#amwriting: using foreign languages in your dialogue

Long Live Dead Languages

At my Tuesday morning therapy writing group, a friend was telling me about a post she had seen in an online writers’ forum. The question ran something like this:

Questioner: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

My friend gave the answer I would have: The answer to BOTH options is NO!!!

Translations should not be necessary at all. Never give a large amount of dialogue to a character who doesn’t speak the native language the book is written in. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

We all laughed, but afterward, I was still thinking about this issue. The author whose post had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Let me be clear on this: too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the use of the em dash or ellipses fills the function of setting portions of the narrative off for emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way.

If you are writing a character who speaks a foreign  language, consider how they are commonly portrayed in novels that are traditionally published. Take any spy novel with a plot that takes place in both Mexico and the US. It has American characters, including the protagonist, who is a CIA agent and is fluent in both Spanish and English, and it features a large cast of Mexican citizens who may or may not be bilingual.

Because the book is intended for an English-speaking audience, when the Spanish-speaking characters are talking to each other in their native tongue the dialogue is still in English. At times, a few, commonly recognized words in español may be sprinkled in to lend the flavor of Spanish.

You must clearly establish that the characters are speaking their native language, Spanish, in the narrative. This is particularly important if you have a character who switches between languages or in certain situations where Spanish is the only language spoken.

I happen to read and understand some Spanish, and it is a language spoken by many US citizens, but our readers in the US are, for the most part, English-centric.

It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

yoda gibberish memeNow, why would I say this? Because I find it  irritating as hell (sorry for the editor speak) to stop reading, and hunt down translations.

It is hard enough when authors like Alexander Chee  put large amounts of words in French with no translation. Chee is from Canada and is writing for Canadians. His main character is Canadian, and French is one of his two national languages. For that reason, his mingling of French and English is acceptable, as his work is clearly understood by his intended audience.

My next thought when I was told about this particular virtual exchange was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate? If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDNote the slight change in the translation—one word, “may” or “can”—these words are not always interchangeable, as they don’t mean the same thing in English—so that slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation with “can” gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

Therefore, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. But even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax as our English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain after it was settled by the Frisians. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

Dutch: “Oh nee. Ik heb een gebogen sprak op mijn fietswiel. Hoe kan ik het vast?”

English translation: “Oh no. I spoke bent on my bicycle wheel. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: In English, this implies he was speaking while bent over his bicycle wheel.

If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable. It lends a certain realism, when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just remember, forcing your reader to stop reading and check too many translations is suicide, especially for an indie. Never give your reader a reason to put the book down!


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5 responses to “#amwriting: using foreign languages in your dialogue

  1. I used a couple of Vietnamese words and phrases by my victim only to indicate the struggle the protagonists had before figuring out how to use Google translate.

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  2. Now Russian and English create a great mix in my head 💫 ☀💥