1. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Changing between the characters' languages?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by spklvr, Nov 29, 2010.

    In my story, there are several Asian characters working in the US for various reasons. What I'm having trouble with is explaining when they speak what language, without it sounding weird or awkward. Any advice on how to do this?

    Edit: I will be writing in English. I meant describing it through narration, and this is what I'm having troubles with. It often feels awkward when I explain.
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Go light on the use of languages other than English in a work that is written in English. I just finished China Mountain Zhang a few weeks ago, a novel with predominantly Asian characters, and even in this work the Mandarin used was only sparing.
     
  3. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Wreybies is right. To your readers, large chunks of text in a language they probably don't understand, will be nothing but off-putting. I find that for the most part, writing dialogue in English, and making clear through narration that they are speaking another language, and only use that language directly for a very few key words, if you have to.
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would just do it for the first chapter or so - let the reader know in certain circumstances they speak another language.

    Then let the reader decide for themselves - except when it is a situation you wouldn't expect.
     
  5. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Don't explain too heavily - a note here and there should be enough, or even a "he always spoke in [language] to her when they were alone together" so that you never need to clarify unless there's a reason he'd suddenly speak a different one. If you're constructing a more complex scene where you have 3 or more characters and 1 doesn't speak the language, then you will have to throw in a few more words about it, but generally if you establish that 2 of the characters are speaking in their own tongue despite English Guy's presence, then you can probably get away with only pointing out languages every few paragraphs.
     
  6. thesims
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    thesims Member

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    Are you trying to come up with an explanation to their use of the mother tongue? Or an easy way for the reader to determine whether they're speaking English or something else?

    You could use italics to represent a foreign language and avoid confusion. That's not exactly a narrative method but I believe it'd work quite well and prevent excessive repetition.
     
  7. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Whatever you do, don't make it too complicated. Is it essential to the story that you explain they speak their own language? If so, would it be enough to just explain it the one time?
     
  8. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I remember seeing in some places where authors would use, like <these as speech marks> to indicate foreign speaking. Or maybe that was just thoughtspeak in Animorphs. Hmm. It's been a long long time. Generally I see authors in more mature works just handle it well enough that it isn't annoying to read.

    Bottom line is, though, that the reader would rather know what's going on than not, so if that just happens to mean commenting on what language is being spoken quite regularly, better than not doing it.
     
  9. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Just read the short story 'Je Ne Parle Pas Francais' by Katherine Mansfield. It's written entirely in English (with the exception of the titular phrase), but the characters speak both French and English, and it's handled perfectly.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i would strongly advise against using any fancy fontery or symbols, as that would be annoying to most readers... and it isn't at all necessary, if you've explained in the narrative or with a reference within the dialog that something other than english is being spoken by this character or that...
     
  11. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Do it this way and I'll assume they're Japanese since you didn't provide the nationality.

    Eji smiled at Kathy. "Wait one moment," he said, holding a finger up for emphasis. He strode across the room, pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and dialed his girlfriend.
    A few seconds later, his girlfriend responded.
    "Eji-san!" She shouted with glee into Eji's ear. Then she continued in Japanese. "What are you doing tonight?"
    "I'll be working with Kathy and the others on a project," Eji responded, also in Japanese.
    "Awww..." Kamiko sounded dejected. Eji frowned. He didn't like upsetting her. "I wanted to go out with you. See a movie."
    Eji stared at the ceiling, considering his next responses. He wanted to please Kamiko, but this project needed a man with the creative talents, and he was the only one they could get to.
    "I'll see what I can do." he said before kissing the phone and putting it away. He turned to see Kathy flipping through some papers in a file.
    "Miss?" Eji said in English now, "Can we talk about the schedule for a bit?"
    "Sure." Kathy replied.

    If you try to put it in real Japanese language, you'll just throw off the non-Japanese speaking readers. Especially if you have whole pages full of words they're not going to be able to understand. They want to be engrossed in the plot, and the only way to do it is by writing it in a language they'll understand.

    EDIT: You can still play around with the language. For example:

    1) "Baka!" Eji swore as he swerved his car to avoid the speeding SUV. Kathy looked at him with raised eyebrows.
    "He said 'Idiot'." Kamiko helpfully explained from the back seat.

    2) Eji let out a long string of curses in Japanese. Kathy merely watched, thankful she didn't know what he was saying, and that Kamiko wasn't there to translate it for her.

    EDIT: Well, now I suddenly want to write a story about these three people. :D Of course, the plot's gonna be different and all, but you've just got me inspired to write something.
     
  12. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Link beat me to it. :(

    In the dialogue tag or beat make it clear that they are speaking a different language. When the characters go back to english just make it clear.
     
  13. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Glad I inspired you :p
    And those characters seem really far from mine, so go ahead. I think that's pretty much how I'm going to do it as well (and it is what I've been doing so far). I guess it's just my writing that is a bit awkward...
     
  14. JodiW71
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    JodiW71 New Member

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    This is a pertinent question for me, too, as I am writing a novel centered on a Cambodian-American family. I've tried to make it clear from the get-go that the family members speak Khmer (Cambodian) among themselves, and English with other characters (unless otherwise indicated). I've also sprinkled the dialogue with a few Khmer words--forms of address and affectionate terms that family members would typically use in conversation.
     
  15. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I have Turkish people speaking in my writing, I sometimes translate the phrase into English to give the flavour of the language,
    e.g.
    "It isn't like 'bread money' is easily come by!" thought Fatma.
    or
    "Her mouth wouldn't crack open with a knife!" said Ay┼če.
    Louise stared at her. What on earth could she mean?
    "It's what they say when a person's unhappy, you know, they can't smile,' interpreted Layla, noticing Louise's confusion.
     

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