Why it’s so hard to write literature essays on foreign books…

Although I want to write books for a living, I haven’t had much practise in actually analysing literature – not since English Literature GCSE, in fact.   This second year at university has been a crash course in learning how to analyse books and my initial essays were written very simplistically.  But why is it so hard to write on foreign books, when you’re not yet fluent?

1) Unless you have complete command of a language, you are likely to miss subtle references

Although you will get a broad overall picture, what if you skipped a sentence?  What if you didn’t really understand subtle references?  When reading Unserer Tochter, die Nazinen this year for example, there is only a short quick sentence which alludes to a daughter’s abortion, a reference which was completely lost on me.

2) Although you may understand the style with which it is written, you won’t know the nitty gritty

So you may see, for example, “the sky is blue”, which could mean, in English…

1) The author is trying to show the moroseness of the character
2) The author is trying to show how he’s turned over a new leaf – fresh awakenings and new beginnings!

or, indeed,

3) The sky is the colour blue

The problem is if you don’t really understand the depth behind the words in a foreign language it’s harder to establish why for example, they chose a specific word.

3) It takes on average 4 times longer to read a book in a foreign language than in your mother tongue

I sat on a train for about 3 hours and managed about 40 pages of a German novel.  That was incredibly disheartening.

4) Dictionary Problems

Every time that I have ever started to read a foreign language book I have always translated every word for the first few pages, before giving up in a fit of rage. Most people say you should get just stuck into a story, but I don’t necessarily think this is the right way forward.  To really understand a novel I would aim to look up words where I wouldn’t understand the sentence otherwise… although that pretty much does happen in every sentence.  Hmm.

5) Reading an English translation isn’t necessarily the best idea…

I have read both the French and English version of Waiting for Godot, for example, and both plays have subtly different tones, although bear in mind that Samuel Beckett wrote both.  I have read English translations of Autour de la Lune by Jules Verne, which has a lot of scientific wording.   While the book has been written for an English audience it is not necessarily the same stylistically as the French:  I found the French version of Autour de la Lune more humorous than the English.


While, however, there are many fall backs, it’s a fantastic feeling once you’ve actually produced an essay where you had to analyse a foreign language book, chosen the right materials, structured it, written it, and formed your argument.  While I’d be pleased of myself for finishing an essay on an English book, I’m even more pleased as a punch when it’s on a foreign book!


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