Meaning making: A letter to my former self

The following is what I wish I had known earlier in my journey as a second language writer—the goal is meaning making, not producing Shakespearean language.

When I first started graduate school in New York, I never quite fit in. Despite the fact that I studied Western literature in my country, when I came to school in the US, I felt powerless. As a literature graduate student, I tried to reproduce a language akin to that of the prolific authors I had read in class. Looking back at the writing I produced during my early years, I feel that my attempt to write the perfect prose failed miserably.

My breakthrough came when I took a Translation Workshop course. In the class, we were asked to translate two short stories from another language into English. As a good student should do, I took my work to the school’s writing center and worked closely with one consultant throughout the semester. It was this process of translating/negotiating/creating meaning in a second language that helped me thrive as a writer. Because of this literary translation project, I became less anxious about trying to write in perfect English. I was more worried about staying true to the original prose. Surprisingly, through my quest for meaning, the beauty of the original work emerged.

Literary translation is not to simply Ctrl+V your text into Google Translate and call it a day. The process is rather complicated. To put it another way, the negotiation between two languages, or as Suresh Canagarajah calls it, the act of shuttling between languages, requires that I look into my semiotic resources and replicate the approximate version of the word in English.

The key here is to make meaning in English. The hunt here is to find an English word that carries both the meaning and the soul of the original word, the way that the original author intended.

As a writing consultant, one of the ways to help multilingual writers is to act as a collaborator in helping them relay the meaning of a word that comes from their first language. In my sessions with multilingual students, I often stop and ask students, “What do you mean by this?” Without fail, the version that students explain to me is better than the one they have in their drafts. The typical response that consultants give to students, “Oh, you meant  . . . ” is one of the ways we help students create meaning in English. During this dialogue, consultants also negotiate meaning as they try to make sense of what students say and look into the students’ own semiotic resources to help them produce the sentence in English. Rather than commenting on a student’s writing by saying, “Oh, this does not make sense” or “This is not grammatically correct,” start a dialogue and ask multilingual students what they mean. This is a necessary step for multilingual students on their quest to meaning making.

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