Do you Prefer to Read in English or Chinese?


By Junying Kirk

As a bilingual person myself, fully competent in my mother tongue Chinese and English as a foreign language, I am curious. Given the choice of reading in English and your own language, whatever that may be, which would you pick?

Obviously I was brought up reading Chinese, and I have been reading in my native language as long as I can remember, and I have lost count how many Chinese books I have read in my life. In my late teens when I started learning English as a foreign language, especially after I started University specialising in English Language and Literature, my love for reading English and by association English words blossomed, so much so that now I read at least one book of fiction in English every week, on average. Consequently I have lost count how many English books I have read, given that I have continuously read in another language for more than 30 years.

Which do I prefer, reading in Chinese or reading in English?

Well, nobody has ever asked me that, as far as I remember, although people have asked me whether I dream in English or in Chinese, which by the way, is a secret, unless you are my friend :).

When I think about it, it is actually not an easy question to answer, and it’s not simply a matter of choosing one over another. Overall, I have probably read more English books than Chinese, largely because in the last 26 years I have lived in the UK where English books are more easily accessible than Chinese. That is why I am so pleased to be able to access so many Chinese books in the new Library of Birmingham.

There is a large collection of Chinese books in the Library of Birmingham

What I can tell you though is that I read Chinese faster, despite all these years living in another country. Maybe it’s because Chinese characters are more compact, therefore packing in more words in each page, and maybe it’s something else all together. Overall, I am a pretty fast reader, just like I do other things quickly, including consuming food :). I am just a Sichuan spice girl who possesses a quick temperament, an insatiable appetite for knowledge and hunger for good things in life, which in my case finds the written word top of the list.

Perhaps I should explain that not all English books I read are written by English people, or Americans or Canadians. A great many English books I read are translated from other languages, such as Russian, French, Spanish, German and Scandinavian languages. Without English translations, I would not have the fortune to read many of the books I love, especially given my ‘obsession’ with anything Scandinavian these days.

The same is true with the Chinese books I have read. China probably translates more books from overseas than any other country on Earth. I read “Gone with the Wind’ in Chinese while studying in China decades ago, and so far I am still planning to read the original but I don’t know if I ever will, as my reading list is so long that I may never reach it.

Without dedicated Chinese translators, I would not have been able to read Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, Balzac and Leo Tolstoy, and I would have missed many literary classics as well as modern greats, such as Anna Karenina and Les Miserables and the Count of Monte Cristo. Imagine how miserable that would have been!

I LOVE translated works. I often hear readers complaining about the quality of translated works, and I thought: How do you actually know that these translations are not as good as you expected them to be? Unless you happen to be highly literate in both languages, how easy it is to judge and blame others for your own dissatisfaction.

I am a translator, although not a literary one. Translators, like many other professions, have specialisms. As an insider, I appreciate how hard it is to translate a book in another language into your own or vice versa. I admire literary translators immensely. They can’t just be a translator, they must be great writers too, with a knowledge base and cultural understanding far beyond that of the majority of mere mortals.

A few friends have asked me why I haven’t translated my own books into Chinese. Perhaps many are even wondering why I chose to write in English in the first place? The answer is simple: I feel comfortable writing in English. I have had so much training writing in English, and even though it’s not perfect, it is the language that I now use on a daily basis.

As for my books, if they are ever to be translated into Chinese, they will have to be done by literary translators.

About the author 


Junying Kirk was born a spice girl, hailing from Sichuan Province in southwestern China. In the summer of 1988, a British Council scholarship led her to study English Language Teaching at Warwick University, followed by further post-graduate degrees at Glasgow and Leeds.

In her career spanning from the East to the West, she has played various roles as an academic, administrator, researcher, teacher and cultural consultant. Currently working as a professional interpreter and translator, she reads vivaciously and writes with passion and dedication.

She enjoys drawing from the wealth of life itself  to create stories, which are both engaging and exciting. She travels widely and keeps her mind and heart open for the new, the good, the bad and the ugly. Her ‘Journey to the West’ trilogy, The Same MoonTrials of Life and Land of Hope have been published in electronic form in 2011 and 2012. All her three books are now available in paperbacks. She lives in Birmingham, UK with her English husband.

(Visited 377 times, 1 visits today)