Writing foreign dialogue....

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sarahdee
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Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by sarahdee » November 20th, 2010, 11:18 pm

I have a scene in my whereby two of the characters will briefly speak in French. The conversation is not too complicated and will go on for around half a page max.

Is it better to write in French and hope the readers understand by context or that I write in English but say they are speaking French e.g.

"Hello, how nice to meet you at last," she said in her heavy Parisian accent....

Does anyone know of any examples I can look at?

AlexWolfe
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by AlexWolfe » November 20th, 2010, 11:42 pm

Things to consider:

(1) Not all readers are going to take the time to look up the meaning of the conversation. Some will, but some will just skip over it. If the dialogue is critical to the story, it might be better to write it in English to make it easier on the reader.

(2) Some things that just don't translate well into other languages, even with modern translation software. If readers aren't familiar with French, some meaning might be lost in translation if you write it in French.

(3) I can only think of one author off the top of my head that's effectively done what you're talking about, and it's Cormac McCarthy. There are huge sections of his work in All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing that are written in Spanish, and it's up to the reader to look them up if they want to know what McCarthy is saying. I'd check those out.

The only real difference b/t what McCarthy did and what you're talking about is that McCarthy used two languages throughout the novel, so the reader got used to it. It wasn't a real shock when he switched languages. Plus, related to my first point, most of the dialogue wasn't directly relevant to the plot. It was often thematically relevant, but if you skipped over it, you could still effectively read the book.

Because of that, I would argue for writing the scene in English since it's just one scene, but ultimately it's up to you.

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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by sierramcconnell » November 21st, 2010, 10:26 pm

Well, in The Fallen, a YA Novel, he does it two ways. First, when Aaron can't understand but is learning it, he has it in a foreign language with him thinking the explaination. Then, when he can understand, it's in italics when he's talking in a foreign language.

I try to avoid talking in a foreign language unless absolutely needed. Because when I see it, I have the time can't pronounce it. It's very difficult. And the last thing I want when having fun and being entertained is to be pointed at and reminded that 'nyan nyan, I'm smarter than you and you're an idiot, thppppp'! Because that's how it makes me feel. Granted, it's probably not what the author is going for, but I feel bad, because I don't understand and I feel I should automatically.
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Louise Curtis
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by Louise Curtis » November 22nd, 2010, 6:36 am

I hate hate hate authors assuming it's okay to speak another language at me - they're leaving me out of the conversation. (For the record, I speak Indonesian fluently, plus some Mandarin, Pidgeon English, French, Arabic, and German).

I'm gonna go look up how I've handled it myself - here's an example:

The driver was sprawled across the seat, with his head on one arm rest and his legs hooked over the other. His body didn’t quite reach the miniscule seat between the two.
“Maaf Pak,” said Grace. Excuse me, Sir.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked in Indonesian, rubbing his eyes and then his frizzy hair. His nose was darker than the rest of his face.
Grace recited her address, and he was duly shocked.
“That’s in Jakarta,” he said.
“How much?”



I dropped in one real phrase and translated it, mentioned the whole conversation was in Indonesian, and moved on with the dialogue without mentioning it again. On other occasions, I've taught the reader a word or two (eg jilbab for headshawl, easy to remember via context, but hard to translate).

Hope that helps.
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by Sommer Leigh » November 22nd, 2010, 9:00 am

Here's a question for you - is it more important that the readers know what is being said or that the readers know it is being said in French?

If the first statement is true, you will need it to be in English with some clue that it is actually being spoken in French. Or you'll need to include a clever way to translate what is being said.

If the second statement is true, put it in French. It might sound weird that the second statement be true, but take for example if the MC overhears a conversation in French but doesn't speak French, he won't know what is being said and therefore it might be suitable for the reader not to know either. In the book Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis there is a whole chapter by a secondary character in French. It doesn't matter what is being said in the chapter, not really. Ellis managed to set up a book where these little, weird chapters in the voice of a secondary character were atmospheric...that they existed was more important than what they said. I don't know how to explain it because it is more of a feeling than a definition, but in his book it worked.
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polymath
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by polymath » November 22nd, 2010, 10:31 am

A common rule of thumb principle for using foreign language words and terms is to use only ones that are part of accepted usage in English. A good way to know is if they're in an English dictionary. A few Spanish, French, Russian, and Japanese words and phrases have become part of English usage, words like gracias, que pasa, que sera, c'est la vie, spasibo, domo arigato, and so on, but are not commonly in English dictionaries. Some foreign language loan words have become part of everyday speech. Latin is far more common in English usuage than other languages, especially in legal and medical and scientific terminology. Many Latin terms are in dictionaries. Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and German loan words have also become part of everday English.

At one time English readers were generally expected to be conversant with French, Latin, and Greek languages. That expectation has long since passed away. I general it's a best practice principle to use foreign words sparingly. A lengthy passage of French dialogue is apt to alienate today's English readers, unless the intended target audience is conversant with the language.
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by sbs_mjc1 » November 22nd, 2010, 10:48 am

My coauthor and I handle this two ways in our WIP.
When we have a viewpoint character having a conversation in a non-English language, we just tell the reader what language and continue the dialogue in translation. When the viewpoint character doesn't speak the non-English language, but is hearing it spoken, we just keep it in the original. That way, the reader has the same amount of information as the POV character.
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sarahdee
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Re: Writing foreign dialogue....

Post by sarahdee » November 23rd, 2010, 3:49 am

Thanks, I think my question is answered. I will write in English perhaps starting it with easy French (hello, enchanted to meet you - then I can refer to how her pronunciation gives away where she comes from) and then reverting back to English but noting they are speaking in French.

Its not essential to my story the reader knows what they are saying - the point of the conversation is two characters trying to suss one another out (one thinks the other is a spy) and leaving another character out on purpose (but the other character is a secondary so its not written from her point of view)

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