1. Tolsof
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    Tolsof Member

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    Using other languages in a novel

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Tolsof, Sep 26, 2012.

    I want to use another language (French to be exact) in the novel that I'm working on, the idea being that it will be a mixture between English and French, French being the official language of the society but English still being prevelent within lower classes.
    Is this a bad thing to do... I want to make this an important part of the story/history along with influences from other cultures but don't want it to be confusing or impossible.

    On the same subject, you are not supposed to make posts in languages other then English, but if my story has french in it is it ok to post or am I not allowed to?
    Thanks guys
     
  2. DanesDarkLand
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    DanesDarkLand Senior Member

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    The only thing i can say is - Remember your audience. If your readership is primarily English reading, your primary language should be English. Fantasy frequently uses fantasy language, but there are some basic guidelines when using it. Don't use too much or you'll lose the reader and not convey the idea. If the language used is the only one being spoken at the time, make it seem like they are speaking in the foreign or higher tongue, but still use English or you will lose your reader.

    Everything hinges on the reader. If you are targeting people who speak both languages, even then there are probably conventions to take account of. Check how Tolkien pulled it off. He wrote some passages in Elvish, but most in English. Its truly a balancing act.
     
  3. dragonflie123
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    dragonflie123 Member

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    I think it is fine to write a book in both french and English, but do it elegantly. and not randomly (i've read some books like that), I suggest if there is any dialogue it be in all one language, because even if you don't understand the other language being used, looking at the dialogue can give the reader an idea of what is going on. I do not know about posting in French though, e-mail one of the moderators.
     
  4. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't speak French, and find it a bit annoying when I'm reading a book which includes French phrases and sayings without a translation. Maybe it's my fault for not knowing French.
     
  5. lachesis77
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    lachesis77 Member

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    I would also add that, if you're going to include bits of story or dialogue in another language, you should make sure that what is written in that other language is of the same quality as the rest of your writing in regards to grammar, spelling, and syntax. If you yourself do not have a basic grasp of the other language, ask someone who does to translate for you. Google Translate is not your friend in this case. There's nothing more annoying to a reader who is fluent in both languages than to see horrible translations into the secondary language, and more often than not machine translations will be quite awful.
     
  6. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you are not aiming at primarily bilingual readers, be sure to add some sort of translation (footnotes, endnotes, commentaries, whatever). Be good to your readers and don't make them use a dictionary!
     
  7. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Seconded. A story might be actually pretty good, but if your translation is bad, then the readers who know better will think badly of it, no matter what - at best, they'd think it's funny, in a bad way.


    As others have said, using othe rlanguages really depends on your audience. It also depends on the point of your novel, too. If your novel, for instance, depicts French as an official language, and English as a "lower-class" language, then you might have a scene where the POV character, a "lower-class" English speaker, is trapped in a situation where he's with a lot of "upper-class" French-speaking folks, and in that scene, you might use a lot of French dialogue that the reader doesn't undrstand - in this case it might be justified, because it'll help the reader get a sense of the confusion the English-speaker might be feeling (though you don't want to overdo it, of course).

    In one of my story ideas, I have a contrast between two second-generation Asian-American "twins" - they actually have different fathers but the same mother; anyhow, the brother's fluency in Vietnamese isn't as good as in sister. While I haven't really worked on this story yet, I intend to make sure more of the Vietnamese dialogue comes from the sister, and that more Vietnamese dialogue appears when the sister is dominating the scene (which makes sense since she's beter at speaking in), in comparison to the the brother to emphasize the superficial differences in cultural assimilation between the two. Even then, this will just be limited to some small sentences and phrases.

    So basically it all boils down to what you want to do for the story and what will work for the reader. Don't put in foreign speech just because. Make sure it serves a purpose, whether it is to add to a sense of confusion, to show the readers the foreign nature of the setting or situation, to distinguish between characters, and so on.
     
  8. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    Personally, I hate it when I'm reading something and I feel like I'm missing half of what is going on because it's in a language I don't understand. The written word does no good if the reader can't understand it.

    That being said, if done in moderation--with your audience in mind--it can do a lot for adding atmosphere to a story. You should try to make the meaning clear from the context if a translation isn't provided though. It's no fun to feel like you're missing a plot point because it's in a different language.
     
  9. Daggers
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    Daggers Member

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    I wrote this out before but hit the wrong button and it poofed...anyway, here goes again.

    I've only ever encountered random foreign language on two instances off the top of my head. One of them is a novel and one of them is a TV show. Can you guess which one worked and which one didn't?

    The novel I can't quite remember the name of it, or who wrote it. What I can tell you is that I never finished it. The author used random Japanese nouns and such very often and it irritated me. I should praise him for having the frame of mind to provide an English translation in brackets after each use of Japanese. However this begs the question, what is the point? If you're going to give us the English anyway, all you're doing is showing off that you know Japanese/know how to use a Japanese-English dictionary to great effect.

    On a slightly related note, for those interested. This isn't the main reason why I stopped reading. One of my pet hates is when an author rams their opinions and beliefs down the readers throat through the story they tell. Or, in this case, the dystopian future they created which they explained came about by a far fetched sequence of events that sound to me a lot like they fell straight out of an extreme right-wing conservative's worst nightmare.

    The other use of a foreign language that I can remember off the top of my head is in Joss Whedon's Firefly. Often the characters would blurt out some Chinese, it is likely that they are swearing/cursing. This, in my opinion worked. The reason being that we don't need to know what exactly they are saying, we don't need a translator, or subtitles because we can understand the gist of what they are trying to say through their mannerisms and tone. Personally I thought it was a great touch and added a lot. I'm not sure how well it would work in prose though.
     
  10. Tolsof
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    Tolsof Member

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    Ok thanks for the help. I trust the grammar will be correct due to the fact that I am learning french currently and my family is hosting an exchange student who's first language is french. There should not be much use of french and usage will be consistent. Main use will be through formal totals of events and certain phrases that have "trickled" down into the English language. Based off of your comments I think that it will work out just fine...
    And I planned on putting translations in the back just in case :)
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    That would be just plain annoying.

    Any foreign language inserted into a novel, unless it is a widely known expression among English-speaking readers, should either be nonessential to the story or easy for the reader to understand from the context.

    Example 1: common usage among English speakers.
    Example 2: Incidental to story, just there for color.
    Example 3: Meaning clear from context. The exact meaning is unimportant, the total contempt is the real message.
     
  12. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    As others have said already, it should make sense in the storytelling and it should have the audience in mind.

    But if you get all this sorted out, by all means, go ahead! I've recently read a book that was truly bilingual (almost half and half), the mixing of languages was a part of the story and it was fun to read. Most of it was written in first person POV, the protagonist telling the story in her language, but she is travelling through a country where people use a different one, and she even pretends to be local. So for the most part you get the descriptions in one language and dialogues in another. Pretty weird, but I got used to it unexpectedly easily and the resulting mixture was hilarious.

    Of course it might be just because I'm weird, I know that some people were put off by the book even if they could read both the languages. Something like this isn't likely to become a bestseller, but I'm glad it exists.
     
  13. reviloennik
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    reviloennik Member

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    If you're just learning a language, I would suggest not to use it in your writing. You have to be fluent to use another language well, or it will either just be a gimmick, if your readers don't know the language and purely rely on your translations, or it will sound horrible to those readers who do speak the language.

    I find the best way to use a foreign language is to insert only the odd word or couple of words which make complete sense in the context, if you don't speak the language yourself.

    To me the TV series Firefly does it well, using Chinese swear words. You don't need translations, because everyone will know that it's a swear word from the context. At the same time Firefly doesn't need to bleep anything out, because the audience doesn't speak Chinese. Two problems solved in one.
     
  14. Les Zeppelin
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    Les Zeppelin New Member

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    There's precedent in all literature. I'd suggest searching out writers that have used this technique before. The one that springs immediately to mind is Cormac McCarthy, who uses huge chunks of untranslated Spanish in a lot of his work.

    The thing is, he's not doing it to show off; he's using it to set the tone and place of his story in a very naturalistic way. If you think you can fit the secondary language in naturally (and perfectly translated!), the fact that you are using two languages should appear organically on the page anyway. Hopefully, your readers will be too engrossed in the story to notice this literary device.

    Good luck!
     
  15. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fact is, McCarthy doesn't translate, he is fluent in Spanish...
     

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