1. SplashPlane
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    SplashPlane New Member

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    Using a language other than English in your novel.. good idea?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by SplashPlane, Feb 2, 2012.

    In the book I'm now planning, the majority of the action will take place in a country where English is not the native language. Many of the characters will be English-speaking, however (expats), and there will be many times where the main characters will interact with locals in the local tongue.

    I'm still not sure how I want to approach this.. I know the Hemingway approach (in The Sun Also Rises) is basically for the narrator to mention that the conversation is happening in French, though the dialogue is in English. Other authors (David Foster Wallace and even Dan Brown) sometimes have their characters speak in another language. I would like the use (or lack of use) of foreign languages in the book to feel like a natural part of the text. I don't want to disrupt the narrative by always telling the reader the conversation is no longer in English, and I also don't want to barrage the reader with frequent words and phrases in a language they probably don't know.

    I guess my question for you is.. how would you feel if you encountered a book which contained fairly frequent use of foreign language(s)? If the plot was good and you found the work otherwise engaging, would you still continue on with the text or do you think you would eventually get frustrated and set it aside? Ideally, I would like the effect to be intrigue and curiosity, maybe prompting the reader to go to look up some words and try to figure out what's going on. But I know that might be asking a bit much. I'm not talking about paragraphs of dialogue here, only a few sentences here and there or even short conversations. At the very least I would like to generate an interest in the culture, which will be pretty central to the novel.

    I'd appreciate any thoughts on this!
     
  2. jc.
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    jc. Contributing Member

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    Honestly I would probably be frustrated. I would rather just be told that they're speaking in another language than to read something I won't understand. I don't mind words every now and then, but entire sentences or dialogues? I personally wouldn't have the patience for it.
     
  3. Jetshroom
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    Jetshroom Active Member

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    Matthew Reily has used short sentances in foreign languages in some of his books. These instances were used for dramatic effect, relying on the reader to not understand the language. Obviously, if the reader DID understand the language they'd know exactly what was going on, but not knowing the language wasn't necessary as the information would be given in English at a time that better aided suspence.

    That said, I've read a book where the characters are speaking in what I'm told is Scotish English. It's not something I'm familiar with, and it made understanding the conversations extremely difficult.

    Overall, it comes down to how you use it.
     
  4. GillySoose
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    GillySoose Member

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    Well I probably wouldn't mind a word drop or two, maybe even a sentence is some foreign language, but if it's just a dialogue which I can't read then I'll probably just skip over it and hope it'll be translated a bit further on.
     
  5. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would not mind at all, I am bilingual and I love many books that have language other than English weaved through. But if it's overdone it can definitely get distracting.
    I think, leaving names (towns, people, institutions, anything that would illustrate and not distract) is a good tactic. Also, you can decide on a certain word, a greeting, affectionate term for someone, a swearword, and that too can be unique to a specific character, then repeat it throughout the book. That, together with some indication when the communication departs from the norm should be plenty to nicely colour the narrative imo..
    First I'd establish the "norm" with the reader. This would probably be expats speaking in a bit of a mishmash of their native tongue occasionally supplemented with some phrases from the language of the country they are in, when they are speaking to each other, otherwise, they speak in that language to the locals and in pure mother tongue to people back in the home country.
    Then, if they encounter a local or a stranger who talks to them in English, I'd mention that, not the usual state of affairs..
     
  6. Mark_Archibald
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    Mark_Archibald Active Member

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    Cormac McCarthy has a very unorthodox writing style and he used this technique in 'Blood Meridian' with espanol.

    I don't speak Spanish at all, and every chapter has at least two or three lines of Spanish. Some of them are clever in the early stages of the book, but sometimes two characters will have a very brief conversation and I'll have no idea what there saying. And I didn't bother to translate anything I didn't understand.
     
  7. Ziggy Stardust
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    Ziggy Stardust Active Member

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    It completely depends on how you do it, and in what context you're using it. Would have to have a sample of you using it.

    I usually just skip anything that's in a foreign language though. It might as well be gibberish. I get no enjoyment in trying to phonetically spell out words that mean absolutely nothing to me (unless it's for comedic effect, obviously).
     
  8. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    I would recommend you use all three approaches -

    In dialogue exchanges which need to be understood, simply introduce the fact that it is in a different language in the dialogue tag, i.e.

    "President Sarkosy, please keep your big French nose out of British politics," David Cameron said in French with perfect Parisian intonation.

    If your characters are using regional dialect or words for which there is no English equivalent, you can keep those words in the original language, but just ensure they are understandable from the context. This can also be useful when using terms of endearment or nicknames - I had a Cypriot boyfriend who used to call me Agapi mou (my love), or moro mou (my baby), although he spoke perfect English.

    But in cases where a conversation is taking place in a foreign language that your POV character, and therefore the reader, is not meant to understand, just leave it untranslated, but don't drone on for pages. Just a few lines of untranslated dialogue to show that the conversation is taking place and not being understood is enough.
     
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  9. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    Some authors do this for short phrases, but then they explain in English too. If there were large sections in another language and no interpretation, I would feel I'm missing part of the story and put it down. Aren't you trying to communicate a story to a reader? What's the point if the reader cannot understand? I think that's more important than trying to capture the feeling of being in that country.
     
  10. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The reader can thus infer that Cameron's words have a greater impact on Sarkosy because they are spoken in his language.

    I also sometimes do this for names of prepared foods or holiday celebrations. For example, I wrote a story about an American boy who becomes friends with a Cuban girl and is invited to her family's Christmas Eve festivities but called it "Noche Buena" not only to put it in the context of a different language, but also a different culture with a different approach to the celebration. They had yuca con mojo. When they all went to Midnight Mass, I referred to it as Misa del Gallo. For desert, they had bunuelos. In the case of the foods, I usually added a brief description.

    Yes. In such a case, the sense of the character not understanding is more important than whatever is being said.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it all depends on the skill of the writer and how it's done... i've read many novels where there was a significant amount of foreign language worked into the dialog and some have worked ok for me and some have been a major annoyance...

    i suggest you do your homework and check out how the best writers have handled this kind of thing... you'll find a variety of methods and most likely come up with something that works well for you...
     
  12. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    The novel Away From Home by Rona Jaffe portrays a group of Americans living in Brazil. She tells us which characters speak Portuguese, and that they speak Portuguese when they encounter native Brazilians. A few times, she also specifies when they are speaking Portuguese, but for the most part we can assume it because of the precedent she has set up. When Brazilians speak to other Brazilians, we know they are speaking Portuguese unless it is specified they speak English to an American.

    Additionally, there are a few Portuguese words for festivals etc. and the meaning of the words is explained so that the words can be used later throughout the book.

    A couple times, I believe a phrase or sentence was spoken in Portuguese, then translated.

    I found that this worked well. I appreciated that I felt immersed in the culture without having to do any translations myself.
     
  13. SplashPlane
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    SplashPlane New Member

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    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments!

    I'll keep your suggestions in mind while I'm writing.. I agree, it will be a matter of judgement to determine when to use which methods. Really appreciate it (more comments are welcome!)
     
  14. louis1
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    louis1 Contributing Member

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    i'm writing my whole novel in french, so yeah....
     
  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you use a foreign language, it must be there for a purpose. For example I'm reading a book based on Czech history, and in one of the scenes the narrator tells a story about his parents back in the Czech Republic. He dropped in several Czech phrases, but they were all short, with a translation straight afterwards so you know exactly what's been said - and it was there for a purpose. The scene was meant to be foreign and eerie to the reader, and the foreign language gave it just that and conveyed a sense of an unknown world.

    But if you wanna inject foreign languages in just for the sake of it, I say don't. That's just annoying. But if the reader can see a good reason for it, then it'll add to the book rather than be an obstacle.
     
  16. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I write in my own language, but I sprinkle with some words (mostly easy things that everyone knows) in english and even some italian (since one of the characters works as a waitress in an italian restaurant in the beginning of the story and some things like dishes can't be translated without looking ridiculous).
     
  17. fb.
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    fb. New Member

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    Hmm. Good question :)

    If you do it sparingly, I think using foreign language can be a great way to build atmosphere. The meaning of individual words and even short exchanges can be obvious from context.

    Say your protagonist is homeless in Barcelona and spends a few paras building up the courage to beg. She asks someone for money and he snubs her. If her internal monologue was all in English, then the exchange itself could easily be in Spanish. It wouldn't make the scene any less comprehensible, but I think it would add to the atmosphere of being hungry and homeless on La Rambla.

    Otherwise, just the names of places and dishes can do the trick. You can also throw in the odd bit of vocab, in situations where the meaning can be inferred or isn't crucial anyway. In Tesoro's example, you might not know what a particular dish is, but it all contributes to the atmosphere of the Italian restaurant setting.
     
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  18. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the writer has to assume that the reader only knows one language. Having dialogue in a secondary language makes large portions of the book incomprehensible to a large portion of the readers, or at least very cumbersome to read.

    But a sentence here and there in a foreign language can be used for effect. For example, let's say the main character only knows English, and travels to Mexico. Hearing things in Spanish, and not understanding it, is a part of the character's experience. From the character's point of view, the Spanish dialogue IS incomprehensible. By writing it out in Spanish, it becomes incomprehensible for most of the readers too, which puts them closer to your character's point of view.

    On the other hand, if your main character knows Spanish, the Spanish dialogue will make sense to him, so making the dialogue incomprehensible to the reader puts them further away from your character's point of view. In that case, I think it makes more sense to translate the dialogue, like this:

    To keep the "feeling" of a foreign country, it's usually sufficient to put in a foreign word or phrase here and there. For example:

    In this example, the only words we write out in Spanish are the ones the point-of-view character doesn't understand. We also make sure it's clear from context what they mean, so as to not unnecessarily confuse the reader.
     
  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    good advice, but 'gun' in spanish is 'pistola'... so wouldn't 'firearm' be overly formal?... i'm curious, not just nit-picking, since i'm living in a spanish-speaking country and working on improving my espanol...
     
  20. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're probably right, I only know a few words Spanish.
     
  21. Jammy
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    Jammy Member

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    I think Islander got it right.

    great.
     
  22. AndrewH
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    AndrewH New Member

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    Just an example to consider. Robert Jordan sprinkled words of a fictional language throughout his series. After slogging through thirteen books, you become almost fluent in the Old Tongue, without him ever sitting you down and running you through a dictionary. I think using a foreign language subtly and well leads to the same effect - by the time I've finished a novel that uses a sprinkling of, say, Portugese, I should know and understand a certain amount of the Portugese language without ever having felt like I was being lectured to. One thing that often works here is having a character who doesn't understand the language be present, giving you an excuse to provide clarifications and translations to the reader and keep it internally consistent. Just don't overdo it, or it becomes forced.
     
  23. fb.
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    Islander, I think those are good examples of how to build atmosphere with foreign words.

    I think I'd be a little bit more liberal than you, because I think you can (sparingly) use words that the character understands but the reader might not... provided it's not that important what the word means, or it can be inferred from context.

    For instance, say you have an elderly character reminiscing about a handsome Flamenco guitarist, and the time she was his ragazza. The reader might not know what ragazza means (but then, he might not know what Flamenco means!). However, he's unlikely to guess that ragazza means "parole officer" or "sponsor".

    Even if he glosses over ragazza as a nonsense word, the point of the para might just be to create a sense of nostalgia. The fact that the character dated a Spanish guitarist might be less important than the fact that she now daydreams about the past. In that case, it's no great loss if ragazza goes over the reader's head.
     

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