1. scout86
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    scout86 New Member

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    Writing short dialogue in another language

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by scout86, Jun 7, 2013.

    Hi there! I'm new to the forum and super excited to discover more about the community!

    I have a pressing question - I am trying to write a personal essay where one of the characters speaks in another language - I want to emphasise the fact that they cannot speak in English but I also want to be able to translate/convey the meaning of the dialogue in English. What is a non-messy way to lay out/render dialogue like this?

    Thanks!

    PS: Any examples online etc would be helpful too.
     
  2. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi scout 86 and welcome.

    In my story I have a French speaker who meets a native French person within a group. He says "Bonjour Madame, ca va?" she replies "Bonsieur Monsieur, bien merci" and then they continue in English. I am hoping just about everyone knows what they are saying while still showing they can both communicate 'in private' while in the group, as they are the only ones who can speak French.

    I think in your case, it depends on the language and how easy it is for non-speakers of that language to understand the scene. Maybe you should throw a scene in here, don't ask for critique, just a little help.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If I understand the question correctly, there are several characters present speaking a language other than English, and one character does not speak it. You want to convey the dialogue to the reader in English while at the same time letting the reader know that the one character does not understand.

    In my current project, I have this come up a lot. There are two ways to deal with it. One is to show the dialogue in the other language first, then translate by way of explanation (e.g. if another character explains to the English-only character). This gets tedious to the reader very quickly, although I, personally, like the idea of momentarily discomfiting the reader by putting her/him in the position of not understanding. In my novel, I tend to do this only for a single sentence, maybe two, and even then very sparingly. The other way is to simply depict the dialogue in English, and then show the English-only character's reaction at not understanding what is being said. James Clavell did this in Shogun, and used the steadily decreasing reliance on translating to show John Blackthorne's increasing familiarity with the Japanese language.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the first question that needs to be asked, imo, is why is there so much and that kind of [or any] dialog and 'characters' in a 'personal essay'?
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Ah! And that is why you are the nit-picker-in-chief. That one sailed right by me.
     
  6. Anthony Martin
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    Anthony Martin Active Member

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    One way to do this is with sparse use of short phrases in the non-English language coupled with body language and movement described in a way that conveys meaning, mood of the character. For example:

    Marcel was looking a little lost, a little uncomfortable as the playful banter picked up between Carter, Sweeny and I. When the waitress came by with our drinks, Marcel said, "Merci" quietly and then retreated quietly into the safety of his cold ale.
     
  7. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that I'm fortunate in knowing a language that doesn't use roman lettters and hence looks 'exotic'. But I must admit I haven't thought of a use for it in fiction yet.
     
  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Description is going to be your friend in this, not displays of words that are just letter-salad to the reader. I'm a trained, professional interpreter and translator. My job is to help people understand what another person wants or needs them to understand or what they themselves wish to understand. For your reader to understand what you mean, they need to understand what they are reading. Foreign words that hold no meaning are just empty shells. Your reader isn't even going to bother to "read" them because the code is meaningless.
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Which is why I suggest using the presentation of foreign language dialogue only for the purpose of putting the reader momentarily in the position of not understanding - to experience what the character experiences - but then make it clear what is being said. A brief example of what I mean (in which Rosa and her parents speak both English and Spanish but Kevin, the narrator only speaks English):

    Tú debe decirle sobre el capitán,” he [Rosa's father] said to her [Rosa's mother].
    “What captain?” Rosa asked.
    “He wasn’t really a captain,” she replied as her husband walked away, chuckling. “He was an officer on a ship. He was the first member of my family to come from Spain to the New World and settle. In our family, we have always called him El Capitán.”

    The sentence in Spanish is, "You should tell them about the Captain." But if the reader can't read that, it isn't especially important, and (s)he has to deduce what has been said, just as Kevin does.
     
  10. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Agreed in full. If it is to be used, the reader bust be brought into the loop, else you've lost the reader and that's never a good end. ;)
     
  11. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    And that is the first thing that struck me. I was doing okay with the "short dialog in another language" until I got to the "personal essay" part and I stumbled over that wondering, "how does that fit together?" Still trying to figure out if this is a personal essay in the sense that it is about the person writing or merely that the author is writing an essay.

    NOTE: Scout, if this is not a fictional essay (which possibly may better be described as short fiction or flash fiction) then describing what someone says is easy. You simply say, "he said/she said".
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    scout...

    if you give us a better idea of what it is you're writing and why, we can tell if it's actually a 'personal essay' or not and then be able to give you valid advice...

    at this point, the advice you're being given is for fiction [short story or novel]...
     
  13. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe you could.... write the dialogue in language X and then put translation in footnotes? :D

    (Don't kill me for writing this, I'm terribly old fashioned :p)
     
  14. Senko
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    Senko Member

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    What Burlbird said makes sense to me.

    At least, if you don´t want to modify the way in which you are writing your story,
    I think that it should work.

    Let´s say the reader does understand what´s been written in that other language.

    Then, he(she) just keeps reading. For readers that don´t get it, if it´s important to understand, then, the footnote translation would really be helpful.

    I know it might not be a common practice. But I remmember having seen it somewhere in a novel, and really didn´t bother me.
     
  15. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Take any normal edition of War and Peace, for example, where huge chunks of doalogue are in French.
    Of corse, the original reader od Tolstoy's work was expected to speak French - and Leo didn't cae much for those who didn't ;)
    But nowadays, as I understand, most people would tell you not to use footnotes because: a) they "break the natural flow of the story etc"; and b) they look to academic' and you don't want to scare off your reader (!?)
     
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  16. Anthony Martin
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    Anthony Martin Active Member

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    Exactly right
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    A classic example of why citing great writers of the past is not necessarily a reliable method for guiding current practice.

    I would say "A" is a much more accurate reason than "B". One rarely sees footnotes in fiction these days, and usually only in translated works or revivals of works from another era, where explanations of words or references to events are needed because they are no longer commonly understood.
     
  18. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    think I explained it in the next paragraph

    Q: what is the exact age when a book becomes a "work of another era"? is it a completely arbitrary age (39 years 2 months), is it subjective (as in: I am a man from another age), is it a personal issue (anything published before me) or is there a relevant (academic or industry-related) reference?
     
  19. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Silly question.
     
  20. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm serious (it's the <bear being cynical) - I don't see anything obvious in the claim that all books and literary techniques necesseraly become "dated" or can suddenly be labeled as being "from another age". No literary (or why not go further: no cultural) continuum would exist if that claim is taken for granted.
     
  21. ChaosReigns
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    ChaosReigns Be Still and Know Contributor

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    Going to put this in, Write the thing, then have a Translations part at the end. Christopher Paolini did this for his Inheritance cycle, by in which each book had its own language section at the back with all the translations of each language in the back
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Did I say "all"? No.

    But some clearly do. Topical references do not stay forever in current usage, and various usages of language die out, which is why these explanatory footnotes appear in revived works of people like Anthony Trollope and Cirilo Villaverde (to name two I have seen recently). I have no doubt that at some point in the future, revivals of books currently extant may need to be footnoted for certain references.
     
  23. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Did I say "all"? I meant "any" :D

    Again, ^that was a serious question, the whole historical, contemporary vs past etc question. I was baffled, to put it mildly, by your comment about -
    - a propos Tolstoy. It was not his practice to use footnotes for translation - as you know - his readers were fluent in both French and Russian (and German, and Latin, and Old Slavic, and English) or so he thought. [[Nowadays a noob writer gets advice to "go easy" on "exotic, strange and unusual words" because his readers might need a thesaurus. "Don't want to look like a smart-ass" is the single greatest advice I've read lately. ]]
     
  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    You appear to have answered your own question.
     
  25. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Bret Easton Ellis's Rules of Attraction had an entire chapter in French. Kudos to him and his publisher that they dared put it out there without going like "eek, but that might force people to think" because the chapter made sense in the novel's context. There was some character in France, I think, who dated a French guy or something...

    T.Trian and I write together, and our current WIP takes place in a very international environment, so a number of different languages are spoken, but there's no dialogue in non-English per se, just some expressions or curse words sprinkled about for effect, plus the MC speaks slightly broken English which has really divided opinions; she isn't a chatterbox, and our beta readers have liked or been neutral about it. However, when we posted some excerpts to another I daresay teeny bit elitist forum, they hated it with vigor :D

    I personally like it when the author showcases their proficiency in other languages than English, as was the case with Ellis. If the novel is good, I don't mind going the extra mile and googling the crap out of the words I don't understand.

    I'm slightly less forgiving when it comes to made up languages. Maybe because there are other uses to learning new words in an existing language (like if you end up traveling to that country), but the made-up language is only useful when reading the novel... or in cons.
     

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