How do you handle foreign languages in your book?

In the comments on the last post, Matt raised the interesting question of handling foreign languages within a story.
A question for you, and anyone else who might have an opinion ... what's your stance on including other languages in the story? In your case, say it's someone speaking Aramaic or Egyptian. Would you have a note saying they were talking in the language or try to include some words?
In my case, Nico doesn't speak a word of Aramaic or Egyptian. Since I'm writing 1st person POV, the best Nico could say is he heard a pile of gobbledygook. If you can't speak a language, it's almost impossible to pick up words from a flowing conversation. As it happens, in the second book there's a scene on the docks of Ephesus in which Nico observes a crew of Egyptians on their boat. He can't follow their conversation but he can tell from the volume, the tone and the gesticulations that they're having chaos.

If I were writing 3rd person POV it would be a different matter. I could POV switch into the head of whoever understands the local language. Alas, I'll never have that luxury, but on the other hand, having the protagonist not understand what's going on has its potential for fun, too.

Nico will probably pick up some Persian over time - many Greeks did, especially Greeks working in trade or diplomacy...or investigation - and when he does Nico will simply say he's speaking Persian and I'll carry on typing English. I'm already writing English to represent what was "really" spoken in Attic Greek. I'm not sure I'd want to try adding Persian in some different way.

It's not quite the same thing, but I do edge a few Attic Greek terms into the stories. The Athenian parliament is the Ecclesia, a water jar is a hydria, the city mayor is the Eponymous Archon, a General is a strategos, a high class call girl is a hetaera. A little bit is great for atmosphere. Dates work too. I have a line I'm pleased with in the third book draft which says He died on the 15th of Hekatombeion. But in general, I'm working with modern, idiomatic English.

I'd love to hear how everyone else handles this.

17 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

I'm not sure I know why, apart from the way you mention it as introducing local colour and character, one would want to switch to another language in a narrative. You're then left with the problem of deciding whether you need to translate it into English by way of explanation or to leave it and assume the reader speaks whatever it is. I like your system of filtering what's heard through your protagonist who doesn't understand but who 'interprets' what he's hearing.

BJ said...

In my science fiction, I have a lot of interaction between people who speak different languages. There is a common lingua franca many people understand, but people who spek the same language will rarely use it just between themselves.

For me, it depends on the POV character -- as it should, really. I have a character who speaks several languages, and one who doesn't. I write the language as though in English when in the POV of the former, saying what language it is. For the latter, I describe the voices and actions, though he doesn't know the words.

Understanding/not understanding what is being said is very important in some of my plots. It gives an extra element to communication.

The Corby Family Goes To Europe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Corby said...

Let's try that again. I just accidentally posted that deleted comment from an incredibly old google account we used for a family holiday. A holiday during which, incidentally, I was lucky to have lunch with a certain Bill Kirton and Anneke Klein.

Right, so what I meant to say was:

I agree with you both, BJ & Bill, which is not terribly surprising since you appear to be agreeing with me.

I think Matt's issue is along the lines of, if my guy is speaking Persian, should I do something to indicate it? Beyond perhaps using a few Persian terms, I think the answer is no, because it'd be too confusing. But if I were writing a modern thriller in which English is the base language for the characters, then I could indicate a Russian by calling ships he, or a German by throwing a few verbs to the end of clauses. Or if I were Christie I'd use dozens of irritating little French bon mots.

I'm glad I don't have your problem, BJ. Must be hard to track who's understood what.

Thanks for stopping in, btw BJ. I think this is the first time you've spoken up. Great to hear from you!

MattDel said...

Random trivia of the day: Russian doesn't have indefinite articles ("a" and "the" come to mind), so another way to indicate a Russian is by leaving some of these out of their speech. I do that with a character in one of my WIPs.

"To carriage we go now, yes?" is one of his lines in a previous version of the story.

I do agree with you, Bill, and that's what I use other languages for in my own writing. I also know that the historical period Gary writes in had a decent amount of cross-cultural exchange -- especially in that part of the world -- so was curious about how that got handled (if it came up).

And I'm slightly flattered my question earned its own blog post. Now I have to pick up your book when it comes out, Gary. It's only fair. ;)

MattDel said...

I just noticed my linked name in the post goes to my blog. Thanks!

P.S. That's worth a purchase of two copies. :)

CKHB said...

My MC speaks Japanese, and also knows some phrases in Chinese. When she speaks these languages in the novel, I render them in italicized "romaji" (the accepted transliteration of Japanese using English characters). At one point she and her dad say a Japanese tongue-twister together, and I briefly had the full Japanese characters in the text as well as the romaji, but I finally realized that that just doesn't add value from a reader's perspective, no matter how cool I think it is.

CKHB said...

Oh, and then I translate in the following text. The work is first-person, so the narrator can always tell us the English of what she just said.

Dan Krokos said...

"A little bit is great for atmosphere."

I love this. A sprinkling of foreign words adds authenticity in my opinion.

Yamile said...

One of my WIP's in set in Argentina, but written in English. I use a few Spanish words and Argentine slang to add "color and character;" also, when there is no translation in English, or when the word or phrase doesn't make any sense in English.
Example: "mate" (MAH-tay). It's an herbal drink virtually every Argentine drinks since young infancy, and instead of saying "herbal infusion" I just say "mate." Mate is such an icon of Argentine culture that giving it another name just doesn't work.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Carrie, you speak fluent Japanese? I noticed on your blog you also used to be a film actress. And now you're a lawyer. You are one talented individual!

Hi Dan, great to see you here, congrats on signing with Janet, and good luck with the book.

The description of mate is very cool Yamile. "I drank my mate," would confuse an Australian though! They'd expect to see, "I had a drink with my mate." Word reuse is so confusing in English.

MattDel said...

That's one of the more bothersome things about writing ... you can't really get around using words that aren't pronounced the same but are spelled the same.

"Mate" is a perfect case where I would probably break my ban of phonetic spelling. In your case, Yamile, I'd spell the drink "Mahtay" instead of the way it's actually spelled so the confusion Gary mentioned doesn't happen. But that's only for something where the context doesn't make it clear what you're talking about ... which it does because of the WIP's setting.

Gary Corby said...

You could fix the mate problem by either making it the object of a scene early in the book, so everyone knows the context, or else maybe putting an acute over the e?

Yamile said...

Yes, I use the accent mark sometimes, and I also thought of having a little glossary at the beginning of the story, a la Richard Llewellyn with his Welsh words.

scaryazeri said...

Perhaps because I speak Russian, I found the way Anthony Burgess utilizes what basically are Russian words to create his lingo of the future quite amazing
(Clockwork Orange)
He integrated a word, say he wanted to tell you he had a terrible headache from some beating he had. :) so he would say my 'golova' hurt like hell or smth like that. and then would just leave it up to the readers to figure the meaning out. Pretty cool.

Jen C said...

I have a couple of spots with different languages in my book. In the first, I just used the foreign language because the MC has no idea what the other character is saying, and she tells the reader this. The parts in the other language don't mean much, so it doesn't matter if you can translate it or not.

Further along, she has a conversation with someone else in Spanish. I wrote it something along the lines of:

"Hello blogosphere" the man said in Spanish.
I had picked up the local language within the past 3 minutes and now spoke it fluently.
"Hello yourself, jellybean" I replied in Spanish.

Then continued on with the convo in English. I think it works pretty well that way.

Note: that isn't an actual scene from my novel. Though, I kinda wish it was!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jen. Picked up Spanish in 3 minutes? I assume there's some super skill involved. Wish I could do that.

Scary, I like the way Burgess does that too, and if you like that sort of thing, I really strongly recommend The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad. It's SF in which, in the future, all the European languages have melded into one Sprach. He's used mostly English grammar but the whole book is written in a combination of English, French and German, and it works brilliantly.