dismisses all the things they have accomplished and are consumed by what they haven’t, maybe even so much so that it paralyzes them from moving any further. So. The trick is to aim lower, maybe even embarrassingly low, so you do manage to check off everything on your list, even if it’s just for your own ego and self-esteem. If you feel good about accomplishing stuff, chances are you’ll want to accomplish even more stuff.

As for #2, if there’s one thing being in analytics taught me, it’s that it’s impossible to measure success when you’re not metrics-driven. Setting a goal like “be better at X” isn’t helpful because “being better” isn’t something you can really measure when it comes time to evaluate yourself. Setting a number to your goal helps to make it more concrete, more measurable. Instead of “run more,” something like “run 10 miles a week” is better.

So, with that in mind, my realistic and measurable language goals for 2018 are:

1) Publish 2 blog posts a month

Maybe not every month, but at least 9 out of 12 months this year (hence my rush to get this post out before the end of January). Heck, if I can publish 1-3 blog posts a week for my job, I can do it for the thing I love.

2) Study 50 new words a week

I was proud of my TOPIK II score this time around but my biggest challenge was, hands-down, vocabulary. So. As much as I hate memorizing, I will be getting very intimate with my Quizlet decks this year. This isn’t my favorite way of studying vocabulary; I much prefer learning words through context but I concede that sometimes the best and fastest way to learning new words is memorization coupled with lots and lots of practice sentences.

3) Write 1 TOPIK essay a week

Through my classes, I’ve accumulated a lot of helpful notes on how to improve my writing score; now it’s just a matter of practicing so that I can write well in the allotted time. I plan on publishing and notes to this blog as well.

4) Improve my score in each TOPIK section

I’m not setting any hard goals on how much I want each section to improve by, but if the overall number increases, I’ll be thrilled.

5) Read at least two Korean news articles a week

Ahem. My weakness is reading Korean celebrity interviews, web comics, and historical novels; needless to say, my scope of relevant Korean vocabulary is limited. I want to improve my vocabulary rapidly but I don’t have the time or interest in immersing myself in Korean economics or politics to learn through context. But reading or even skimming a couple articles a week should be doable.

I really admire people who can maintain elaborate study logs, where they carve out exactly how many hours they’re going to put into reading, listening, writing, etc. Back when I first started learning Korean, I absorbed things so enthusiastically that every spare moment felt as though I was doing something language-related. Studying wasn’t even a thing I thought about separately setting aside time for.

I think I keep saying this over and over again here, but I’ve been feeling ‘lost’ with Korean for a long while now. I plateaued in terms of how much I could “absorb” effortlessly and didn’t know how to impart more discipline in my studying. Hopefully goal-setting like this will help me add more structure to my studies and help me further improve my Korean fluency.

Translating Korean relative clauses

Ahhh, Korean prose. It’s so amazingly different from its English counterpart.

I’ve spoiled myself when it comes to translation because, before now, I’ve only translated what I enjoy translating or what I think naturally translates well into English – avoiding passages with dreaded idiomatic expressions or puns.

For the past couple months, though, I’ve kinda sorta taken up casually translating a Korean e-book into English, and over the course of thousands of words, the translation challenges are becoming more and more persistent and unavoidable.

Case in point: relative clauses.

In English, a relative clause is a phrase that modifies a noun and is usually preceded by a relative pronoun (i.e. who, whom, which, that, or whose). Note, Korean doesn’t have explicit relative pronouns; at the end of verb, adjective, or noun preceding the noun you want to modify, you just add -는 (for present-tense verbs/adjectives), -(으)ㄴ (past-tense verbs), -았/었/였던 (past-tense adjectives),-(으)ㄹ (future-tense verbs/adj), or -인 (nouns).

Now, obviously I can’t generalize writing style, but given the range and number of things I’ve read over the years, I’m comfortable saying that standard Korean writing uses a lot of relative clauses. And, man, are they hard to translate.

First off, in Korean, relative clauses can modify personal pronouns (i.e. I, they, we, us) which quickly gets strange and awkward to translate in English:

별에서 그대
lit. You who came from the stars.

Not… wrong, necessarily. But there’s a reason why the official English translation of this drama title is My Love From the Stars instead.

Relative clauses in Korean can also get long, like beyond what actually sounds decent in English. Now combine that with point 1 and you might see things like:

요즘따라 내꺼인 듯 내꺼 아닌 내꺼 같은
lit. You who seem like you’re mine these days, who aren’t mine, who are like mine.

(Okay, so these are song lyrics, so not totally representative of normal prose. LOL.)

I struggle with sentences that use a lot of descriptive clauses because it makes English-translated Korean sentences sound homogeneous. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a stylistic thing that bothers me a lot. So much tone, mood, and pacing comes from varying sentence length and structure. It gives prose an overall movement and cadence.

Side note – I love writing, it’s my day job, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what ‘good’ is writing to me and developing my craft.  I tend to hate using adverbs and overwrought descriptions in my own prose, so when I encounter relative clauses in Korean, I think I exercise a little too much creative freedom in translating them.

낡긴 하였으나 깨끗한 도포를 입고 갓을 쓴 곱상한 선비가 두 손으로 보자기를 함겹게 들고 서책이 빼곡한 책방 안으로 들어서며 주인을 찾았다.
lit. The handsome scholar who wore an old, although clean dopo and hat, clutched with difficulty a cloth-wrapped bundle in both hands, and, stepping into the bookstore crowded with books, looked for its owner.

Yeah, nope. If this was the first sentence of an English novel, I would not be shy about using a red pen all over it. I’d break that sentence up into at least two, if not three sentences.

An interesting and unintended consequence of translating Korean is that my own writing (especially in fiction) has also changed subtly. I find myself using a lot more relative clauses and adverbs than I used to. Make it stopppp.

(Photo by João Silas via Unsplash)

First ever Korean class

So after many months of not really studying Korean (despite what it looks like on my blog, I rarely pick up a textbook and study. Almost everything I write about comes from random one-off things I read in Korean.) I decided what I really needed was external motivation to take my skill to the next level.

SO! I signed up for Advanced Korean classes at San Jose Language Center. I really feel like I struck gold here because it’s incredibly close to where I live and it’s a language school designed for adults – which means all classes are after working hours.


There are only two other students in the class and they’re both of Korean heritage. At first, the instructor said she was worried when she saw me (clearly not of Korean heritage) on her roster but we conversed for a bit, and then afterward, she said I might actually be too advanced for the class. Welp?

Either way, I was really nervous about taking an actual class for Korean that’s also completely taught in Korean. In my 7-ish years of learning the language, this was the first time I’d ever taken a class in a formal setting. I also hadn’t actually had a conversation in spoken Korean since my first trip to Seoul about 2.5 years ago.

I had my first class last Friday and… it was really, really great. Yes, I’m fairly familiar with all of the grammar we’re supposed to cover over the next seven weeks, but I’m getting so much more value than that out of this class.

  • Speaking practice: This is a huge one. Since there are only two other students and the instructor, we get to converse a lot amongst ourselves. I’m finally getting some very much needed speaking practice.
  • Proverbs: Yeah, I’m pretty terrible at learning proverbs. I’ll look them up and then immediately forget them. I think learning proverbs and idioms in a classroom – especially in one this small – will be really effective because of all the practice we do with each other.
  • Nuance: In the first class, we covered three different ways to express reason or cause: -느라고, -는 바람에, -고 해서. Though I’m familiar with all three, the instructor provided a lot of insight into the nuances of each and the different types of situations each one would be appropriate for.
  • New friends: Yay new IRL language friends!
  • Expert knowledge: I’m so used to researching/looking up all the questions I have about Korean grammar or vocabulary on my own that it’s incredible to be able to just ask the teacher when I don’t know something.
  • TOPIK prep: Because I hate reviewing TOPIK papers on my own. And (as with any kind of test prep) there are tricks that can help you master certain types of questions that are just not covered in textbooks.
  • Accountability: This is really the main reason why I wanted to take a class – so I’d be forced to study, do homework, review… or else be forever shamed in front of my teacher and peers, heh. Already since my first class, I’ve spent more time reviewing grammar/vocab in the past several days than I have in months. And by the time the course ends, I’m hoping that I will have developed a daily cadence for studying Korean that I will continue to follow.

I’m a huge proponent of self-studying languages and I always will be. If you have the drive and you can find the right resources, I think you can go far studying on your own. But I’ve come to realize (not just regarding language learning, but also other things), if you feel stuck in some part of your life, figuring out a way to shake things up really helps. I realized that I just wasn’t motivating myself to study Korean even though I really want to get better in the language (yay for the 욕심 coming back); getting myself into a classroom setting was the right way to kick my brain in gear.

What I learned from taking TOPIK II without studying

I almost didn’t even show up for the exam. Aside from a couple hours of reviewing grammar back in January, I didn’t prepare for TOPIK at all. I didn’t even spend time looking over old tests. But, as painful as I knew it was going to be, I knew there was still value in just taking it, regardless of whether I do well or not. I paid for the exam, might as well try to learn something from the experience. So… it happened, and these are the things I know I should work on for October.

  1. Spend more time studying for the listening section. I consider listening one of my strengths in Korean, but this section made me realize I need to diversify the topics I listen to. (Granted even our test proctor said she found some of the dialogues difficult to understand!) Listening to the news more would definitely help, for example. I need to make a serious, focused effort to study for the listening section. I have a lot more resources for studying grammar and vocabulary, so it’ll be hard to not spend all my time studying for the reading section. Speaking of which…
  2. Learn how to speed read. The reading section could have potentially gone worse–I had to guess on like 5 questions near the end because I didn’t have time to read the passages. I’m hoping this won’t happen once I’ve practiced more with past exams and once I’ve started reading more without looking up every single word I don’t know. I think my reading speed has actually gotten worse over the years since I started prioritizing learning vocabulary (i.e. looking up every single word I don’t know, writing it down, etc.) over overall comprehension. Speed reading would’ve also helped me a ton in the listening section, so I could have better scanned the answer choices while listening to the dialogues.
  3. Practice writing on 원고지. I think out of all the sections, I did best in writing. Time was the biggest challenge. I know I would have done much better (and written more) had I practiced ahead of time writing on 원고시. I also didn’t know that you use special pens for the TOPIK (yes… they actually say ‘TOPIK’ on them). I found them pretty easy to use, but it wouldn’t hurt to practice with the next closest thing–Sharpie pens, in my opinion–to really emulate the testing environment.
  4. Take more practice tests. Even though I have a couple of great books for reviewing TOPIK grammar, I think the number one way I can improve is simply by taking more tests. Pretty much every type of skills exam–SAT, GRE, etc.–has its own style and vocabulary and by focusing on that content, I can focus my studying. It’s tempting to spend hours and hours just studying everything I don’t know, but it’s just as important to study how to take the exam.

Overall, it was hard, as I expected it would be. But I’m glad that I decided to take it. As our test proctor said, regardless of what scores we get, just showing up to the exam was impressive enough.

I’ll preemptively say that I won’t publicly post my results for this exam or for future exams, but I will try to post tips and progress updates as I study (in earnest) for the October exam. Onwards!

Language Tag

Well, this is fun! Riccardo of Kaito Monogatari tagged me in this language learning questionnaire. Of all the people I know studying Japanese, Riccardo is the most prolific reader of Japanese literature that I know of. I hope I can be just as good some day.

Anyway, thanks for tagging me, Riccardo! I’m always happy to talk about myself (heh).

What would you consider your native language?

English and Marathi (of the South Indian variety, but who’s nitpicking?). Marathi is my mother tongue; my entire extended family speaks it and I’m still attached to it, though I’m not very good.

What was your first language learning experience?

French class in 5th grade. I don’t know why my elementary school offered a second language, but I’m glad it did, and I learned a lot, surprisingly! Pretty much all of high school  French 1 was a repeat of what I had learned in 5th grade.

What languages have you studied and why did you learn them?

Oh gosh. Where do I even begin.

  • French  – I studied this for four years in high school (and that one year in elementary) because it was part of the curriculum.
  • Japanese – I’ve studied Japanese on and off since high school and took 1 year of it in college. I’m still really really not that good at it. I can speak it well enough to get around Japan and I can read manga more or less, but Kanji kills me.
  • Korean – To this day, I don’t have a straight answer as to why I decided to study Korean. It’s more like… Korean chose me. I started off being intrigued by the way the language sounded and then started actually learning things after listening to TTMIK’s podcasts.
  • Sanskrit – My grandfather is a Sanskrit scholar. I spent a whole summer learning the alphabet and some basic grammar. I have a bunch of books too, but haven’t revisited the language in a long while.
  • Italian – It sounds so beautiful! Also one of my best friends knows Italian quite well so I wanted to learn it too. I’m not that good at it, nor am I learning seriously. I’ve just been playing around with it on Duolingo.

How does your personality affect your language learning?

I lack focus when it comes to my hobbies. I always want to do a million different things all at the same time. When I’m studying Korean, I all of a sudden start thinking about studying Japanese or writing my novel or blogging or coding… my mind starts wandering. I find it really hard to focus in front of a textbook. I basically fail at studying, which means I can never advance past a certain level of fluency in any language. Sigh.

Do you prefer learning a language in a class or on your own?

On my own.

What are your favourite language learning materials?


How much time do you spend on language per day?

I always do something that relates to Korean everyday – whether that’s reading a webcomic or novel, listening to music, watching a variety show/drama. But as for actual studying? Hahaha….

What are your short-term and long-term language goals?

  • Short-term: Pass TOPIK Level 6 in October.
  • Long-term: Become fluent in Korean.

What is your favourite language?


What is the next language you want to learn?


What advice could you give new language learners?

Be proud of every small thing you accomplish. It all adds up!

And now I shall tag some fellow language learning peeps:

Blogging resolutions for 2016

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, mainly because I think people can and should resolve to improve themselves throughout the year. (Besides, most people end up giving up on their resolutions mere weeks into the year, so why set yourself up for failure?) Dividing up time into years and such is a human construct and celebrating a new year is actually meaningless.

But no need to get nihilistic about it, right?!

Joking aside, I get it. What with the holiday spirit in the air and days off from work/school and time spent with family, people get nostalgic at the end of the year. They reflect and realize things they could have done better. Things they will do better in the coming year.

On that note, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a better language blogger in the coming year. So here we go. These are my blogging resolutions for 2016.

resolutions post

  1. Post more.  I’ve been fairly regular with my blog posts, averaging about 1 a month. What a sad number though. I’m not going to get too ambitious and say that in 2016 I’ll post once a week (though I’d really like to!), so let’s say – one post every 10 days.
  2. Engage more.  If I’m following you, chances are I’m checking out your blog and reading your posts on a regular basis. I creep. I very, very rarely leave comments; when/where I leave comments has nothing to do with the quality of the post either. For all the blogging and social media that I do, at the end of the day, I’m an online introvert so I rarely take the first step to engaging with others. I’ve only just gotten better at replying to comments (I’m not ignoring you – I’m just shy!) and in 2016, I want to initiate more. Honestly, seeing the proof (in the form of comments, likes, sweet emails, etc.) that people are actually reading and getting something out of my blog is one of the greatest feelings in the world and I want to return that to my fellow bloggers.
  3. Update travelogue. It’s been months and I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the stuff I saw and did in Korea (in 2014!) and Japan. I also have a bunch of posts on travel tips that I haven’t gotten out yet. The latter, I think, will at least be useful to people. I don’t profess to be a great travel blogger (let’s be honest – I’m a pretty bad one because I hate taking photos and I don’t post in a timely manner) but at least for the sake of my own memories, I really want to share my experiences in Korea and Japan.
  4. Book reviews. I HAVE SO MANY BOOKS, both Korean and Japanese, that I want to talk about. Some of them are textbooks, some of them are novels, a lot of them have a story behind why I bought them. Each and every one of them is a part of my language learning experience and I think they’re worth sharing with my fellow language learners.  The main reason I haven’t been more diligent about this?  I’m really lazy about taking photos (which you’ll see if you check out my sporadically updated Instagram).  Ugh. I need to get over that. No one likes to read huge blocks of text.
  5. TOPIK preparation. I swear I am cursed when it comes to TOPIK. I have tried for about 3 years to try to take this exam. Other life things have always gotten in the way (graduate school examinations, job search, grant submissions, trips, and – most inexcusable excuse of all – missing the  deadline to apply). It doesn’t help that there are only two TOPIK exam dates in the U.S. This year, I will hold myself accountable by blogging about my TOPIK preparation throughout the year and hopefully take it in the fall.
  6. Single space after a period. English class has apparently failed me all these years.

This blog means a lot to me.  I was scrolling through some of my old posts and came across a post titled “10 Favorite Korean Songs of 2012” and it just hit me like, wow, I have been keeping up with this blog for so long, through so many ups and downs, so many life changes. (And I probably hate all of those songs that I listed in that post. Haha). I don’t care about monetizing or getting thousands of views.  I care most about being a part of this community – making friends and nurturing relationships with people all over the world,  bonded through our mutual love of language. Here’s to 2016.