1. John Carlo
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    John Carlo Active Member

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    Foreign language in an English book??

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by John Carlo, Jan 2, 2011.

    Just want to know if anyone has any ideas or even warnings about what I'm about to do. I have a scene where the main character and his wife go to dinner at his mother's house where everyone speaks Italian. I don't want to throw the reader off too much, but I also want to give an authentic vibe to the scene. My idea is that since his wife doesn't speak a lick of Italian, he will whisper the translation of whatever someone just said in her ear throughout the conversation. This way the reader will learn what's being said as well. But I don't know. Any other suggestions??
     
  2. Mister Cheech
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    Mister Cheech Member

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    Read the first fifty or so pages of "Rising Sun" by Michael Crichton, and do it like that.
     
  3. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Having everything said in Italian, and then translated, would get old quick.

    Instead, I would have the family primarily speaking English, then occasionally dipping into Italian for certain words or phrases. This would not only be better, as we could understand stuff through context and also have the tension of them suddenly speaking Italian, so the main character has to wonder what's being said, but it's also simply more realistic. It's called code switching, and unless the family only speaks Italian, chances are they're going to be speaking both English and Italian interchangeably.
     
  4. Ellipse
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    Ellipse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Reading the novel, "Shogun" by James Clavell will also give good examples of what you want. The book is kind of long, but it is an enjoyable read. And likein Rising Sun, you don't really have read more than the first fifty pages to get what you want. :)
     
  5. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Speaking as a reader - That would annoy me. I'd put the book to one side and never look at again. If I wanted to learn Italian, I'd join a class.
    But that's me, others may think different.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    sounds like good advice to me... i'd say follow it!
     
  7. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Like I said before to someone else: Just mention that they're talking in Italian and have the dialouge be in English.

    I once read a book where an entire three pages of conversation was in German with the translations in the back. I closed the book, shelved it, and left it there ever since. I might be a lazy man, but when I read a book, I read a book to be entertained, to be engrossed and suddenly seeing pages of a language I do not have a firm grasp on just throws me off. Did that writer really expect me to enjoy the plot if I have to read one line, then flip to the very end to understand what that character just said and repeat it for three pages?

    Trust me, nothing could throw the reader off more if they're forced to read the book in a language they cannot understand.
     
  8. Ironwil
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    Ironwil Member

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    I don't think you're lazy (at least not because of this). Just as a massage therapist is taught to never completely break touch with a patient or allow unecessary distractions, an author must keep their audience's attention at all times. Having a book require a reader to flip back and forth to the back for several pages isn't a good way to accomplish this. Too much break and the flow will stop altogether.
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I once read a book that was entirely in German, with no translation anywhere. Perhaps you weren't the target reader for that book?
     
  10. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    No, no, it was entirely in English with three pages of German because the English character was talking to a few German friends in their language.

    And I was overly blunt, I did manage to read the book, but it took me a bit to figure out what just happened.

    Should've made that clearer.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I realised that. My point is that mixing languages isn't a problem for people who understand all of the languages being mixed, and those people might prefer it that way. Admittedly, German in an English-language book limits the market rather more than English in a German-language book would, but if the author and publisher feel the market is big enough then fine. Not every book has to appeal to every person.
     
  12. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Here's an interesting example of foreign language use:

    In A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick's main character is losing his mind (the two hemispheres becoming separated and burned out from drug use). One of the ways Dick creates this feeling, aside from writing pure insanity at times, is entire paragraphs/pages in different languages. The effect is very awkward, uncomfortable, disjointing, disconcerting, etc... and works perfectly for what Dick is trying to do.

    He uses the very negative effect on a reader as a positive, but that doesn't mean it would be a good idea for most stories. Most stories, I imagine, the author isn't trying to create empathy for a character in that way. And most writers wouldn't have the balls to do something so, well, ballsy, because the truth is, in general, that kind of 'stunt' would be a big no-no unless you manage to become the exception to the rule and pull it off like a pro.
     
  13. zll
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    zll New Member

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    I've been browsing this site for months, but this is what made me sign up, ha

    One possible idea for this situation is to have the dialogue all in Italian, to the point where the wife doesn't understand anything (except maybe a few things the husband relays- but not too much since it would get old as others have mentions), but put a lot of emphasis into how those within the conversation react to one another.

    For example, let's say a member of the family makes a snide remark about the English-speaking wife- the others might laugh and glance at her, creating an awkward moment in which she may realize their intentions. On the other hand, say they are impressed by an article of clothing or a piece of jewelry she's wearing. They might look at it a lot with an admiring look on their faces.

    It's only an idea, but it could be fun to give it a shot. Also, the husband would really only HAVE to act as a translator whenever someone wants to talk to the wife. Outside of those moments, she could just feel left out for a bit.
     
  14. Angharad Denby-Ashe
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    Angharad Denby-Ashe Member

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    Since the main character speaks Italian, I would say put it in English. Since the reader is expecting his point of view, if he can understand it so should the reader. Now if he didn't I would say put it in Italian. One thing I have often seen done is you could put it in English while leaving the occasional hard to translate word in Italian to remind the reader they are speaking Italian. He could put the occasional word or phrase to his wife, but don't overdo it - he wouldn't stop people around the dinner table so he could figure out an exact translation of every word said by them.
     
  15. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    This is difficult, and the answer differs depending on whose perspective it's from.

    From the wife's perspective, Italian may as well be gibberish. Nobody can grasp the phonetics of a foreign language in general conversation, so writing out what is being said in Italian wouldn't be appropriate, leaving her to depend entirely on what her husband is telling her.

    On the other hand if it's from the husband's POV, you have a few choices:

    - You can have a line-by-line readout of everything being said in Italian, which would necessitate short but precise translations for both the wife and the reader. This technique is used often in books where only a little foreign language is spoken is puts little strain on the audience.
    - You can have the husband's innate understanding of what is being said written out as part of the text body instead of dialogue.
    - Finally, you can simply have what is being said written in English as the MC understands it. This is usually denoted by <something like this>, though I don't know what the industry standard is.
    Given that you're planning a lengthy scene with this kind of thing going on, I think the second option from the husband's POV is the best way to go.
     
  16. UberNoodle
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    UberNoodle Senior Member

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    I almost finished a story (about 20,000 words but then lost interest) set here in Japan. It was about a mixed couple and like most of those here, communication between the two was acheived by equally mixed language. It was enjoyable to choose which langage would best suit different contexts, situations and characters. I handled this in a few ways. I'm just a beginner at this stuff, but it worked for me. I could be wrong, however.

    "SMAP is the greatest boy band ever!"
    He pumped the air with his fist. She was not amused.
    "Chigau," she dismissed, monotone.
    "But, it's true."
    She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
    For moment, he lost the power of speech.
    "How could anybody hate Shingo and Kimutaku?"
    "Urusai kara. Arashi hodo jouzujanainda"
    "They sing beautifully and -- what? They're heaps better than Arashi!"
    He studied her as she took a deep breath and sighed heavenward. How had he ever fallen in love with an Arashi fan?

    Of course, I never went on with a whole conversation like that. It would become irritating to everybody who didn't understand both languages.

    In other cases, a word like "chikan" or phrase like "Shikata ga nai" would be introduced poignently enough that the reader remembers what they mean. I would then use them later to echo that. I would italicise these as well, to make it clear that they were of another language. I didn't do this for proper nouns already imported into English or common enough to be accepted in English text.

    In other cases, when my adorable co-protagonist - the willful Chie - would have an outburst in Japanese, the narration would then translate.

    She screwed up her nose.
    "SMAP, honto ni daikirai!" I really hate SMAP

    At other times, especially when characters were clearly speaking in fluent Japanese, I would use reported speech. Since the foreigner in the mixed couple was the viewpoint, I wanted to maintain a level of exoticism around the Japanese language.

    If it were another story, I might have made it clear that the the characters were speaking in another language but written it in English anyway.

    The story wasn't actually about SMAP and perverts on the train, by the way. I just wrote those examples off the top my head.
     
  17. UberNoodle
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    UberNoodle Senior Member

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    It's a film, but Ghost Dog has those brilliant interactions between the hitman and the icecream truck guy who never once speaks a word of English. The reactions and interplay between them both is marvelous. I've often wondered what those scenes would be like written down.
     
  18. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    I haven't seen the film Ghost Dog, but on screen you have the benefit of the visual aspect of the film to go on - body-language, interaction between the actors and facial expressions. Not to mention the slap-stick element.
    It would take a brilliant writer to be able to write dialogue in alternating languages so that the reader could understand it, let alone enjoy reading it.
     
  19. J_Jammer
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    J_Jammer Banned

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    In comic books they put a * and tell people it's a translation from that to this---and the character speaks in English.

    You could do that. Specify that they are speaking Italian, but show their dialog in English with sprinkles of Italian words.

    You can't do too much or no one will read it.

    Like war parts of books can either describe some of what's going on, but if they went into grave detail about how war was....every detail....not only would they bore the reader....no one would want to be sicken by the descriptions.

    I, personally, love reading a bit of another language in a book...just not entire chunks of conversations.
     

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