Monday, March 29, 2010

Multilingual Manuscript?

Have you ever included more than one language in your manuscript? How did you deal with it?

I'm working on a novel that takes place in Thailand. One of the main characters is American-born and often prefers to speak in English, especially when he's upset. Currently, I have scenes such as this:

"I'm sorry, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to look in the urn," Jaroen said in English.

"You idiot! Everybody knows you aren't supposed to look in the urn," his father replied in Thai.

I figure that was the most concise way to express both what people were saying and in what language they were saying it.

But, now, on a suggestion that I include more of the language, I've revised some of these scenes to be:

"I'm sorry, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to look in the urn," Jaroen said in English.

"Ai ngoh! You idiot! Everybody knows you aren't supposed to look in the urn," his father replied in Thai.

Here, I'm including some of the actual Thai words and immediately translate it. The other alternative would be:

"I'm sorry, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to look in the urn," Jaroen said in English.

"Ai ngoh! Everybody knows you aren't supposed to look in the urn," his father replied in Thai.

Here, I don't translate the words, but I think the emotion behind it might still be there, even if the reader doesn't know what's being said. (The argument could be made that the reader also might now know what's being said in the second example.)

Does anyone have an opinion on the pros and cons of these examples? How have you solved the problem of having multiple languages?


  1. Great questions, Davin. Monarch has Portuguese all through it - except that I never once put any actual Portuguese in there...

    You know, maybe I should. I have a neighbor who speaks Portuguese. He could help.

    I just did what you're did with Rooster, and wrote in the dialogue tags what language the characters were speaking. I think that putting some of the actual language in there would make it feel more authentic, and it brings the reader more into the story. This might be something I do before I query the book.

    My question is, does that first bit of Thai by Bao mean, "You idiot!" ??? Or does it mean something else? Because as a reader, I'm assuming it means the same or something similar as to what comes right after it. Here's an example of what I've done in Cinders with some French:

    Cinderella said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps tomorrow.”

    Ami started on the second braid. She had thirty to go before she would pin them up into an elaborate, swirled design. “Ça m’est égal,” she said, and Cinderella understood that she did not mind the sprites not showing up. “Nobody believes in them, anyway. Except you, Your Highness.”

  2. I would argue the value of even bothering. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway handled this by sentence structure. I could tell they were talking Spanish just by the vocabulary and placement of ownership. I'd highly recommend checking it out for a resource on making multi-cultural narrative feel realistic.

    But as for "he said in Thai" and "she said in English"... I wonder why it matters? Referring back to Hemingway, there are perhaps three places in the story where the actual language spoken is mentioned.

    At least twice this was because the speaker was using it as a source of contempt--to berate the listener without them being able to understand the magnitude of the insult. This worked to great effect.

    But just knowing someone is speaking Thai or English doesn't have any significance to me. They could just talk. It could be mentioned once that so-and-so's dad only talks Thai if the language barrier matters, and leave it at that.

  3. I’ve read one book that handled it his way- The author established one character only spoke in German and added something to the effect that the other character was multilingual. Everything was writing in English except when German was spoken to another character who did not understand the language. Then the whole thing was written in German. Along the way the author reminded us about the language difference.

  4. I like the final example the best. You get a lot of the meaning through the context, and it feels the most natural.

  5. I like the third example best, too. I would just use the Thai words and not translate them, unless it's exposition. Words for "Mother" and "Father" if used for names will make themselves clear. Exclamations and curses and slang and the like can go untranslated. You might even use Thai words for household objects in the scenes at the compound. In the Horatio book, I have all that untranslated Latin. I figure either the reader gets it or not; the point I was trying to make was that the narrator and his cohort are multilingual and can quote the classics. "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" has a lot of untranslated Spanish.

    You could also have Bao chide Jaroen whenever Jaroen is speaking English in Thailand, maybe. So you get an interaction and conflict instead of just a dialogue tag.

  6. I agree, the final example sounds great and more real. I think we could all assume the Thai phrase is something along the lines of idiot by the way it's stated.

  7. I LOVE including other languages in my stories. In CaN, I have a character who speaks Russian. The way that I get around it is by having him say something in Russian and then either self-translate or have the MC (who understands him) answer if he asks a question or correct his statement.

    In my epic fantasy story, one of the MCs sometimes speaks in tongues. The guide character understands him, and has translated on a few occasions.

    I try to make it as natural a situation as possible -- if you can get the gist of what they're saying without using the tag "he said in XXX," then I feel that's a more honest representation.

    The people who've read my stories have yet to complain about how I handle it, so I'm likely to stick with this method.

  8. An example of an exchange from my works:

    “Dobroye ootro, my Lady.” Dmitry entered the room carrying a tray of food with steam wafting from it.

    “Doborye ootro, Dmitry,” Moriah said. “Kak dyela?”

    “Very well today, my Lady.”

    The above examples translate to:

    "Good morning, my Lady."

    "Good morning, Dmitry. How are you?"

    The scene happens shortly after Moriah wakes up, so I didn't translate the "Good morning"s because I figured the meaning was implied. The "How are you?" bit went similarly untranslated because Dmitry has a standard answer to it. I figured people could understand what they were saying from context.

  9. MY ABNA entry takes place in Bosnia. Of course they're not really speaking english but for the sake of my readers they are. I inject some Serbo-Croation in there but not much.

  10. Michelle, Yes, I didn't want to mention in the post because it might be good to see if people are confused, but it does mean "You idiot." I like your example from Cinders!

    Wulf, For my story, the use of the language matters a bit because the status between the characters change depending on the language they use. When they speak English, the son is more confident, for example. When they speak Thai, the father is more confident. And, sometimes they make efforts to force the other to speak a particular language. You bring up great points, though. I have not read For Whom The Bell Tolls, though I'm familiar with a few of Hemingway's other works. I'll check it out.

    Southpaw, that' s an interesting technique too. Thanks for the suggestion! Point of view seems to be critical in making the assessment of which strategy is the best.

    Loren, thanks for your vote! That does make me think. When I've written shorter stories that take place in Thailand, I usually picked this technique. Maybe I'll go back to it for the novel too.

    Scott, thanks! For some words, I did just end up using the Thai without translating it. Right now, what I have is very unsystematic. Sometimes I translate and sometimes I don't. Maybe that's the best way, and I can just deal with it in a case by case manner.

    Sara, thanks a lot for your vote. Actually, I'm really glad it works to not translate it. That's more fun for me as a writer because then I get to play more with the context to make sure the meaning is coming through.

  11. Matthew, thanks for your suggestions. I think we differ because I have gotten complaints about how I handled it in my stories! But, I really like what you have to say about the translations. That can be very useful, and it seems fun too, like playing a game of telephone.

    And thanks a lot for the example! We always love it when people post their writing!

    T. Anne, that's the strategy I've been using most often. Sometimes I mention what language they're using, but usually, I don't bother except where I think it matters. But, I'm getting requests for more Thai flavor, so I feel like I should try some new ways to see if I like it more.

  12. I use a lot of Hindi in my manuscript, but since I am writing for a predominantly Indian audience, I don't see a problem with that. When I use any other less common Indian language, I normally either make the meaning clear in the sentence, or translate.

    Great post.

  13. I like #3 because it treats the reader as a smarter person, but when I read books in which the foreign language isn't explained and I can't decide if I've got the meanings right, I am paranoid that I am missing out on some important information.

    I am doing #2 in my book. Some of the words, such as the ones in your eg, are clear in their meaning in context, some may need explanation. And I think because my target audience is younger, (8-12 year olds) the slight awkwardness is an acceptable flaw so that I make sure my readers don't feel as if they don't get what's going on.

  14. I like your #3 version.

    In Masquerade I have a few sentences in French and didn't bother to translate because the actions of the characters made it redundant.

  15. Actually, I'm usually a fan of not bothering to translate at all. Instead, why not let the readers figure it out as they go? To extend your example, good sir:

    "I'm sorry, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to look in the urn," Jaroen said.

    "Ai rigoh! Blah blah, blabbity blah in Thai," his father replied.

    "I'm not an idiot! How could I have known when no one told me?"

    This is an inelegant example, but the principle remains. Not sure if it'll work for you, but it's how I'd approach things. Hemingway, after all, rarely translated phrases in foreign languages when he used them (as Wulf noted above).

  16. I like Simon's idea. In my last book I had Polonius quote Epicetus at length, in Latin. He then refutes Epicetus' claims in English.

    But it would still get old for the reader if you used that sort of construction a lot.

    One thing that I think would be cool would be if, at the cockfight, there was a lot of yelling in Thai coming from the men gambling, all around the boys and untranslated, just to give a sort of soundtrack to the scene.

  17. My vote is for #2. As a reader, I like when some of the original language is used and then quickly followed by a translation.

    And, have you considered dropping the 'he said in English'? To me it seems redundant because the novel is in English so I assume the conversations will be unless otherwise specified.

    Have you read The Joy Luck Club lately? Pull it out again...Amy Tan does a fantastic job of weaving languages seamlessly for the reader. But, you have some really good thoughts here and seem to be doing well.

    Happy poisson d'Avril. I remember learning about that when I lived in the French House at college. Ah, the memories of taping fish on other people's backs...silly college days.

  18. That last one did it for me.

    If you're only using a few words, like your beginning, then translation is not necessary, for me anyways. I can get the emotion expressed without needing the exact words. But if your character speaks in another language a lot; I really like to see the language written out, and then maybe the english translation in parenthesis and/or italics.

    If your whole dialogue between characters is in another language, though, then a reminder once in a while of the language they're speaking in suffices.

    For myself, anyways.


  19. I would find it less jarring if you made clear which language each uses in a dialogue exchange between them to stress that friction early on. The tags throw me off. It's author information, and, it seems, you would have to keep doing it over and over. I like having foreign words spicing up a story, as long as the meaning is clear through what's going on or in the following response.

  20. Rayna, That makes sense. I do see myself as writing for a strictly English-speaking audience, and I think with Thai (as opposed to Spanish or French) the vast majority of readers will just have no idea what any of the words are. I think clarity is key.

    Yat-Yee, I agree with you that the third example does treater the reader as smarter. And, in places, I have used that technique. In other places, I feel more of a need to explain. Your writing is so graceful, I have a feeling your acceptable flaw doesn't come off sounding like a flaw at all.

    Anne, I think whenever I can get away with it, I'll probably avoid translating. When I first wrote this story I just had everything in English, but then some readers mentioning wanting the flavor of the language...that's how I got into this whole mess. :)

    Simon, I've thought about stuff like this. Unfortunately, 90% of the dialog is in Thai, so I don't think this would work, even though I really like it when other writers do this. Ai rigoh!

    Scott, I do feel like I'm throwing in the actual words for the flavor, so your idea is a great one.

    Tess, I just mentioned above that the majority of the dialog would be in Thai. So, for the most part I do just not bother to say that. But, in the scenes where both languages are used, I'm feeling the need to clarify. It has been years since I read Joy-Luck Club. I'll check it out again. Thanks for the tip!

    Donna, thanks for your thoughts. In my earlier drafts I relied more on these reminders like you say in your third paragraph. Now I'm trying to add in some of the actual words. It will probably be very sparingly.

    Tricia, Thanks a lot for chiming in. I do try to keep this to a minimum because it sounds clunky to me too. I like your idea of having these things clear in the beginning, that didn't work, somehow, especially as all of the major characters jumped back and forth. I was causing a lot of confusion.

  21. I like the third choice, because you aren't explaining what's being said. This is how people talk (those that switch back and forth between languages). The writing is more natural that way.

    I've seen some bad writing where people will write whole sentences in another language, hoping you'll get the gist, I guess. This seems to happen with Spanish in particular, as if we Americans are all on the "learn Spanish" bus. It's annoying to me because I figure if you're going to write a book in another language, do so. If you're just using the language to show characterization and culture however, use it sparingly. But don't translate mid-dialogue. People don't speak like that unless they say something the other person truly doesn't understand.

  22. This reminds me of various Victorian novels wherein it is assumed that the reader speaks French. Since I speak Spanish but not French, I am often annoyed at having to babbelfish phrases when reading.
    Two of my YA mss have chunks of dialogue in Scots, but since Scots is so close to English, I don't worry about that too much.
    This is a very interesting post topic.

  23. In the examples, I like three. I tend to assume that option two is three anyways since I don't understand it. I like the flavor it provides.

    I have worked on a story where the viewpoint character doesn't know the language of the characters around him. The story is set in Sweden, so there are many similar words; so I mix these into the dialogue where a native who isn't very fluent in English might use it (not common since most people know English well). Occasionally, things are said that aren't intended for the viewpoint character to know and if short, I'll include the Swedish. The idea is to capture some of the alienation of the character in this usage.

  24. Davin, sorry I'm getting to this so late, but here's my take on this. Most of my writing includes bilingual passages, Spanish and English. Years ago, I would try the clumsy add-on of in English or in Spanish or translate immediately. But that's what it was, clumsy. What I do now is that I don't translate. I don't indicate what language is being spoken, unless it 's necessary for clarification because the text is in English. This latter technique of writing in English what is spoken in Spanish I try to avoid. So what do I do? I rely heavily on context to clarify meaning. Indeed, though I inserted at the end of my Choosing Sides novel a glossary, my beta readers uniformly told me they didn’t have to use it. I incidentally use Junot Diaz as an inspiration for how to deal with this issue. His Pultizer-prize-winning Brief and Tragic Life of Oscar Wao novel is full of bilingualisms which he never translates. You might want to check it out.

  25. Title Correction: The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz


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