Thursday, February 12, 2009

Q & A 168

When writing a novel, and the character is talking in a foreign language, but you write it in English so the reader understands it, is there another form of mark to use besides the traditional quotation marks to indicate that the words being spoken are in fact another language besides the English being read? Something like (^) for instance?

Example:
Speaking his native Spanish, Jose said, ^Please don't do that.^

Or do you simply make it clear in the prose that the words being spoken are in another language, and use regular quotation marks?


You can do it like your sample, but with quotation marks. It's a bit cumbersome, so you might try:

Jose said, "Por favor, no hagas eso."

Jim replied, "Okay, I'll stop doing that."

We have to figure out what Jose said from the context. Unless we know Spanish.


What's the setting? If they're in Spain, it should go:

Jose: Por favor, no hagas eso.

Jim: Sorry, I don't speak whatever language that was.

Jose: American, eh? I said, stop urinating on my shoes.

Once it's established that Jose speaks English, you're home free. However, if it's set in the United States, we can assume Jose doesn't speak English, so it's not uncommon to just put his words in Spanish and italicize them. Again, it's up to the reader to figure out what was said. Here's a French example:

"Donnez-moi ces pommes de terres frites Americain," Pierre said, and Jules handed him the requested American fried potatoes.

Note how the author cleverly inserts a hint to help the reader interpret.

It may be worth noting that if this book is for an American audience, they're not going to care what a foreign character has to say, so you may as well make the foreigner a mute. He can communicate with English-speaking characters by playing charades, which could add humor to several scenes in the book.

21 comments:

writtenwyrdd said...

I've also seen it done where you insert a translation as part of the speech or the narrative surrounding the speech.

"Como estas, how are you?" He asked.

You see this trick in fantasy novels fairly frequently, and I think it slides by the reader's inner editor more readily in that context because you're using a fictional language or speaking about a fictional item and not just foreign speech.

"Carry the lagoslagos--the big jug--to the table, would you?"

benwah said...

Tell the truth, EE, you make up these questions yourself just so you have another way to make us spit coffee all over our monitors.

Dave F. said...

IF you want to read a brilliant example of foreign language text in a novel, go read "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco. There are passages that are in Latin, Italian, German and pigeon-something (like four languages combined). Eco made it work in the most astounding ways and to stunning effect.

However, it makes a dense, difficult novel harder to read and appreciate. I'm Italian and grew up hearing Italian language in two dialects. I learned Latin for Church and high school and had two years of German. That helped. But I bought a German/English dictionary and it took me twenty years to understand the last sentence in the book: "Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus" which is nearly impossible to translate. It's not only symbolic in the context of the novel but it's colloquial Italian.

So be careful of how you use foreign languages.

Anonymous said...

I think William Golding had this all figured out. He included dialogue in Greek (Greek font, too) in at least one of his novels, with no translation and no contextual help. He correctly surmised that understanding or not understanding the text really didn't make that much of a difference. It was still shite.

talpianna said...

Dave, the line you quoted appears to be Latin to me.

When I was a teenager, I read Charles Reade's THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH. It had PAGES of dialogue in French and no shortage of Latin passages, either.

Margaret Taylor said...

I thought it was standard practice to put such dialogue in italics, and mention somewhere in the text that the speaker's speaking Spanish/Farsi/Klingon or whatever.

Evil Editor said...

Foreign words that aren't standard English should be italicized. The question asked was how to show that English words were being spoken in a foreign language.

Dave F. said...

...the question was how to show that English words were being spoken in a foreign language.

Well that would also depend on the POV character wouldn't it? And it would depend on what sort of literary device the author wishes to employ.

In "The Name of the Rose" when Salvatore of Montferrat is speaking pigeon English in four languages to the hero, William of Baskerville, Eco treats the reader like he is William who understands the pigeon English. (The text is italicized) Then he let's the reader off the hook. Eco has Adso of Melk, William's young charge, ask for a translation and William doesn't merely translate, he explains the meaning and historical context of the seemingly simple-minded Salvatore's speech. William never just translates, he adds color and context.

It's been a long time, but I remember that in his novel SHOGUN, James Clavell didn't present Japanese dialog until it was translated into English for his main character, John Blackthorn. In that way, the reader becomes Blackthorn and experiences his tribulations. Blackthorn is very much the barbarian when he doesn't understand Japanese language and culture and the Japanese for their part, treat him like a barbarian. Once Blackthorn understands Japanese, then all of the dialog is in English with the exception of repetative words like "Konichiwa".

Adam Heine said...

If you write it in the foreign language, you should be careful. EE's examples are good, as a little bit of a foreign language can add flavor, but insert too much and the readers starts going, "Okay, here's that language I can't read again. He doesn't speak English. I GET IT ALREADY!"

It's different if all the foreign language is translated. Then you need to ask yourself why they're speaking a foreign language and if it's important for the reader to know that.

Like in Hunt for Red October (the movie, not the book), they stopped subtitling the Russian a little ways into it. Why? Because it didn't matter anymore; we knew the Russians spoke Russian and the Americans spoke English, so we didn't need to actually hear Russian until near the end when the language barrier mattered again.

True, it would've been more accurate to include subtitles all the way through, but also much more boring to watch. Foreign languages in books work similarly.

Chris Eldin said...

You ARE evil!

Author, I had a similar issue with my first manuscript, which takes place in Belgium in 1500s. EE was even more humorous with his shredding of mine than he was of yours. Neener.
Back to you. I wrote in a mechanism by which the characters would speak and understand the language of the land they were in. I would share that mechanism with you, but I'm afraid you might copy me and it is better if you think of your own.
;-)

Anonymous said...

we all were blinded by your brilliance, I guess, EE.

So you mention in the dialog tag or in the other speech that it was a foreign language, right?

"How are you?"

"Speak English, would you?"

BuffySquirrel said...

One day we'll find out what Anon does like.

mb said...

Well, this is absurdly obvious, but as long as you don't do it fifty times on one page, you can just say something like: "Who is this idiot?" said Jose in Spanish.

Adam Heine said...

Oh, and because it's bugging me: "pigeon" is a bird; "pidgin" is a language (or rather, a meshing of two languages such that speakers of those languages can communicate basic ideas).

Also, "pidgin language" is redundant (this didn't bug me, but it's true).

Dave F. said...

"pigeon" is a bird; "pidgin" is a language

oops, sorry about that. It bugged me but I didn't take time to check it out. Let's blame it on the windy weather ;)

dana p said...

if this book is for an American audience, they're not going to care what a foreign character has to say

Ow ow ow! Funny & painful at the same time.

batgirl said...

trivia: 'pidgin' is supposedly the pronunciation of 'business', since the mixed language was used for business between different groups.

An sf trick is to put angle brackets around telepathic or sign language communication, but I don't know if that's used in non-genre writing.

Moth said...

In Curse of Chalion, Bujold, when she switched languages, she used ~. That actually worked fine for me.

@writtenwyrd:
I've also seen it done where you insert a translation as part of the speech or the narrative surrounding the speech.

That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves because no one does that in real life, except on Dora the Explorer. If you know the other person speaks Spanish you'll just speak Spanish. If they don't you'll say How are you? Unless you can't speak English, in which case you probably won't be trying to ask them how they are. In casual conversation people don't talk like that.

People also don't code-switch to different languages for the easy words and phrases like "how are you?". They do it for the difficult ones they can't remember.

talpianna said...

I'd go for the simplest way, "Do you speak English? asked Detective Hawkshaw in his execrable Spanish.

Xiexie said...

I think context clues are the best way or the whole:

"How are you?" he asked in Spanish.

I have an old work where the MC (1st person POV) was Latino; scenes with his father, uncle and his boyfriend, and one of his close friends used italicized Spanish, some Spanglish, and usually between the MC and his close friend there'd be Spanish spoken by one of them and the other would respond in English. Come to think, that also occurred between the MC and his father.

I think most readers can make the jump if context gives clues.

Katrina S. Forest said...

I've read books that handle it different ways, and all of them are perfectly understandable. Pepita Talks Twice is a fun children's book that has the problem with using Spanish in an English story, and then English in a Spanish story.

I've only had one character that spoke a foreign language, and she spoke English as well, so it rarely came up as an issue.