Foreign languages in fiction

On writers’ forums and social media I see discussions about foreign words/phrases in fiction fairly often. Not as often as “how do I convey a dialect” (answer: unless you know it well enough to hear it in your head, you don’t, and if you do you convey it with word choice and grammar, please not phonetics), but more often than “what is my moral responsibility as a writer” (I always want to ask if the person posing the question wants to know whether he’s guilty, or how many lashes he deserves).

My first experience of foreign language in a piece of English-language fiction was Jane Eyre. I first read it before I began to take high school French classes, so the dialogue in French was completely out of my grasp. I was impressed. I was not frustrated. I did not bother to look up what the French words meant–and realize please that this was before the internet. Just getting my mid-grades hands on a French dictionary was too much to ask. So I shrugged it off and enjoyed the story anyway.

I think this attitude has shaped my answer to the “can I use foreign words” question, which is an emphatic yes. I think it’s perfectly healthy for readers to not look up unfamiliar words at the expense of enjoying the story; I also think that, in this internet age, it’s no great shakes if they do stop the story to look something up. Either you’ve interested them or they’re too engrossed in your story to worry about it; either they’ve learned something or they’ve been so engrossed by your story they haven’t. All of these are winning situations from an author’s point of view.

In the books I’ve written to date I’ve included dialogue in Scottish Gaelic, French, Spanish, Russian, Afrikaans, Icelandic, and Cree. I’m a linguist, so I enjoy doing that. I try to do it with one strict condition, though, and within one of two contexts.

The strict condition: that the story has a first person narrator who doesn’t understand the language being spoken. If you’re careful to observe this, then you’ll write the story so the reader doesn’t need to understand the language, either. This keeps people happy. If you are writing in close third, the same will happen. If you’re writing in mid- or distant third, you might as well translate the dialogue into English, because your narrative voice is quasi-omniscient anyhow.

The first context: is to give enough context around the foreign language that the reader more or less knows what’s being said. Have a character translate; make the dialogue utterly banal and obviously so; have the speaker gesture along, etc.

The second context: the foreign words express a concept that is cumbersome to explain in English … and then you go on to explain it so you can continue to use the foreign word as shorthand. I did this in the historical I just finished drafting. Cree culture has a complex system of kinship relations. One’s relationship to another person determines all kinds of things on a social level: whether you hunt together, live together, whether you can marry or not. Cree kinship terms don’t come anywhere close to translating directly into English kinship terms, either. So I used the Cree words, and included discussion about their implications (because those implications drive the plot).

Hope my thoughts on this were helpful. How do you feel about encountering other languages in stories?


2 thoughts on “Foreign languages in fiction

  1. I was reading a series of novels called “The Welsh Princes” – many of the names of both people and places were, needless to say, in Welsh – thank goodness I’m married to a Welshman who was able to tell me how these names were pronounced. If I can’t pronounce something, I stumble over it when reading.

  2. I like to learn what the words mean. Stopping a story for that (or going back to that part when you can) is not bad, as long as you enjoy doing that. I have an interest in languages. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s