Language Barriers

Today’s post, Language Barriers, is being hosted by Kate Warren from katewarren.com:

Authors are pretty lucky when it comes to choosing what language they can write their story in. Just like suspension of disbelief will let readers believe there are really ghosts in a book, it will let readers believe that someone living in Ancient Rome or on a distant planet speaks fluent English—or at least the book is a “translation” of whatever language they would be speaking. The problem, therefore, becomes what to do when a character is bilingual. Many times that raises issues of both needing to show a switch between languages while not confusing readers who very likely don’t speak both languages. After all, you can’t exactly run subtitles under the dialogue like you would in a movie.

In both of my most recent Broken Line books (novella, The Copper Rebellion, and Book 3, The Paper Masque) I came up against just this problem. While Books 1 and 2 take place in their version of England, The Copper Rebellion finds protagonist, Adela, abroad in a version of France and the protagonist of The Paper Masque, Elsie, finds herself dealing with a number of Irish Gaelic speakers throughout her story. While some readers might speak either of those languages, requiring all readers be trilingual to finish the series seemed like a tall order.

So what to do then, when your characters speak more than one language? There are a few different methods, all of which depend on your Point of View (POV) character.

POV Character is Bilingual

 

If your POV Character in a scene understands whatever the language being spoken is, the easiest method is to use tags like “in French” at the end of dialogue to show that the characters are now speaking another language. For example, in The Copper Rebellion we find:

“Bonjour, madame…” The tallest stopped in front of her, Adela’s mind taking a moment to click over into [French]. “…how may we help you?”

Adela gave a pretty smile, silently thanking her grandmother’s insistence on learning the language. “Good day. I am Adela Wembley, and I have come to call on his majesty, King Charles, if he is in?

The reader has been filled in that they are now speaking in another language, and dialogue can continue on in English.

Note: To add credence to the switch, you can use a few words here and there of the language you’re switching from. Just try to make sure that they are either words that the reader would likely know (such as Bonjour) or words that are not important to the meaning of the sentence (so that the reader hasn’t missed anything if they don’t understand that word).

You will likely notice that I have used italics throughout the sample above after the language switch. If your character will be staying in one language more often than not, italics are not necessary (you can simply add “in French”/“in German”/etc. Italics, however, can be handy if you’re going to be switching in and out of a language quickly. For example:

There is a messenger here for you, madame,” the servant continued.

Adela recovered enough to smile. “Mr. Fletcher. What a surprise.”

Antony seemed to take everything in, bowed as his gaze began to linger too long. “Your majesty.”

Louis turned to her. “A friend of yours?

“Monsieur le duc, this is Antony Fletcher. He was a painter at my late husband’s court.” She looked back at Antony, flipped to [English]. “Mr. Fletcher, Louis Delone, Duke of Parnulle and brother to the king.”

Since Adela is speaking to Antony and Louis in two separate languages, it became simplest to establish that italics=French, no italics=English and remove “in English” and “in French” from appearing over and over again. You can determine if italics are necessary for clarity’s sake in your own writing.

POV Character is not Bilingual

If your POV character does not speak the second language being used in a scene, things get a little trickier. You see, since the character doesn’t know what is being said, there is no way for them to relate what is being said.

The easiest way to get around this problem is to have another character translate. For example:

Stringing a rope along the ceiling, Úna continued to speak to Laurence as she worked.

“She’s dividing up the room,” Laurence translated. “She says we aren’t married so we can’t sleep in the same room together.”

By having a character who speaks the second language translate, you can get a summary of what is being said across without the POV character needing to understand it word for word.

If the POV character doesn’t have someone to translate for them, try to stick to things the reader doesn’t need to understand, put in enough so that the reader can follow along, or have the POV character make guesses as to the content. For example:

Colm continued to rant in [Gaelic], switching as he turned to Gordon, “Though, like you really understand what we’re even saying,eachtrannach.”

Díul mó bhad,” Gordon returned, Elsie entirely willing to believe it was an insult just by the tone.

If someone speaks Irish Gaelic, they won’t need to be told that what Gordon says is an insult, but the rest of the audience has been told enough to pass over the phrase with the knowledge that Gordon says something insulting.

POV Character is Learning

For the most part, I don’t suggest taking the “subtitle” route, where you give lines in whatever foreign language a character is speaking and then add the translation verbatim after it. This is primarily because it can become clunky/disrupt the flow of the scene. Readers who don’t know the original language will have to skip over to find the translation meaning more “clutter” in the scene which often leads to slower pacing. It can be effective, however, if used for small stretches. I primarily use this strategy when it comes to a character learning the other language. For example:

Mon père est un soldat, comme mes frères,” Antony pieced the sentence together, doing his best to explain his family—the martial proclivity he hadn’t seemed to inherit with the rest of his brothers.

Vous ne voulez pas être un soldat?” Henriette asked quickly.

You did not want to be a soldier? Antony pieced the words together with just a little delay, answered, “Non. Not at all.”

“You really are not bad.” Henriette switched back to [English].

The extra wordiness in these instances can work well since it forces in the lull it takes the character to think of what the other characters are saying. The POV character is likely a step behind and so the “clunky” feel to the wording will suit for pacing.

All in all, when in doubt, understandability should be the goal when it comes to using two languages in your writing. You don’t want your readers to miss an important plot point just because they don’t speak as many languages as your character—or worse, to get so frustrated, they put your book down. Err on the side of caution and, when in doubt, call in a beta reader or two and see if it makes sense to readers who don’t speak a second language.

Writing Shakespeare

As prolific as Shakespeare has proven to be with his plays, most people at least have a passing familiarity with a few of his plays. With Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh out there, it’s even likely many have seen at least one of Shakespeare’s plays performed more or less with its original dialogue–even if some have guns in them.

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
(photo: Romeo+Juliet [1996])

While Shakespeare has been adapted and re-adapted in just about every setting possible at this point, the language is still a sticking point for many readers. This exposure to what sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “Old English” (Shakespeare wrote in “Early Modern English” much more understandable than true Old English), many times seem to give writers who wish to set a story in Tudor England the feeling that they need to break out the prithees and thous (and perhaps try to figure out how the heck to write in iambic pentameter) if they are going to be “accurate”.

The first time I received a question about how to properly do X-time period language in writing, I admit I was a bit confused. Having grown up on a steady diet of historical fiction as a child, I’d never considered having to make someone “sound” 16th century in a novel by going so far as to write in Early Modern English. It makes sense to some extent (you wouldn’t have someone in 1620’s Massachusetts saying “cool” or “what’s up”) but there is certainly a difference between refraining from using modern slang and trying to get your PhD in Renaissance Literature so you’re able to properly use Elizabethan phrasing.

Have your PhD and want to write in historically accurate language? Awesome, that sort of rocks. Just find the time period fascinating and want to write a story about it after doing non-PhD-level linguistics research? Don’t drive yourself crazy.

You see, the main reason Early Modern English finds itself questioned so much when it comes to this set up is that it is a version of English that is obviously different, but still possible to understand. Writing in it is not outside the realm of possibility, so some authors feel like a fraud not even trying.

But then, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, do you have to write it in Latin? If your characters are from China, do you have to write in Chinese? Do you have to come up with an entirely new language for your aliens who would obviously not speak English on their home planet?

Of course not.

Creative fiction comes built in with a very handy tool for writers–suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, the reader is willing to believe what you (the author) say is true simply because you say so. There are dragons in your world? Sure, let’s read about them. There’s no such thing as a smart phone? Sure, why not. You have to be careful to stay within the set rules of your universe and not strain/break that suspension of disbelief, but it is a very handy tool.

Language works the same way. Would someone born and raised in China likely speak English everywhere they go? No. Does that mean you can’t write that story until you become fluent in Chinese? Again, no. As we have been trained to do since before most of us would be able to even really think about it, suspension of disbelief allows the reader to assume that the novel is a modern-English translation of whatever your characters would likely be speaking. You can easily break this disbelief by throwing in too-modern language in historical pieces, but you by no means have to learn some different dialect just because you are writing historical fiction. And that really is for a few reasons.

1. Suspension of disbelief covers you.

As I said above, people aren’t going to condemn your WWII story for not being written in Polish when that’s your setting. They aren’t going to condemn you for not writing in Early-Modern English for a Tudor period piece. Just keep the modern slang out of it, and it is assumed your work is a “translation”.

2. You’re more than likely going to get something wrong and be more distracting.

Unless you are a linguistics protege/actually did get your PhD and are now fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of whatever time period you’re setting your story in, trying to make your characters sound Shakespearean is just going to make the dialogue stilted, and annoying to people who might be more familiar in the usage (that’s not how you use thou!) You will end up with better writing writing as you are comfortable.

3. It makes it easier for your audience to read.

As well-remembered as Shakespeare is, there are still plenty of people who just “don’t get it” and thus don’t especially like struggling through the Elizabethan language while attempting to follow along. Perhaps you know all the nuances, perhaps you don’t, you still have cut your possible readership down to people who understand Early-Modern English/don’t mind muddling through. Generally your sales will thank you not to do so.

And so, don’t worry too much about what your characters would actually speak when you’re writing, even when writing historical fiction. Worry about not throwing someone out of the time period altogether with modern slang. As long as you are careful about that, you’re in good shape.

(Note: When it comes to using a word that you feel might sound too “modern” I highly suggest looking at etymonline.com. An online etymological source, it has the historical usage of most words in its database. So can you use the word “crazy” to describe the man yelling about the world ending outside the Globe Theatre? Etymonline says if it’s after 1570, yes if you mean “diseased, sickly” or after 1610 to mean (the more modern usage) “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”).

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Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

All right. Be honest, how long did it take you to figure out the title? Did you even bother? All right, if you did, what is easier for you to read, that title or “Why I hate phonetic accents”?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language makes little sense. It’s a Germanic language that was morphed by Anglo-Saxons, too far away to remember original German, adapted by the French during the Norman Conquest, and then had a thousand years to go through a vowel shift, changes, and added words (it’s reported Shakespeare alone invented 1,700 now common English words). Standardized spellings weren’t common for long after the Elizabethans (after all, Noah Webster decided to standardize “American” spellings in 1780) and many grammatical rules have come and gone, made by people often referred to as “pedantic” (split infinitives were only classified as “wrong” in the 20th century by scholars who more than likely believed English should follow Latin grammatical rules [where it’s quite literally impossible to split infinitives]). So why isn’t “phonetic” spelt “fonetik”? Because it comes from a Greek root, transcribed from the Greek Alphabet as ‘ph’ in the Latin alphabet, and it’s been that way since.

So, all of it is made up. So why can’t we make sure our character’s accents come out properly by having one say “dahlin'” one “dahrling” and one “derlin'”? The same reason people standardized language in the first place. It’s harder to understand. 

Truly, language as a whole is made up, if you want to argue it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s purpose is ultimately to have one person understand another. That vastly increases when you’re a writer. If you want to write something out phonetically as you understand it for your own notes, it doesn’t matter. If you’re expecting people to understand you in a novel/short story/article you’ve written, eet prabalee shudent b ritten liek dis.

Furthermore, how an accent sounds to you and how it sounds to someone else can be two very different things. Think of a British accent. How would someone with a British accent say “Really” to you? Reelee? Realeh? Rehleh?

Does it change if they’re speaking with a Kightsbridge Accent? London Accent? RP Accent? Cockney Accent? So now, not only is the phonetic spelling subjective, it can also be insulting if you don’t actually speak with that accent. Personally, I’d think I [in DC] say “really” something like “reelee” but I don’t speak with British accent. How do I know what sounds correct to someone from [insert place character is from]? After all, I’ve never heard someone say “pip, pip, cheerio” even though that’s supposedly British from what TV tells me. If you suddenly try to make your Irish character sound like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun saying top o’ the mornin’ to ya everywhere, you risk people considering you ignorant and/or insulting.

So is there any reason to write out an accent? In my opinion, no. In a novel I recently edited, there was an Irish character speaking with the thickest phonetically spelled attempted-accent I have ever seen (even sounding it out it didn’t sound Irish to me). Eventually I gave up trying to read what that character was saying (reading shouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion), leaving a note along the lines of “please, please, please don’t do this” but I do still remember one perfect example of the confusion spelling things out phonetically can cause.

“Fairreh”

Any guesses on that one? Perhaps some context, unphoneticized:

“Look, a fairreh!”

What I heard saying it? Fairy. It was a fantasy novel, so I thought, all right, fairies are showing up.

Too bad the author meant “Fire”

Just a small difference in the tone of the scene there.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t throw in small changes like “gonna” or “haveta'” if you feel the need to (e.g. “Tommy! Why haven’t you taken the trash out?” “Ah….I was gonna.”) but I highly, highly suggest staying away from trying to show your character’s accent bi mayking ehveree wurd fonetik.

But then, how do you show someone’s accent if you don’t spell it out?

I’d suggest some less intrusive (easier to read) ways:

1.  “He said with an X accent.” It’s simple, but showing accents in writing might be best suited with simple mentions. There are many ways to get it across in the same way:

“Hi,” he said with an Irish accent.

“Hi.”
She smiled at his lilting accent. It made even “hi” sound magical.

“Hi,” he said.
“Oh, that’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
“Ireland.”

“Hi,” he said, noticing how much his accent seemed out-of-place in the new school.

They all let you say he has an accent without  obscuring the actual words and making it hard to read.

2. Use speech patterns to show differences, not phonetics. Again, this is another one you have to be careful about not being insulting, but people from different areas don’t only have different accents, they use different grammar. Where I say, “I was going to go…” My great-uncle in West Virginia says, “I was fixin’ to go…” Where most people I’ve met say, “Turn off the light.” My college roommate from Brooklyn used to say, “Shut the light.” Don’t overdo it with regional slang (especially when you aren’t familiar with the region) since you’ll be in danger of going back to that “insulting” thing, but it tends to be a better way to show accents than, “I whas goeing too goe…” and “I whus fixen ta goh…”

3. If necessary, use phonetic spellings tastefully. As I said above, if your character doesn’t say “going to” properly, it might be all right to put “gonna” It’s a generally well-known version, and “I was gonna go…” would more than likely make sense to the bulk of your readers. Same with fixin’. Putting “fixing” just wouldn’t sound right in my head for “I was fixin'” Without the ‘g’ though, it’s still possible to generally understand what is being said. “I was fixin'” isn’t quite the same as “I whus fixen” The average reader will be able to read small changes like that easily. It’s when you start making people sound out every word that it gets tiring.

Now, can people write out phonetic accents well? I’m sure they can. Should they? In my personal opinion, no. Of course, that’s my personal opinion. As with everything else on this blog, people can take or leave what I say. They are all just suggestions after all. But, as I see it, anything that makes your writing difficult to understand isn’t generally good for it. After all, we standardized the language to be understood. And, as writers, it is our job to use language well.