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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.


A Fly on the 19th century Wall July 18, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in writing.
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George Eliot

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While looking over my last plinky prompt (the product of a burst of late night energy) I began to wonder what perspective I had been writing from. I was too tired to think up any names, so both of the characters remained nameless. However, I also wrote some of what the characters were thinking. This led me to ask the question: Where would you put this sort of dialogue in a novel?

An interesting thing that I’ve noticed about novels (and yes, the 19th century novels in particular) is that there is not always a consistent perspective. The author sometimes switches from third person limited to omniscient without another thought and sometimes even switches from first person to third person!

A dramatic example of this is in George Eliot‘s Mill on the Floss. She starts the novel with this totally ambiguous narrator in the first chapter. It’s written in the first person and someone can spend ages deciding if its Maggie, or her brother, or one of her two lovers. This is because the second chapter begins in the third person suddenly, and the reader asks the question: is the narrator really referring to his/herself in the third person? Weird. Where did the narrator go?

This is, of course, not playing by the rules. And while the students of modern literature scoff at straight-laced Victorian writing, these so-called conservative Victorians did, indeed, break all the rules of perspective that we now hold in high regard. When someone asks you what you wrote your story in, a budding novelist of today will tell you readily “Oh, third person limited” or maybe “First person, of course.” They probably won’t say: “Well, I started in third person omniscient, but then I switched to third person limited, and ended it in first person.”

Since the Victorian writers are no longer with us, the conventions/rules are that your perspective should be consistent. If you start changing it in the middle,  your readers will (supposedly) be confused and it shows amateurish writing…But not if you do it purposefully.

Let’s take the example above. How do you write a novel in third person omniscient, third person limited, AND first person?

Well, first you would start with a very sparse third person omniscient. Like a fly on the wall only with partial access to characters’ thoughts. Maybe it’s a dialogue between two henchmen:

Henchman 1: “If the boss says we take care of him, then we’d better take care of him.”

Henchman 2 shrugged as he took two guns out of the locked cabinet labeled “Cadbury Eggs.” It was time they changed the label to something classier, he just didn’t know what. He wasn’t looking forward to the job either. He had finally gotten tickets to the big game and now this would eaten into his schedule.

Henchman 2 nudged him and gestured to the fly on the fall, suspiciously listening to their conversation. “Hey, what’s that fly doing there?”

Then, it switches to third person limited surrounding the main character.

Joe Walker, successful businessman, philanthropist, and secret organizer of Project 51, sauntered across the street. He checked his watch demurely. He was already twenty minutes late to work thanks to a faulty alarm clock. But he didn’t worry about that too much seeing as he owned the company. His morning appointments would have to wait. As he waited at the next intersection, he saw two dubious characters lurking in front of his office building.

And finally, near the end of the novel, the first person narrative.

As Joe opened up his mailbox, a mysterious and very hefty letter fell out. Not wanting to stay long in the lobby of the apartment complex, Joe dashed up to his penthouse suite where he could read the letter without an attempt on his life. He had a feeling that this was going to be important and perhaps explain the events that had happened. It was from Sylvia, the maid at number 27 and a secret agent:

In these pages, I am enclosing the details of what happened on September 18th. If you are reading this, something has happened.

Then, there is a narrative from Sylvia’s perspective. Usually during this narrative, the reader forgets about Joe and for a few chapters it is essentially a first person narrative with dialogue, plot, and characters. Some of this account might even overlap with events that have already happened in Joe’s third person limited account.

This switching of perspectives always keeps a reader on their toes and is also a nice addition to a mystery novel, or even any novel. And if someone tells you that this is “just not done!” simply tell them: “You see it all the time in 19th century literature.”

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