Tag Archives: the written conversation

#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!


Filed under writing

#amwriting: tips for writing clear dialogue

gibberish quoteDialogue can be tricky. Often, in our rush to get the ideas on paper, we have left off quotes, misplaced punctuation, and written interrupted dialogue with inconsistency.

While a certain amount of literary license in dialogue can enrich our work, our dialogue may be too rich with run-on sentences, and not in a good way.

Also, while everyone has read books that inspire them to become writers, some authors never learned how to write the kind of dialogue they envision. They don’t understand the fundamentals and don’t realize how their lack of understanding ruins their work.

Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.

  • Mary glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Mary, “but I can’t go with you.”

Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.

  • I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Mary.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas. Either way, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue? Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

George said, “When I asked her, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”

George said, “When I asked, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.'” Note there are 3 apostrophes there: 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.

  • When asked, George said Mary couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also in this sentence, the word that is implied between said and Mary.

Dialogue tags, or attributions, can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

DialogueI’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible. They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and does not speak.

Avoid verbal tics like “hmmm…” and “ahhh…” as they just take up space and add fluff to your narrative. When people in real life preface all of their sentences with drawn-out ahs and hmms it can be aggravating to listen to them. Consider how irritating it would be to read it.

Sometimes we have two ideas in a sentence that we think are one, and we connect them with commas.  But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken in regard to his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • When we write our conversation using proper punctuation, it looks natural, and the reader will hear it the way it was intended.

When it’s done right, dialogue is, in my opinion, the best part of the story. It’s where we discover who the characters are, and how the larger events affect them. Conversations show the world as the protagonist sees it. We can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue, and indeed, we should, but adhering to industry standard rules of punctuation ensures your reader can remain immersed in the story, and forget they are reading.

And THAT is what we all hope for.


Filed under Literature, writer, writing