Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

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sbs_mjc1
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Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by sbs_mjc1 » July 16th, 2010, 7:06 pm

A problem my co-author and I have run into is portraying multi-lingual characters (we are writing in English). So far, for extended dialogue, we write them as speaking English and simply note that they are conversing in their native tongue, with some sentences in that language (no plot-crucial information).

Does anyone have a different (hopefully better!) approach to this?
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polymath
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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by polymath » July 16th, 2010, 7:37 pm

Four nonmutually exclusive methods for consideration, leaven other languages words' English spellings into conversations, gracias, merci beaucoup, do svidanya, etc. A best practice rule of thumb is if it's in a standard English dictionary, it's in common enough usage, it's fair game in prose, to a point. C'est la vie.

Another is to preserve the rhythm of another language's diction in translated English conversational dialect. Translate from English into the other language's expression, translate back to English in literal interpretation. English idiom: You're pulling my leg. Spanish idiom: No tomes me pelo. Literal English translation: No you (familiar) pull my hair.

Even formally trained, well-spoken English as second language speakers often confuse subject/verb number agreement, transitive/intransitive verb usage, definite/indefinite article usage, subjective/objective case pronouns, and a whole gamut of native English speakers intuitively acquired grammar rules conformance. If there's one thing that can be said of English grammar rules, it's irregular variations are more often the norm than the exception to the rule.

Idioms are second nature to native language speakers. They cause more complications in translation than irregular English grammar rules.
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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by Mira » July 17th, 2010, 5:01 pm

I read once that a few words here or there can convey enough to satisfy the reader. This related to having an accent - I'm not sure about speaking in another language.

But maybe throwing in a word here or there? For example, if you were writing in Spanish, you could tell the reader they were conversing in Spanish, but also throw in an 'Hola' or something like that? You could play around and see what works....

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by jfw » July 18th, 2010, 1:58 pm

I have little to add to all the good previous advice except to emphasize Polymath's note about preserving the rhythm of the speaker's native language. A trick I use in my WIP, in which the characters are ostensibly all speaking fictional languages, which, of course, have no established rhythm, is to eliminate contractions. For example: "I don't know because I haven't seen it myself." becomes "I do not know because I have not seen it myself." That always makes speech sound a little more formal and distant, lifting it out of the sense that a native English speaker is talking. Replacing casual words with slightly more formal ones has a similar effect, as in replacing "car" with "automobile". It's not that foreign languages don't have more casual synonyms or that they lack contractions, but the formal choices are typically the only places were words of different languages can be appropriately mapped.

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by Quill » July 18th, 2010, 2:45 pm

Two things. One, read some of Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy" and see how he deals with Mexican characters. I have actually read only one, "Cities of the Plain" but in that he apologetically includes chunks of untranslated Spanish, and I don't know Spanish, but the technique works, by the actions. And the book has such a south Texas and south of the border flavor, partly for that.

The other, I agree with others about stilting the English dialog meant to be in a foreign tongue, as being an alternate solution. I am writing Native American characters in my WIP, and in addition to throwing in Native language phrases, I am having them speak in English with more of a direct translation feel. I do this by imagining the words being spoken by some Native speakers I have heard. And I try to also keep in mind Native cultural values, which inform the people's speech, as well. It is also a good reminder to keep dialog short, vernacular, and essential, as always!

Good luck with it.

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by wilderness » July 18th, 2010, 4:07 pm

Echoing the others:

1. Don't use a lot of American idioms or slang as they would not be used in another language.
2. Add in a few foreign words for flavor, but make sure people can guess the meaning by context. Sure, if it's Spanish then people already know some phrases like "Gracias" etc, but you have to be even more selective when it is a more obscure language. If you have to explicitly state the meaning, you're slowing down the reading, so I would avoid this unless you are referring to something that cannot be easily translated.

Hope that helps!

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by GeeGee55 » July 19th, 2010, 12:57 am

I think clarity is an important issue. Whatever method you decide to use, it must be clear to the reader and it must be consistent.

Are you familiar with the different languages you are using? It is possible to catch the flavour of someone speaking English as a second language. You have a somewhat different problem, but the rythmn and order of the words within the sentences can make the reader aware that a different language is being used, even though it's presented in English.

I have a friend who grew up speaking French and she uses different phrases. "What are you doing, you?" I have another friend from Europe who used to say something that sounded like "Was is las?" What is this?

I'd advise to keep it simple. If you've read Faulkner, he has characters say sho rather than sure, but reading it, it flows smoothly, you know the character is saying sure with a Southern accent.

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by steve » July 19th, 2010, 1:36 am

sbs_mjc1 wrote:A problem my co-author and I have run into is portraying multi-lingual characters (we are writing in English). So far, for extended dialogue, we write them as speaking English and simply note that they are conversing in their native tongue, with some sentences in that language (no plot-crucial information).

Does anyone have a different (hopefully better!) approach to this?
Have a third-party recognize they are using a different language; see the milkmaid in the first (Telemachus) chapter of "Ulysses."
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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by Nomad0404 » July 21st, 2010, 8:57 am

So my WIP is based in an alternate WWII setting. I have multilingual characters who speak English for the most part but drop in words from their own language like mes amis or my favourite line "One dragon flambé!"

Then I have whole chapters - basically the bad guys - in German, here I've not even stated it's in German, I assume the read can work that out given who is doing the talking.

Phil

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Re: Writing Multi-Lingual Characters

Post by Bohemienne » July 24th, 2010, 1:57 pm

There's a great segment in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers where they highlight John Le Carre's dialogue that's assumed to be in another language. Even though it's written purely in English, it READS like German, it SOUNDS like German to our ears! I think a lot of it comes down to word choice and sentence structure. I would imagine sentences spoken in Spanish to be extremely fluid, for instance; the German is very precise and economical. Pretty clever of him!

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