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Dialogue in translation: What’s the best way to incorporate foreign words into a book? May 29, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Books, writing.
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Panneau arrêt au Québec

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Have you ever encountered something in the course of your reading that makes you think, “Oh no! Not this again…“? Something that’s not quite a pet peeve but is a close contender and would always provoke a sort of mental debate for you? Well, foreign words in dialogue and how to translate them for readers is one such point of debate for me. I have seen it done in perhaps every single way.

The problem: How to spice up your dialogue by incorporating foreign words while also trying not to bewilder your English-only-speaking readers. Unless you live in the 19th century and can be pretty sure that your English-speaking readers will have a healthy vocabulary of French and Latin words, an author needs to provide a translation for the reader.

 To illustrate the different solutions, I’ll give an example of dialogue with a French phrase:

Solution #1, Enhanced dialogue: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami, my friend.”

This is my least favorite solution, although it does get the job done, at least. An author provides a direct translation immediately after the foreign word. This translation is provided, miraculously enough, by the character. Even if the character they are talking to is, in this case, very familiar with French already and doesn’t need a translation. This solution always jars me and detracts from the voice of the character. Would someone really say that? It makes me feel like I’ve been transported to the middle of a classroom.

Solution #2, Narrator Translation: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami.” My friend. The words rang hollow in my ear.

This is, by far, my favorite solution, as it simply translates the word outside of the quotation marks in a separate sentence. It can be a bit tricky to incorporate smoothly and works best with 1st person narration. The translation is like a thoughtful pause after the dialogue while the narrator translates for the reader, and sounds the most natural while leaving the dialogue alone. However, in order to really make this solution work, the narrator should muse on the word, or what the character just said, for a sentence or two. If the author is feeling particularly ambitious, they’ll also include a brief history of why this word is used by the character, if the character is not, in my example, French.

Solution #3, The Footnote: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami.”*

*my friend

This is also a fine solution, particularly if you are incorporating quite a lot of foreign words. A difficult decision to make is whether to repeat these footnotes (when you’re using the same foreign word) or to trust to the reader’s memory. Not repeating a translation may make your text less cluttered, but what about that poor reader who has no memory for languages?

Also, footnotes seem just a bit pompous and didactic (at least to me). It might be the academic touch. It works the best, I find, with historical fiction where an author does have the license to be a little bit didactic. If people are reading historical fiction, chances are they don’t mind learning a new language or dialect while they’re at it.

Solution #4, The Glossary: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami.”*

*Please refer to the glossary at the back for translations of all the French. Good luck finding it before you forget the plot because it’s all in alphabetical order!

Maybe it isn’t worded in quite that way, but that’s how I always perceive it. The author deviously sends the reader on a hunt for the translation and before you know it, you’ve lost your place, lost your train of thought, and have to re-read the last three pages to recover from the brief hiatus into the evil glossary. The only positive aspect of it is if you happen to speak French already, you don’t have to look at all of those unnecessary translations.

Solution #5, The Non-Translation: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami.”

That’s it. No explanation, no translation, no glossary, even. And if you don’t know French, too bad! If there’s a lot of foreign words in this sort of a book, I find it helpful to read next to the computer, where the Babelfish website is ready and waiting. However, usually, authors today at least give their readers some sort of context, such as the next example:

Solution #6: Figure-it-out: “I’m glad to see you, mon ami.” But we had never really been friends.

There is also the ultra-purist debate on foreign speakers and dialogue, which goes something like this: If your two characters are speaking in French, then the dialogue itself is a translation for the reader. Why would you fail to translate a French word here and there? That is a good point, and something that an author has to purposefully decide before adding foreign words.

But they are also fun and add some interest to your dialogue. Even if I’m not reading a historical novel, I still enjoy learning a little bit of a new language.


How to Handle the Case of the Wintry Mix February 2, 2011

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The face of a black windup alarm clock

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A few snow storms ago, I was poking through a very clever book, which is called (if I remember correctly) The Quotable Lawyer. And it was filled with inside jokes and law truisms–all much more interesting than it sounds. There was one quote in particular that caught my attention:

The lawyer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.–Edward Packard, Jr.

 The image that first popped into my head was someone in a suit staring quizzically at a ringing alarm clock. Or something a la Sam Spade with a smoky office in black and white and a private investigator taking down a statement from someone who was awoken by their still ringing alarm.

 But, I thought, by no means is this quote limited to lawyers. You could subsitute a lot of other professions and people instead. For instance: “The writer’s first thought in the morning is how to handle the case of the ringing alarm clock.” 

If you think about it, it’s true, isn’t it?  A writer is constantly looking around for potential stories. And if one is trying to write a mystery, this quote is particularly appropriate. How could you make a mystery out of a ringing alarm clock? What if some dastardly villian set all the clocks back so that they could rob a bank?

Today, looking out at the 2-3 feet of snow that has accumulated, everyone is probably thinking “How am I gonna get out of this?” The case of the wintry mix begins. Picture a smoky office in black and white and a grizzled PI sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper while a neon sign blinks through the blinds. Someone in a heavy coat, hat, gloves, scarf (a grizzled New Englander–the kind you see out in every kind of weather) comes through the door. Behind them, snow, rain, and sleet blusters in before the door closes. The PI looks at them inquiringly and the New Englander says, “I’m in a real jam, Sam.”

How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

Wild, Wacky, and Woolly Character Arcs January 23, 2011

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While plot arcs are somewhat important in the novel structure, I find that without believable characters, they are like a car with no gas. Characters are the soul/fuel of the novel. Take Exhibit A,(*shudder*) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Or (the more pleasant shudder), Exhibit B, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Even their titles suggest that these are character-centered novels. And even novels that don’t profess to be character centered ARE, in fact, character centered.

If you take out all of the characters from a novel, you have (aside from a very creepy Ray Bradbury short story) absolutely nothing. You have no “whodunnits”, no love interests, no angsty teenager worrying over something, no running around the moors, no quest. In fact, you never even get out the front door. And, if you’re like me, a book captures your interest more if it starts with “Marcy decided one day to meet a loan shark” than “It was a bright, sunny day and the bees buzzed on their way to collect pollen” (no offense, Steinbeck…)

If characters are important to the novel, character arcs should be focused on even more than plot arcs (unless you are a TV sitcom). The most popular of these (and mythical) is: the character is fed up and leaves home, the character learns something about him/herself, and the character matures (coming of age-style).

Perhaps you want to try something a bit different: the character is arrogant, the character decides to save someone (or the world), and the character changes for the better, perhaps becoming humbler.

But what if you really wanted to go WILD? What if you just wanted to keep your readers guessing as to who or what your characters really were? Maybe you write about a thief who tries to go straight only to fall into prison again and then has a revelation. Or maybe you’re making your readers guess WHO the character is: a character tries to mask their identity or gets amnesia (this latter example is the premise of a very good series by Anne Perry).

This can also decide, in a large part, your plot. If your main character is a gorilla who has just escaped from a zoo, for instance, you can’t create a plot around white-collar crime (unless, of course, you add some other characters).

But never, NEVER write an atavistic character arc! This would be the character who changes for the better and then goes back to his/her life before without learning anything. A very depressing and anti-novel indeed. Even anti-heroes change a little bit–a small insight into their situation or a bit more wisdom.

Anything with a plotline–be it a drama, a movie, a play, a novel–has some sort of character arc if you’d care to find it. In fact, it’s usually staring you in the face. And if you are concious of it, who knows? Maybe your next party trick will be acurately predicting what will happen next in a movie based on what you know about the characters.

Mind your Ps and Qs January 17, 2011

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I once knew where this saying came from (a long time ago in History of the Middle Ages class) but have forgotten it now. However, I thought it would be a nice introduction to my latest writing challenge. Recently, I was challenged to write a lipogrammatic short story. After a very useful session with wikipedia, I found that “lipogrammatic” means a story excluding a letter of the alphabet. Or, it could be that you are sucking a letter out of your novel to make it more slim.

Challenge accepted! I said. How hard can it be anyway? I decided not to use the letter “P” and to stick with 6 pages–complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Because “P”, I thought, isn’t that essential a letter anyway. I knew that “e” was the most common letter in the English language, and vowels would be right out–unless I wanted to write a really artsy book.

And, in fact, one can write a moderately normal story without the letter p. Difficult? oh yes! Impossible? no.

Given that my inspiration came from a tea tin, the story itself does not aspire to be anything like an “insight into the mortality of human kind”–to paraphrase a review of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner. I’m about 2 and 1/2 pages into it and I’m getting the feeling that it might not be able to aspire to anything passing for humorous either.

Nonetheless, I will continue undaunted. I just need to add something in to spice it up a bit…like a tornado (which, conveniently, does not contain in it, the letter “P”).

Surprisingly, while writing this story, I discovered something. When you are conciously avoiding a letter, you are also avoiding certain words that contain that letter. And this means that you are thinking more about word choice. In avoiding certain words, I have found a host of MORE INTERESTING descriptions than I would have if I had written a story without sucking a letter out of it.

Finding your Inner Writer Zen January 8, 2011

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In answer to the question: “How do you stay focused on a task or activity?” the first thing that comes to my mind is “no idea.” Because living in the world of technology–even through my very un-hip, lag-behind gadgets (aka, my laptop and pay-as-you-go phone)– means that focusing on a single activity is a thing of the past. (Which, if that took up our whole time, would lead to the death of the novel.)

Fortunately, the published authors of the world (for the most part) are able to concentrate on their novel long enough to finish it. This thought prompts me to ask, “When was the last time I finished anything?” Papers, yes. My senior thesis–a MUCH longer paper–yes. But a creative writing piece? I honestly can’t remember. Not even a short story.

So, case and point, I have no magical tips on how to stay focused on an activity. But I do know WHY it’s so difficult to stay focused in your writing life. There are so many ideas buzzing around, faintly in the background, that it’s sometimes difficult to pluck one out of the air and work on it. The brain is like a field of fireflies flickering on and off. Sometimes, when you’re working on an idea, the little firefly idea turns OFF and you’re left with nothing (only to have it flash ON later only at the most inconvenient moment when there really is no pen and paper at hand…or keypad).

For instance, I just read an article that connects exactly to a book idea that I had (supplying the magical missing motive that’s always so elusive). I even wrote down my idea, with an eye to finally finishing the book that’s been buzzing around for a  few years, flashing on and off in my idea field. But then I think, “I should really wait to start writing until”…

Here’s a tip to finding your inner writer zen: IGNORE thoughts like those. They will only lead to you farther away from your goal of just finishing something.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, or correct, or even what you thought you wanted it to be. It just needs to be finished. Every time I think about this goal, I think about the novel a few of my friends wrote me for my birthday. It was, I think, the most thoughtful present I’ve gotten, and every time I think about not finishing a novel, I tell myself, “If they can do it, I can do it!”

So, channel your inner zen, ignore thoughts such as planning and procrastination, and (at the risk of sounding like a certain commercial) JUST DO IT!

And the prize goes to… January 1, 2011

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In the grand tradition of the new year, I’ve made a resolution to write more for my blog and wordpress has handed me another very nice tool called “postaday” where they give you subjects to muse about in your next blog. The one today was “who deserves more credit than they get?”

That’s a tough one, but I think that since this is a writing blog, the people who I want to acknowledge are the authors who are masters of networking, representative of public demand, and who other, snootier authors might call sacrificing of their artistic abilities.

Yes, you might have guessed it already but I’ll give you a hint: they’re romance authors. I know, everyone makes fun of them, calling their books trash, or chick lit (which always reminds me of the colorful gum). But really, we should all use those ephitets fondly because your typical, everyday romance author taps into the most profitable market in the literary world everytime she (or maybe he) publishes one of those trashy novels/novellas.

And who among us (literary snobs included) hasn’t devoured the latest Harlequin book now and again, or sat down with another Meg Cabot novel in a discreet corner of the library? Because fantasy sensations such as J.K. Rowling come only once every few years, if one sets out to live up to her publishing success in the fantasy world, one might be very dissapointed. But, on the other hand, if a writer wanted to publish their romance novel, they have at their fingertips a vast, growing market where (unlike what is commonly thought). Yes, Stephanie Myers is just one example. Her books aren’t really fantasy as much as maudlin romance novels (although the marketing for her books has been riding the coattails of the fantasy boom).

Romance authors really should get more credit than they deserve. As an English major, I know that I’m going out on a limb when I say that marketing is everything in the book world. And, as a parting thought, most of the great classics that we study now were also labelled as popular fiction, sometimes read on the sly (aka brown paper bagging), and generally were thought trashy in their day due to the mass marketing, publicity, and appeasing the public demand for sensation.

NaNoWriMo Day #56 December 26, 2010

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Although NaNoWriMo is officially over (nearly a month ago), it is still the official edit-your-novel month. And I need to get out the novel that I abandoned halfway through the month and work on it some more–rediscover the characters, revel in the impossibly unrealistic plot. Because it isn’t cheating to work on your novel beyond November 30th–it’s the whole point!

As Mary Stewart wisely said in one of her novels: “There is no room for pride in a marriage.” And the same goes for novel writing. It is incumbent on the writer to go humbly to the computer (or the notepad) everyday–or maybe once a week for the busy–and improve their relationship with their novel. It’s no good to stand your novel up or look around for greener pastures (aka the television), because if you ignore your novel for too long, it begins to ignore you too. When you come back to writing after a while, your efforts to create vivid 3D characters turn into soggy cardboard cutouts and your plot begins to sound either like a how-to manual for doing laundry or a ten year-old’s English essay.

HOWEVER: If you work hard on your relationship with your novel (maybe buying a new pencil now and then) the benefits will be tremendous. Your writing will start to improve, you’ll have a better creative outlet than just wondering what to have for dinner, and you will find success! (results may vary)

Squirrels, Traffic, and Sales: The Saga Continues November 13, 2010

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This post will be dedicated to all the things that keep one from fulfilling one’s word count for the week. It’s safe to say that this is officially catch-up day for me as I have only had time to jot down a few handwritten pages during my lunch break this week.

Incidents keeping me from writing my novel:

1. A very sleek, large squirrel infiltrated our house through the chimney, was “chased” upstairs by our two lazy cats, and promptly proceeded to ravage my room. These elements I got simply from deduction save the part about the ravaging. I was the eye-witness for that. And the really ironic part was that this is not the first time that’s happened. Since there was no large, squirrel-shaped hole in my wall, and a picture frame had been knocked over on a shelf that my very round cat could not possibly reach, we know it spent a little time in the living room. The flue had been left open and one of my cats sniffed very suspiciously around the fireplace–it had come down the chimney. And finally, I saw it in my room. Where it panicked. And was very difficult to chase out. As a result: word count dropped.

2. Sales: there was a very nice, spur of the moment sale at a department store in my mall. Result: word count dropped.

3. Traffic: The commute is long and dark enough without traffic and accidents. Heavy traffic ensued sometime in the middle of the week and I got home later than I had planned. Result: word count dropped.

However, I think that I’m making headway in the character development at least. In one scene I have three different characters talking to one another and their dialogue sounds different…hopefully. This is very important and a really hard element to obtain. Because without characters, your story inevitably flounders. Of course, clichés also get you places in that you can have two different clichés and call them characters. But making your characters different from one another really is the most difficult part about writing a novel.

As an illustration of this, a very long time ago, I wrote a story where two characters were the same people from different dimensions who had the same name and were essentially the same person. Eventually, I had to give them different names because it would have been confusing, but this is precisely an example of what NOT to do.

Writing in characters is like a little paradigm shift. Sometimes, your character will have a different viewpoint on life that you might have. Or they might just take their coffee differently. Either way, in order to be convincing, your characters have to be individuals and not just your little puppets (which can sometimes lead your novel in surprising directions).

Now, time to catch up on those words…

NaNoWriMo saga: Day 5 November 5, 2010

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Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony Orchestra (Natio...

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I have to say that after a rocky start and my total unwillingness to type up anything today, I’m feeling good about my novel for the first time. After a few days of pushing prose and man-handling plotline, my novel is starting to take off and my characters are falling into place.

Well, I thought that I had to add a natural disaster to get my story cooking, but the characters all did it by themselves…sort of. My heroine has just met a mysterious CIA agent while attempting to steal a mysterious package from the basement of a concert hall for a loan shark. And now she’s being taken in for questioning.

And…the best part is yet to come! A few years ago, I got really close to making the final word count. And in that novel, I added in a boring bit (boring to anyone except me) about a philosophy conference. In this novel, I plan to write in a professorial debate on Darwinian theory. It’s a good way to boost your wordcount, it gives your characters a break from running around (and your readers with them), and it’s a good way to “get on your hobby horse” (as they say in the UK). 

And, of course, I add a few things that catch my eye in the news. 

How to Make Easy Money: 8,552 words and counting…

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