November 5, 2012

Fiction Q&A: Representing multiple languages

Q: I have several languages in most of my stories and I have yet to really decide how to denote the switches and whether to italicize when the word is spoken but not translated. When I use only two and switch sparingly, I just note that they said whatever in the new language. But repeatedly mentioning the switch becomes tedious to reader and writer.

Since I use up to four languages at once in a scene where not everyone speaks all the languages (yes, that creates chaos, which was the intent), how do I create the feel of switching languages for the reader, when the POV character does speak them all?

At one point I used single quotes for one language and double quotes for another (the two main languages) but there are not enough quotes types for more languages in order to be consistent. -- Shae

A: For single foreign words, even if they are from an invented language, you only need to use italics the first time you introduce the “untranslated” word. Back in the day, Tolkein italicized lembas, for example, throughout The Lord of the Rings. These days, we would italicize it only on first use, give the reader enough clues to figure out what it means, then leave it in plain type the rest of the book.

Using different fonts or quotemark schemes for different languages isn't advisable. Since it's not an established convention, readers may not know what to make of it.

The best way to signal that different characters are speaking different languages is to use different word choices and syntax for each language. You can see this in Shogun by James Clavell and Kim by Rudyard Kipling. They each had characters using "thee" and "thou" when speaking in Latin or Hindu, respectively. You don't need to use thee and thou if that doesn't work for you; there are other tricks you can use to give languages a different feel.

Syntax is a good way to do this. Think of Yoda's "accent" in Star Wars. Or the note Sherlock Holmes receives in the story "Scandal in Bohemia." The note reads, "This account of you we have from all quarters received," leading Holmes to remark that a Frenchman or Russian would not write a sentence that way, as only a German "is so uncourteous to his verbs."

In the same way Holmes could discern the language of the letter-writer, readers can pick up on the nuances of the different “languages” in a novel if you write each one with a slightly different vocabulary and syntax. Early on in your book, you'll establish which POV characters speak which languages, so by one-third or halfway through, you should be able to stop writing "'Line of dialog,' someone said in his native language," and just tell the story. Readers are smart; they'll get it.

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