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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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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.

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