Thursday, October 28, 2010

Characters Who Speak Other Languages

This question comes from Jessica Lei.

Theresa, I have a question that I'd love to hear your opinion on. I'm writing a fantasy story where my characters aren't speaking English, but (obviously) I'm writing it in English. It's come up that I might want to mix around some words or phrasing to represent that difference.

When you see a book you're editing that's in 'another language,' do you want the characters to sound like a normal person speaking English? Does it strengthen the book if these people categorically think and speak in a slightly different manner than normal? Can a writer rely on imaginative consent for this?

Jessica, this comes up pretty frequently, and each time it does, I find it's best to consider the question in the context of the work as a whole. In other words, I don't use a bright-line test that applies to all works across the board. What's appropriate in one book might fail in another.

I acquired and edited a book called Kitsune by Lila Dubois. (Link to Kindle store version.) Kitsune is based on a Japanese myth about a supernatural fox/woman/sprite thingie who speaks no English at all on page one. She's smart, and she's got amazing superpowers -- including the ability to fill suitcases with clothes and shoes just by looking at magazine photos WHICH WILL TOTALLY BE MY SUPERPOWER WHEN I EARN MY CAPE -- so she learns conversational English pretty quickly. But for the early part of the book, we had a heroine who spoke only Japanese, a hero who hates his Japanese roots, and a heck of a decision on our hands about how to handle their dialogue.

Step one for me was finding a native Japanese speaker to vet all the Japanese the author had written into the text. It's not enough, I find, to use someone who studied that language. Native speakers understand idiom and syntax differently than book-learners. In this case, Lila's Japanese turned out to be spot-on, though I have had instances with other books and other languages where we had to edit the foreign phrases. There was a good bit of Japanese in Kitsune, but it was all in dialogue. When we were in Joe's point of view, it was easy enough to leave the Japanese dialogue intact and let his confusion guide the reader, as here:


“Hello,” he said.
“I don’t speak Japanese.”
“Hai. Nihongo o hanasu.”
“No, I don’t. I can’t understand you.”
The kneeling woman tilted her head slightly to one side, causing a faint stirring in the long black hair that shielded her body.
“Watashi ga itta koto o ikani shitta ka?”
“Don’t you speak English? Who are you?”
“Watashi no namae ha Sakura de aru.”


This works in part because Joe is voicing the reader's own lack of comprehension, so instead of alienating the reader, we've helped the reader enter into Joe's experience at this moment. So the context actually allows us to get away with more Japanese there.

Because this story has a paranormal slant, we were also able to take some liberties later in the text. When Joe needs to start understanding her speech, it is magically delivered simultaneously in both Japanese and English:


“May I touch you? You’re very beautiful. I want to know you.”
“Hai, hai, yorokobasu tame ni watashi ni fureru koto ga dekiru.”
The words echoed, Japanese and English layered over one another, though she was the only speaker. He nodded.


Lila came up with that on her own, and I thought it was a clever work-around. Obviously, it won't work in all cases, but you know, when you have magic in your book, you might as well use it. This provided a nice sensual detail in the layered sounds, and it aided reader comprehension and got us past the "I don't understand you" phase of their first scene.

Nathalie Gray did something similar with her French-Canadian heroine in Heartless. (Kindle linkie again, and again, this is one I acquired and edited.) I'm going to quote a larger chunk of the surrounding narrative here so you can see a bit of the context.


Another level she climbed. Another, then another. Wind hit her square in the face as Anne-Marie crested the roof ledge. Around her, rooftops bristled with antennas and satellite dishes, sheds, vents and chimneys. Her stomach in a knot, she ran across the roof, her soft boxing boots crunching on gravel and tar, and reached the other side only to realize she wouldn’t be able to clear the gap to the next building. Not without a lucky jump.
Merde, de merde, de merde .” She chanced a glance behind her. Nothing. No smell, no sound. Was it gone? Had it even existed? Was she going completely nuts?


Even without the sound layering thingie, and even without any knowledge of basic street French, we can all probably understand that the French there is an expletive, and we might even correctly guess that merde = shit. And I think this is really the crucial point: it's all in the context. If meaning is suggested by context, then you have more room to play with foreign words.

We might be tempted to look at the foreign words and phrases and evaluate them on their own. And there are ways to evaluate those foreign bits that will help. Here are a couple of things I look at when evaluating the foreign phrases themselves, without respect to context.
  • Length. Shorter bits are easier to absorb than longer ones.
  • Frequency. A once-in-a-while merde will go down easier than long dialogue exchanges.
  • Familiarity. Some foreign words are just better known that others. If an Italian guy says, "Salut," we probably all know what that means. But how many of you can parse a Polish guy saying, "Dziekuje"?
  • Common roots. Some words appear similar to their English counterparts because of shared linguistic roots. (And because English is a dirty thief that steals whatever it likes. *cough*) So when Edith Piaf belts out, "Je ne regrette rien," a mindful reader will see "regrette" and recognize it as a fancified version of "regret."
But really, even with this analysis, context is still crucial. Examine the word choices themselves, but also look at everything surrounding them. The key question, as with any other piece of writing, is whether the reader will be able to get on board with what you're doing. If the answer is likely yes, then laissez les bons temps rouler et bonne chance!



Sylvia said...

This ties in with the examples above but my solution was to show the language issues (accent and lack of fluency) only in dialogue, with thoughts and narrative remaining in standard English, even though the viewpoint character was "thinking" in a different language.

Jessica Silva said...

See, that makes sense! The only problem is I've written this without the characters ever speaking English. The only time it's made clear they probably aren't speaking English is when the MC can barely read "HUMMER" on the front of the massive SUV. A little later the MC comments on Arabic being similar to her own language. The name of the language, or any bits of the language itself, are left out of the text. Even if I wanted to include it, the language is mostly extinct.

I'd like to just think this won't be a problem. I wonder: won't people just accept the characters aren't speaking in English? OR, is it because the way they're speaking is so much like the English we know, that people will start questioning the reality of the situation?

This is probably totally a case-by-case basis. I just don't want to be one of those people who think I'm exempt or an exception, when I'm really not!

Either way, this post did help me think of a few ways to tackle the issue, if it's an issue...(which it probably is). Thank you very much :) Totally flattered you answered my question haha

Jordan said...

Merci boucoup y un mill√≥n de gracias. I've been thinking about this very issue a lot lately—my last MS had a character from Ireland (with a touch of Irish but a dollop of Hiberno English slang) and my current MS a Russian Soviet trilingual heroine who doesn't want our American monolingual hero to know she speaks English.

Oh, and it's set in Paris. Hooray!

I had a lot more to say on this, but it got to be a few hundred words long, and I figured I'll just blog about it today.

(All languages are dirty thieves, BTW. I think Latin was a far worse thief than English. They took Greek just 'cause, and English kind of had Greek/Latin/French forced on it. I mean, you try being ruled by French-speakers for a couple centuries and see if you don't pick up a word or two.)

green_knight said...

If the characters always speak something else, I'd just render everything in English. My problem is with bilingual characters - and the fact that they sometimes speak English and sometimes not (and might switch within a sentence!) is important to the story. As I can't write it in both languages (and would not want to limit my readership thus), I am still pondering how to make the switch known to the reader of the mss. (In the final book, I'd just use a different font - but do I do the same in submission?)

Edittorrent said...

Think of film. Every working class man, even in ancient Rome, seems to speak with a cockney or Jersey accent. :)

I think this is a case where verisimilitude (being recognizably "working class") is more important than authenticity (rendering Spartacus's speech in low Latin).


Amanda Borenstadt said...

Super post!
I have a bit of Spanish and German in my novel, but they're phrases easily recognized in context.

Kelle Z Riley said...

I love this discussion. Thanks, Theresa and Alicia for the insight. I recently finished a series of mss which included bits of a language that I had to create. It took a lot of honest feedback from trusted readers before the scenes using both English and the fantasy language were clear and understandable to readers.

If I find an editor/publisher for this story, I'm sure lots more work will be in my future!

Unknown said...

I agree with everything you wrote BUT as a bilingual individual (English & French), I can't stress this enough...

If you're going to insert a 'foreign' language in your MS, please, please, please get it right. There is nothing more annoying than reading about a supposedly 'French' character and seeing every second word misspelled. It drives me nuts. And NO people, Bablefish won't cut it.

You want to use foreign words? Then find someone who speaks the language and make sure it's correct. Never assume your readers are as ignorant as you are and no one will know better.

Kayelle Allen said...

I have an alien character who, when angry or aroused, lapses into his native tongue. His lover understands him most of the time, and responds in such a way that we know what he's saying. For example, in this dialog, they are arguing about someone who insulted their honor. The alien, who is catlike, is determined to deal with it his way. He says:

"Skranatha! Te nim hhh!"
"No. I'm not leaving and you're not biting him, so you may as well give that up."

I've also had the other person translate a few words in his thought process, as here:

Using his fangs, Rah nibbled his way along Luc's shoulder and up his neck. "Te shree tu, t'hahr. Shree tu." I love you, my heart. Love you. When aroused, Rah lapsed into his native Felis, his voice all soft breaths and tranquil sounds, soothing to the ear.

This way I can give the sound of the language, a few words, and help the reader understand every word by context as well as translation.