#amwriting: getting lost in translation

The question about using foreign languages in dialogue recently arose again, so it seemed appropriate to revisit a situation from one of last year’s posts.

The quote that started it all was posted in a writers forum: “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?”

The answer to both options is a resounding no. We write in our native language for people who read in that language.

We can add a slightly foreign flair, but translations should not be necessary at all. 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.)

The writer whose question 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.

Too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the em dash or ellipsis has the function of setting portions of the narrative aside or giving it emphasis.

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

My next thought when I was told about this particular conversation 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 and her readers aren’t likely to finish her book.

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.”

Note the slight change in the translation—one word has been shifted, “may” becomes “can.” While these words are sometimes interchangeable in English, they don’t always mean the same thing:

  • May sometimes means might or perhaps; or sometimes may gives permission.
  • Can gives permission or enables.

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 to French assumes the word “may” is permission and 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.  So, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. Basically, we speakers of English speak a version of Dutch.

I hear you now: “But I don’t understand Dutch!”

This is because even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax.  English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain. 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.

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

English: “Oh no. My bicycle has a bent spoke. How can I fix it?”

1st Dutch translation: “Oh nee. Mijn fiets heeft een gebogen sprak. Hoe kan ik dat op?”

2nd English translation: “Oh no. My bike needs an bent. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: When we retranslate it back to  English, the second translation makes no sense.

Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, but it is not intended to be used to translate an entire book into a foreign language. You need to hire a translator for that.

So, now we know that texts translated via Google Translate often emerge slightly twisted and make no sense, which is not what we want. 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 to readers who don’t speak that language. It lends a certain realism when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just don’t rely on Google Translate to help you write your Russian spy novel’s love scene.


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13 responses to “#amwriting: getting lost in translation

  1. I recently stopped reading a book in chapter one when the hero was introduced with a supposed Dutch name (it wasn’t) and then they went on to explain what it meant and how to pronounce it (also wrong). The name had NO bearing on the story. Why? I screamed as I hit delete on my kindle.

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  2. The only writer I can think of who really got away with fairly extended use of ‘foreign’ languages was Tolkien. Even then, he was judicious with it. Apropos Netherlands, that’s a curious language – it’s grammatically closer to Shakespearean English than modern English, I view it as about half way between English and German, grammatically and in terms of a lot of the lexicon. Not too surprising given the origins.


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  4. Great post, Connie! This subject has been on my mind since I published my novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” 2 years ago. I wanted my very educated Goddaughter to translate my novel as she is Salvadoran & her parents went through the war (as teens & young adults). When she sent me the translation of the Prologue, she said it might be too “textual.” It turns out that the word “textual” means something like “word for word” which is not at all what I wanted.
    While my niece was working on that translation, a well-educated Mexican gentleman was helping me translate for some nuns (the novel deals a lot with the Catholic Church). I realized what I needed: A Salvadoran who is fluent in American English and an American who is fluent in Salvadoran Spanish.
    That’s a lot to ask for, I know, but the Universidad Centro Americano (UCA) is a Catholic college that just might have these two people at their service.
    Now, if I could just find a contact!
    Thanks for taking the time to write this post. for those who want to see how you can add a language for flavor to a book, check mine out! I still needed a Spanish language editor for the five or so Spanish words per page though, as Spanish has TU, USTED & in many parts of the world, also VOS.
    Peace, love & great translations to all,
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P11Ch5chkAc 😉


  5. Oh, Google Translate! I’ve spent many an evening procrastinating with it. I don’t know why I find it so amusing to translate English sentences into another language, and then translate the translation back to English, but it really does make me chuckle sometimes. I’ve only used it for writing sparingly, because I invariably have to tweak the translations using my own, less than stellar, knowledge.

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