English or perish

I’ve been working on suicide stories for some time – I wanted to write a book about them. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. Someone else wrote the book. But this is not a post about a book that will never be. It’s a post about writing in Polish (and other non-English languages).

But let’s start from the beginning. About 3 years ago I started preparing for writing a book on men’s stories of their suicide attempts. It was going very slowly, mainly for logistic reasons, so I decided to focus on data which were readily available (and swept me off my feet) and go back to suicide stories after writing, as a friend called it, my intermezzo book. This is how I wrote a book about men’s suicide notes, which is now in production.

As I was ready to re-start the project on men’s suicide, I looked at what I already had, I realised that someone else sort of  wrote the book for me, well, at least substantial parts of the book I wanted to write. Yes, Justyna Ziółkowska recently published a book on experiences of suicide. Moreover, the book is excellent and contains a lot of what I would want to say. Of course, my focus on masculinity would make mine different, yet, the overlap would be significant. And so, I will not write my book; I will turn the non-overlapping stuff into a couple of articles. I am probably somewhat disappointed, but I look forward to a different book. I will write about experiences of involuntary commitment. A brief and cursory search suggests there is little about it, and there seems to be no book. Great.

But as much as it is the end of the book story, this post is only just starting. For you might think that my decision not to write my ‘suicide book’ was actually forced by Ziółkowska’s book. In fact, it was not. The book, good as it is (and it is very good), is irrelevant. In fact, it doesn’t actually exist. After all, it’s in Polish. Or perhaps I should say – it’s not in English.

When you write a book proposal for an international publisher, you must write a section on the competition the proposed book faces. But the global publishing market, at least for the publishers ‘we’ normally deal with, is a market of books in English. No one cares that there is a book in Polish. even if it is  at the moment, in my view, the best qualitative study of experiences of suicide attempts. Just like no one cares that I published my first book in 1992. It was on how people boast, but it was in Polish. Ans yet, unbelievably,  the book is still read, quoted in the Polish literature and last September when I was introduced to someone at a conference, to my bewilderment I was asked whether I was “this famous Galasiński who wrote that famous book on boasting”. After well over 20 years, the book still functions in Polish pragmatics/discourse analysis! Except, let’s face it, the book doesn’t really exist, so who cares?

And so, in fact, I can write my book on men’s suicide. I can have all the overlap I want, because on the international market there is no overlap. I can readily steal Ziółkowska’s thunder and she can become a footnote in my book, as I show the things she showed on the basis of my data and, crucially, in English! Even though I can, I still don’t want to do this, as I don’t want to steal the limelight that was not mine, I can look for my own.

Now, here I should probably write something about us in the dominant West, appealing for more appreciation of research which happens across the world, from Poland, through Kyrgyzstan, all the way to Chile. Sorry, no can do. I’m afraid, whether I like it or not, English is the lingua franca of academic inquiry and if I want to be read, I need to write in English, however ideologically problematic it is. And if you don’t write in English? Well, easy: learn English or have it translated. Unfortunately, there is no other way. I have not written anything in Polish for longer than I care to remember, because what I publish in Polish doesn’t exist. Sad? I suppose, it is. But as much as I can try to get the world to accept the proper spelling of my name, I will never get the world to read Polish, just like my (hypothetical) friends in Vietnam and Thailand will not get me to read in their languages. So, friends, it’s English or perish.

But I want to finish with two minor points.  First, as much as I understand all this above, what always gets me is the assumption that good things only come in English. They don’t. Sometimes they also come in Polish and in a variety of other languages neither you nor I read. Unfortunately, if they are good, they should quickly be published in English, otherwise, no one cares.

Second, all of you, academics for whom English is the first language, do consider yourselves very lucky that it is. Consider also your foreign language skills and spare a thought on whether you have reached the level at which you simply publish in a foreign language. Imagine that we actually have achieved it, so do appreciate us, foreign-language speakers, a little. We are going up a steeper hill than you are. And, finally, to all those reviewers who make snide remarks about the language in our articles….mmmm, shall I say, go away?

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