1. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not understood speech

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by spklvr, Apr 3, 2012.

    I’m writing about a character who has a poor grasp of the English language. He speaks Italian (written in English), but is taken to an English speaking country where he doesn’t quite understand everything being said. I was thinking writing words he doesn’t understand like this: “You use the ---- for ---- and ----. Do you understand?” I thought of doing it like that because him not understanding is sometimes vital to the plot, and the reader knowing what is being said ruins the joke/suspense.

    Is that a bad idea? It won’t be happening often (mostly in the first chapters before his English is improved), but I’m worried it can still be perceived as somewhat annoying. Does anyone have better ideas?
     
  2. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese Contributing Member

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    Hi spklvr,

    I'm not sure that'd be such a good idea. I don't know about others, but I'd have a hard time taking that seriously, and my mind would keep nagging me about the dashes in the conversation. Of course, this is only my opinion. I would find it mildly unconventional and silly.

    My suggestion is to just use the words in the conversation, and then show the reader that your character didn't really understand. After all, he can hear the words, just not understand them.

    Good luck!
     
  3. Cyberdark
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    Cyberdark Member

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    I think if you played it up for the comedy aspect of it and introduced the scenes in which this happened, it could work fine. I would even make the dashes correspond with the letters, and leave it to the reader to try and figure out what the character is supposed to be hearing. I think, if not over done, it could add some more fun to the reading experience. Almost like solving a riddle, just try to set up the situations properly so they have some chance of figuring out what's what.
     
  4. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    Can't you get round it by using the narrative to block out any words you don't want the reader to know?

    i.e.

    "You use the..." Peter said a word Giuseppe didn't understand. The following explanation that went right over his head too. "...and that's how you do it. Understand?" Peter finished, smiling encouragement at him.

    Giuseppe nodded. As soon as Peter left he frantically dug out his phrasebook.


    You could do that for a while, but if you're doing it all the time it would get annoying.
     
  5. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    Have you thought about the character misinterpreting what is being said to him. IE:

    "Can you get me a burger with pickles and mustard."

    The character would hear:

    "Can you get me a burger with nickles and bus turds."

    Have you though about putting misinterpreted words in italics?

    My other piece of advice is don't overuse this literary technique you have created... Same can be said for all literary techniques now that I think about it.
     
  6. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    When I moved to an English speaking country I had trouble understanding lots of words, I heard them sort of like gibberish. I'd mishear something and, as I was in lectures at the time, I wrote notes and then would go home, and using a textbook, I'd correct my notes. Around 30% of the words were wrong, but my course used a lot of latin words pronounced in an English manner, so the confusion was much higher. Normally, I'd have most trouble listening to local people speak to me on the phone, and the easiest was watching the news programmes where anchor people spoke in clear British English.

    So I can relate to what you are describing. If you want to do it, it might be better to misspell or twist the known words until the character learns them. Personally, I don't think clever "mishearing" such as substituting the said word for another valid English word, is at all realistic. It might be how an English speaker would negotiate this problem, but this is only because they are limited by their own language. No, a stranger most often hears gibberish, the brain tries to make sense of the word but it comes up with something that sounds like a word but it means nothing. Be mindful of what your character's mother tongue is, as that will colour his perception, ie. the gibberish he hears will sort of remind of his native language a bit (a Russian hears strange words differently from a Spaniard, for example, because their brains are conditioned to different sounds and combinations of sounds). But I can imagine that too much of that can be tiring for the reader. Perhaps minimise the dialogue time where he is speaking to people he can't understand, instead show him phase out and internal monologue about how embarrassing or stupid or frustrating it is. Have him observe body language quite a lot, in order to help him understand the gist of what they are telling hum, and likewise, have him use a lot of gesticulations and body language to make himself understood.

    Being in a country whose language you don't speak very well is a strange experience. Foreign words don't really have a full meaning. For example the word "bread". In my language the word is "hleb" and to me it evokes the smell, the taste, the crust, the sweetness, everything. The word "bread" for a long time tasted like cardboard cut out. I knew what it meant, but eating "bread" was not a pleasant experience, my appetite was lacking and I would regularly tear up. And this was true for all the words that didn't resemble the ones in my mother tongue. Also, I often tried to anglicise the words from my language hoping to be understood.

    You can imagine how this can distance us from personal relationships like friendships or even lovers, with the people whose language we don't speak. Their words sounded fake, false, they filled me with distrust and I just couldn't bear to be in a company of "strangers" too much, even though, paradoxically, I was the stranger.
    I cried a lot for a few years. And then, eventually, I absorbed the language and it all sorted itself out, but it took good few years to fit in. For me it took 5, because I was young and I knew the language reasonably well to start with, but for some people it can take even longer, or never happen.
    Being a stranger is a peculiar experience, and good for you for tackling it. Best of luck with your book :)
     
  7. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    Don't overuse anything. The question is, when is it overuse?
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    all those dashes would make no sense to me whatsoever... and would be annoying as bleep... i doubt you'd get anything like that past an agent or editor... certainly not this editor...
     
  9. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    That depends, some literary techniques should only be used once (I'm thinking red herrings). Its important for a writer to have a large bag of tricks so things don't get repetitive, or predictable.
     
  10. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not attached to the dashes in any way. There might be some more grammatical way of doing it. I actually just used the dashes as an example. I haven't decided how to do it yet.

    jazzabel gets my point though. One of the reasons why I thought of doing it that way was how I experienced living in Germany. I knew a decent amount of German, but sometimes they would say a word I'd never heard before and I couldn't comprehend, which threw me off completely. I'd never be able to repeat it even though Norwegian and German are very similar languages. Like said, it was just gibberish. But how would I go about writing it as gibberish, I wonder. Just omitting the word felt the most natural and unobtrusive to me, rather than interrupting the speech with narrative.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Better to paraphrase what the character heard, rather than try to quote a spattering of fragments.

     

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