1. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    A Question on How to Render Foreign Language

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Porcupine, Feb 14, 2011.

    Following the enormous success and rapid responses to my first question thread, here is another one. :)

    When a book is written in one language (let's say English), it occurs frequently that character dialogue is in a different language (let's say, French). I have observed so far several distinct (though often mixed, even in one book) ways to render the foreign-language dialogue:

    - Frequently the author writes the whole dialogue in English without any regard for the linguistic peculiarities of the foreign language, i.e. simply as if the dialogue was taking place in English. This implies the inclusion of English idioms, proverbs, and expressions that don't even exist in the language the characters are supposed to be using.

    - In some cases, the foreign language dialogue is identified by transferring certain linguistic peculiarities of the foreign language into English. This could mean using Ye Olde English instead of modern English, changing the order of words to make the sentence sound "foreign", or adding foreign idioms and expressions, but if overdone, the result could potentially be a broken dialogue that is incomprehensible to anybody but those fluent in the foreign language, who would have to "re-translate" what they are reading to get the meaning.

    - Then there is the possibility to single out individual words and write them in the actual foreign language, which one can assume that the educated reader either knows or can deduce from the context. So a part of a dialogue might read "Merci, but I won't be able to come on Saturday". "Non" and "oui" are also clear candidates for this treatment, amongst a few others.

    - Finally, something I have been thinking about, is putting foreign language dialogue fully and entirely in the foreign language and adding a translation as a footnote. This would preserve the original dialogue in its intended form and add a decent amount of realism. Frenchmen simply talk differently from Englishmen.

    EDIT (a fifth option, also popular): - Some author's don't reproduce foreign language dialoge at all and simply write something like: "The Frenchmen started babbling to each other excitedly in that effeminate language of theirs."

    This latter option has severe disadvantages, of course. For a reader not fluent in the foreign language, it will quickly become tedious to switch between footnotes and text if there is too much dialogue, so dialogue in this language has to be kept to a minimum. Even for a reader fluent in both languages (the narration language and the dialogue language) switching languages back and forth all the time while reading a dialogue could become mentally exhausting.

    So my question is - what do you think is the best option, and what do you think of the fourth one, the one I am experimenting with at the moment?
     
  2. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think for chosing the method that suits you you got to define

    "What's the purpose of the second language of my novel?" Is it to add a spice of exotism, is to provide a extra level of problems to the plot (like in "Inglorious Bastards"), doest the story just happen to take place in a way that a bunch of languages will be encountered but not important to the story itself?

    Once you though over -what- you want out of having another language present, choosing a method will be easier.
     
  3. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Both, although I suppose I could argue that exotism is already handled quite well by the setting as well. There are even more reasons for adding the second language in the story I am working on at the moment, and the primary one is to provide authenticity.
     
  4. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Autencity was a good one.

    Another alternative used in Terry Pratchett book "Nation" who focused on a language as a barrier for the first part of the book was to not write out the forgin language at all.

    When writing for a character who don't understand the language at all.

    If I were you I would try the different method writing mini scenes and get a feel for whats fits you story and you style of writing best.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    using footnotes is not a good idea for fiction... nor is tossing in large chunks of a foreign language... and constant repeating of the dialog in foreign tongue, then english is also annoying as bleep...

    fiction readers don't want to have the flow of the story interrupted by their having to figure out what's being said... the optimum choice is to use foreign words very sparely and just indicate when a character is speaking in other than english, rather than use the actual language, which you'll probably not get right, anyway...
     
  6. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    Yes, I've noticed that in many books, particularly when Russian or German are being "used". I will get it right. ;) That's the whole point. :) But I do understand your other points. I will keep on experimenting with different styles, and see what I like in the end. It may be a mix.
     
  7. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    Yeah, I'm having the same problem.

    In my novel there is an Englishman, a Scot, a Brazilian, two Americans and several Dutch. I'm writing in English and the MC was born in London, so most of it is just plain English. There's so many foreign people in Holland that I didn't think it would feel strange to put several nationalities in the same setting.

    Most of the time I just mention that someone is talking in other language, but sometimes I add a foreign word here or there. When it adds to the scene, I put a whole sentence in the foreing language or demonstrate that the character didn't understand what was said.

    About differentiating the speech, I swich between American and British English when appropriated and, when it comes to the Brazilian character, I add some mistakes Portuguese speaking people often make.

    I think that adding tag lines may become tiring if overused. Interuptions in the speech makes me want to drop the book. But that's my opinion. To each to his or her own, right?*

    I know what you mean when you say that Frenchmen just don't speak like Englishmen. If your book is being written in English, you should stick to it's rules. If it's the former, do the same. After all, in a dialogue people have to stick to one language if they want to communicate, right? Even if the Frenchman doesn't speak in a certain way, or use a certain expression in his everyday life, he'll do his best to say things right and be clear in the foreign language he is communicating with.

    Here's an exemple of what I do:
    There's a scene in my book where the Brazilian character says she hasn't been born in a golden crib. That's a rough translation of an expression people use frequently in Brazil. So that the reader understands what she meant to say, the American person talking to her makes a correction "Golden crib? Oh… you mean you weren’t born with a silver spoon on your mouth, right?"

    I hope I've helped a little :) Good luck.

    * See? I've used an expression that just doesn't exist in my language, but you understood, right?
     
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  8. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    Hey, what about POV?

    I think POV is a really important factor in making these decisions. To me, it goes like this: the reader is meant to identify with the POV character. The reader speaks (in this case) English. So, things the POV character understands are rendered as what the reader understands: in this case, English.

    An example: suppose your book has two POV characters you switch between. Character A speaks only English, Character B speaks English, German and Italian. English, German, French and Italian are all spoken in the novel.

    - When we're in Character A's head, he doesn't understand any of the other languages, so they're rendered either as "They began to speak rapidly in Italian" or "Wass ist?" or whatever. (I prefer direct use of the foreign language for short phrases, summary for long.)

    - When we're in Character B's head, Italian and German are rendered as English, but French is rendered as above (since he doesn't understand it.)

    In a situation where I'm rendering a foreign language as English, I like to use small telltales. I'll mention at the beginning of a conversation what language it's in, but I won't vary the syntax to make the English sound more like German or whatever, I save that for when a German character is speaking less-than-perfect English. Instead I'll do option 3 that the OP mentioned--sticking in a word in the original language here and there--and also render titles (like Mr.) in the original language. So, if Character B is talking with a guy named Spinelli in Italian, he calls him Signor Spinelli, but when he talks *about* him in German, he calls him Herr Spinelli.

    It got really complicated in my first novel, actually. The whole thing took place in France, so I was rendering French as English basically the whole time. Then a couple of characters (who were both POV characters) arrived who didn't speak French but spoke German, Yiddish and Italian; there were a couple people in my MC's hometown one of whom spoke German and the other Italian, so the new characters were able to communicate that way. It was a LOT of juggling. Sometimes I had all the characters in a room together and wow.

    A note on the use of random French words when rendering French as English, etc. The method I like to use goes beyond just sticking in "Bonjour" or "merci". I grew up in France, and what happens is, there are certain words in one language that don't translate well into another. For instance there's a particular type of schoolbag called a "cartable" that all French school kids use. You could say "backpack" or "satchel" but it doesn't look like either of those at all... (It actually kind of looks like someone stuck a briefcase on some poor kid's back!) So as American/French school kids, my brother and I got in the habit of calling it a "cartable" (said with a French accent) even in English. American English/Spanish speakers can probably identify with this kind of thing, I'm pretty sure I've heard them do it too.

    So, that's what I do when I'm rendering French as English. Things that don't translate well into English become French words that are explained to the reader directly or through context: things like "cartable" but also nicknames, local plant names, a pejorative racial term that becomes important to the plot... etc.

    BTW the example above about "being born in a golden crib" is also very good. In fact the whole post is very good, I probably hardly needed to post but wanted to clarify the POV issue. (FictionAddict mentioned it but I missed it at first b/c I was reading quickly!)
     
  9. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    "...there is an Englishman, a Scot, a Brazilian, two Americans and several Dutch. "
    (Can't wait to hear the punchline of that one!)

    I have this very issue of foreign language in the ms I have just begun shopping between English and Spanish. How I generally handled it, with few rare exceptions, was to open with a few words of Spanish, which were either translated via narrative or conversation or were generally familiar and common to most non-Spanish speaking persons, then followed with something like, "he continued in her language," or "they continued in Spanish," or something of that nature to indicate the conversation was carried on in the second language. This worked well for my needs in this particular book.

    In the Martin Cruz Smith, Arkady Renko series - the best known of the collection being turned into the movie Gorky Park - there was little mention of the fact that the dialog was in Russian. It was merely presented to the reader and only alluded to if the language changed to English or German or some other second language besides Russian.
     
  10. lost123
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    lost123 Senior Member

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    Sometimes I find foreign books,translated to English, are incomprehensible.The best way to translate a foreign book is to rewrite it in English way.


    Anyway, you can understand a foreign book if you were from the country that the book is about.
     
  11. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    Lol. :D
     
  12. SeverinR
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    SeverinR Contributing Member

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    I think how you write the conversation should depend on your foriegn language skills.
    If you can't converse in the language, it will be very hard to fake it to readers. You can find the phrase translators, so it can be done.

    If the point of view is from a person that does not speak the foriegn language, then what they say would not make sense to that person. So for the reader to understand, we would have to grant them that knowledge.

    Foriegn language is tough. If English speaking people don't understand it, think of a person that learned English as a second language. They tend to say things differently then a person that has English as a first language.
    Some tend to think that is a sign of ignorance, but its just apart of learning the language.

    For my books, if they speak a different language, I put english "subtitles" just after the phrase.

    example: "Man eneth lín?"(what is your name?) If someone can understand the words, they can read them, if not, then they see the weird words and know that the person is speaking another language and skips to the translation.
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that would be extremely annoying to me as a reader, thus unacceptable to me as an agent or editor...

    so i wouldn't buy/read the book in the first instance, or rep/publish it till that was remedied, in the second...
     
  14. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    While discussing this whole point of foreign languages with my wife, she mentioned that many of the Russian classics have a lot of French dialogue in them, with the translation offered as a footnote. I then remembered reading lots of French in Dostoyevsky's works. At the time (1800s), as you may know, French was very popular in the upper levels of society all over Europe, and frequently spoken instead of the native language. Dostoyevsky probably assumed that his readers would be able to understand without problems. This is close to the solution I have (or had) in mind, though possibly the languages I am using will not be quite so well known to most readers.

    I am now also contemplating the opposite - putting the translation in the text and the original as a footnote. However, I am still not fully happy with any of the solutions so far, apart from mixing them all, which is inconsistent and therefore again not entirely satisfactory.
     
  15. SeverinR
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    SeverinR Contributing Member

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    I wouldn't read a book where I have to hold my place on the page to look down to see what was said, then move back. That would distract from the flow. Well, maybe one or two times, but not a whole conversation.

    Mammamia: were you commenting on my post?
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes, i was...

    no offense intended, but i doubt that would fly with agents/editors/publishers, as well as readers/bookbuyers...

    however, i do agree with you on the footnotes issue...
     
  17. mtvester
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    mtvester New Member

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    I would avoid inserting sentences and even words (unless they're common knowledge even in anglophonic countries) in a foreign language. The obvious reason is that unless you actually know that language, you'll probably either (A) get it wrong, or (B) create confusion.
    I've read too many books (written in English) with random Italian/German/Spanish/Russian words and phrases that do not fit in. Most of the time it's because the writer doesn't actually know the language s/he wants to use in some parts of the novel... For example the Italian term "al fresco" does NOT mean "outside" (well, maybe in America it does, but the term still remains in Italian!). It means "in cool temperature" or "in jail"...
    If you decide to use a foreign language, be careful! Otherwise it will just be ridiculous and most often completely unnecessary. ;)
     
  18. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    I use this method. Simple words. Simple sentences in known languages as German, Spanish, Italian and French are acceptable, I think. Often the sentences are more or less self-explaining. [“Ja, Vater, Ich bin hier,” she replied] always anybody can figure out, even if they don't speak German. I make the foreign words italic. The danger is that you use the foreign wording wrongly, but as a flavor to the text I guess it may work. But as some said here, indeed I use it frugally.

    PS: Nice nick. Reminds me of pigs....
     
  19. ArckAngel
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    Well it depends, can your main character understand the language? If not it may be good just to leave it unknown to the reader as well. I'm writing about my time in China right now, and I don't know Chinese (though I'm learning) so the first few months I'll have pinyin of Chinese (written with English alphabet) about what I think they might have been saying when I first got here, however it's mostly used to alienate the reader in the same sense it was used to Alienate me.

    It will be like a bond with my character and the reader. We both don't know what the hell is going on.
     
  20. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    This solution worked back in the 1800 because entertainment for people of that era was mostly reading. They spent loads of time doing it, therefore didn't have a problem going back and forth between the main text and the footnotes.

    Keep in mind that your novel will be released in the 21st century. It'll compete with internet, tv, viodeogames... Things that makes reading difficult, time spending, tend to have few audience. I'm not saying nobody would read it, but the main thing you have to bear in mind is your public. Are you talking to teenagers? Are you talking to midle-aged people? Do you know what I mean?

    Think about it: how many people read Dostoyevsky today? Do you think your readers would be the same as the ones who enjoy Dostoyevsky? If so, then you'd be fine with the footnotes, I guess.

    I don't think that mixing them all is inconsistent. Mixing them all is dynamic. You're not writing a mathematical theorem, are you? Repetitions tend to tire people. But, again, you have to think about your readers.

    What do you think your readers would like best? ;)
     
  21. Porcupine
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    Porcupine Contributing Member

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    @mtvester: I fully agree, that is why I opened this discussion, to get a feel for what others like, expect, and hate.

    @FictionAddict: I like the point about it being dynamic. ;) Thanks for the encouragement.
     

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