Monday, 22 August 2011

When Your Characters Don't Speak Your Language ...

Margaret from London is writing a novel set abroad. She asks: What is the best way to show my characters are not native English speakers? Should I put dialogue in a foreign language and then give a translation?

If used in moderation, foreign words in dialogue can give a flavour of the character’s origins, but don’t overdo it. When using foreign words, make sure that the meaning is made clear from the text without the reader needing to resort to a foreign/English dictionary – and don’t give translations, as that will take the reader out of the story (although you could have one character asking another to translate, but that might get tedious for the reader after a while).

Do not be tempted to insert foreign phrases into every aspect of dialogue. Choose one or two phrases or exclamations and use them sparingly. Often changing the word order gives a better sense of someone exotic, and not comfortable in English, than littering the page with foreign words.

Any foreign words you use should be written in italics and have the necessary accents in the correct place. Words in common use in English (such as rendezvous, pronto, macho) should not be italicised.

The Writer’s ABC Checklist


Anonymous said...

Sound advice. Although Cormac McCarthy seems to get away with big chunks of untranslated Spanish and his books are stilll great. Think he might be the exception rather than the rule.

DW96 said...

Interesting post, Lo.

I always felt Agatha Christie got it about right with Poirot. He mixes up his the order of words with his Enlgish now and then, and he throws in the occasional French to remind us of his nationality.

Liz Ringrose said...

I'm writing about characters in Austria. Often when speaking English they don't use as many contractions as we do. So they'll say something like: "He does not think they will come."

Lorraine Mace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lorraine Mace said...

@Anonymous - I think McCarthy is an exception that proves the rule in more than just this one area.

@DW96 - couldn't agree more. You are aware Poirot is foreign and it adds to his characterisation, but you don't get bogged down trying to work out what it is he's saying.

@Liz - I agree, word order or a more formal way of speaking makes the character sound foreign in a much easier way for the reader to absorb than dropping in sentences you then need to translate so that your readers know what is going on.