Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When Your Character Doesn’t Speak English

How do you handle the dialogue when an important character (or any character, for that matter) doesn’t speak English? How do you create and maintain the authenticity that helps to transport your novel into a believable story with wide audience appeal?

Granted, most of our readers are English-speaking—either primarily or solely. Too many foreign words will likely turn them off, which doesn’t contribute to our creation of a best-seller or even a good seller.

Obviously, we want to craft a story that the reader understands and populate it with characters who inspire our audience to love them, hate them, root for them, clap when they get caught—you get the idea. It’s rather like the serial movies from my childhood days when the hero’s entrance evoked cheers from the audience and the fall of the bad guy met with resounding applause.

So how do we retain the flavor of realism without putting English words in the mouths of characters who don’t speak the language? We allow that character the dignity of speaking in his/her native tongue and let another character or the context translate for the reader.

In my last novel, a Hispanic family played a major role. The husband spoke fair English, the older youngsters were bilingual, but the mother spoke only Spanish. Is this realistic? Absolutely! I have several good friends who speak little to no English, yet who must work and function in this country. (Bear in mind, please, that this is a discussion about non-English-speaking characters in a novel, not a debate about whether every resident should be required to speak our language.)

Here are two short excerpts from my story that demonstrate how I handled it. The first depicts a meeting with a lawyer, and the second begins the defendant’s response to his attorney’s question during a trial.
The phone on his desk buzzed. “Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz are here,” the receptionist said.
     “Send them in.”
     Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz? He checked his afternoon appointments. Only Ana Ortiz’s name appeared in his scheduler. Beside it he had written “child custody” with a question mark.
     The man shook his hand. “Señor Wolf, I am Emilio Ortiz. This is my wife Ana. She is not good with the inglés, so I come to help her understand.”
      “That’s good. My Spanish is really rusty.”
      Hola, Señor Wolf.” Ana Ortiz clung to her husband’s arm with one hand and reached out to shake his hand with the other.
      Hola, Señora.” Aidan pointed them toward the chairs opposite his desk and sat down. Leaning back, he watched their silent interaction and listened to their story. Within moments, he knew their problem was not between them. Nor would he be able to help.
“When I find my Ana, I know to have this wonderful person in my life para siempre . . . forever, I need to treat her like una flor delicada. When we no treat flowers with the tenderness, they die. I can never do that to my Ana or nuestros niños preciosos . . . our precious children. They are my family.”

Because I am not very fluent in Spanish and still use English structure when speaking and writing it, I asked Hispanic friends to review my scenes that included Spanish language. Also, a number of English readers who did not speak it at all reviewed my manuscript. Based on all their feedback, I would say the end result works.

How do you handle using foreign words in your English stories? As a reader, how do you feel about books that contain foreign words or phrases?


Linda Lane heads up a team of editors whose goal it is to mentor serious writers who want to hone their craft. She is working on her next novel and hopes to finish several more that were started years ago and patiently await her return. You can visit her and her team at www.denvereditor.com.
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  1. I'm not a Spanish-speaker, but I could understand what was going on because of the context. Great examples of how to use foreign language.

  2. This is a great post, Linda, on a topic near and dear to me as a writer. The characters in my international thrillers have spoken Hebrew, German, Dutch, and Portuguese, among other languages. Although your scene represents a rather specialized context, you demonstrate one broadly useful writing technique. The "translation echo," in which a phrase in another language is immediately echoed by the speaker in English, is a flexible one that readers seem to accept--at least for short phrases--even though real people do not speak that way. Other variants include having the other speaker do the translating for the reader or even to give the translation first.

    "Os chaves, Senhor," he said.
    "Yes, the keys. Thank you. Obrigado," I replied.

    On occasion, I trust to broad familiarity and context to cue the reader. As a reader, I enjoy these little lessons in language, but I have also been criticized for it.

    "Here is the document you have been looking for," I said.
    He smiled in gratitude. "Toda. Todah raba," he said in his accented Hebrew.
    "You don't have to thank me. It was always yours."

    Like you, I always have native speakers of the language proof my constructions, even in a language that I know quite well. Still, part of verisimilitude is in the slips and misconstructions. If my character is not fluent in German, he will not necessarily get every word perfect, and I sometimes make a character struggle with the language or be corrected by someone else, which also adds to believability.

  3. As a guy who struggles with his native tongue, I find it prudent to avoid any reference to foreign languages ... unless it is something like: el lapiz es azul.

  4. Very helpful post, Linda, and I really like the way you blended the Spanish in to make it understandable in context.

    Reading this reminded me of the first time I tried to write dialogue by a Spanish man. He did speak English with just a few Spanish words thrown in. However, I was trying to get the rhythm of how Hispanics speak right. I gave the ms to a friend who is Spanish and asked for her feedback. She told me he sounded like a Chinese speaking Pigeon English. LOL My friend helped me get it right. Which is always the bottom line - get it right.

  5. Heidi, it was a challenge at first to find a way to keep the story flowing without losing readers who didn't want to try to figure out the foreign words. So glad you can understand -- most of the Spanish-speaking scenes are similar to those in my article. One scene, however, is mostly internal dialogue and initially involves only the Spanish-speaking woman. That had to be in English. Her few spoken words, however, are in Spanish.

  6. Ah, Larry, a kindred spirit who incoporates foreign language for flavor and realism. I enjoyed your examples. They work beautifully -- so much so that now I'd like to read the books. Talk about great marketing! :-)

  7. Christopher, blue pencils are nice.

    Maryann, it's interesting how people from different parts of the world use Enlish differently. Mexicans, for example, use articles (the, in paticular) where we don't. My association with Spanish speakers is often Mexican, but I also have friends who are from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, etc., and they all speak English uniquely. For a lady who has never been a world traveler, this venture into other cultures and languages is extraordinary.

  8. Linda, this is a really useful post (augmented nicely by Larry!). It's a great idea for writers to jot notes after speaking to ESL speakers. You never know when it might come in handy.

  9. Really good example of how to flawlessly weave in the foreign dialogue. Lately, I've been reading stories that don't italicize the foreign words, and that gets very confusing. I've even wondered whether the foreign language in YA and Fantasy genres shouldn't be in italics. LOL. Not Googling that, Christopher!

  10. I would also add that Google Translate is not a great resource for writing foreign dialogue! In case you haven't figured that out. :D

  11. I haven't had occasion to write any dialogue with foreign words, but I've read plenty of them. It's hard to find just the right balance between beating your reader over the head with a language dictionary, and leaving them totally confused. The examples here strike just the right note. :)

  12. I've never thought about using a character with a different language in my book. Yours looks like a good way to handle such a situation.
    Morgan Mandel

  13. Since I've forgotten both Spanish (taken in high school) and French (college), I rarely attempt to write in either. I have occasionally used a word or two, but other than that, I write only in English. (Although some might say my use of Southern colloquialisms counts as a foreign language.)

  14. When using Ojibwe translations, I put the Ojibwe translations first, then identify the character speaking, and then the English form afterwards, (in the story, 'Wendigo,' available in 'The Paranoid Cat and other tales.' It's purely experimental, but it seemed to work okay. In a novel about a French detective, he speaks English so the readers can understand him, but occasionally blurts 'Nom de dieux,' (name of God,) or such things, which gives a certain flavour to the story. In some ways, it's common sense, and in some ways, especially 'Wendigo,' I'm trying new things and blazing a new trail.

  15. This post is right up my alley! Thanks, Linda, for the example. I'm originally from the German part of Switzerland but live in California and do my creative writing in English. I write foremost for an English-speaking audience but my novels usually take place in several countries and I try to give the reader a flavor of the foreign language without overpowering him or her. Too many foreign expressions tend to interrupt the flow of the story and can even appear artificial. The right balance is not always easy to find. I was blamed once by a British reader of one of my novels, which takes place in part in Switzerland, for using American idiomatic expressions. Well, she may have had a point, but I couldn't very well have the people speak Swiss German. But it just shows that there isn't always an easy solution.
    Good comments!

  16. Kathryn, I like your idea of making notes when listening to ESL speakers. The way they phrase a sentence and use adjectives/adverbs, as well as their use of articles, can add great realism to our stories.

    Dani, thanks for noting that foreign words should be italicized and Google isn't the best translator. Writers need to be aware of both.

    Silfert, thank you for your kind words. Balance, indeed, is the key.

  17. Morgan, in the past I would not have included foreign words in my stories. However, my interaction with the Hispanic community in the last few years has broadened my horizons in this area, and now it seems almost second nature to include characters whose native tongue isn't English.

    Louis, bravo for blazing new trails. I'm particularly intrigued by your use of Objibwe. I have long wanted to write a novel that included some of the Cherokee culture (and language - my children are part Cherokee), and one of the attorneys in my current book is half Irish and half Cherokee. In the sequel I may explore some of that history and culture within the context of the story.

  18. Helen, I thought I'd forgotten my one year of high school French until five years ago when I set out to learn Spanish. All of a sudden, my sentences would be fractured Spanish with a smattering of French words thrown in for good measure. Not sure where the French came from, but somewhat confused mind must have related the two languages. It took real effort to keep the French at bay until the Spanish became the more familiar language.

    Christa, you're so right about the challenges of finding a good balance without overdoing the foreign language usage. One of the things that I appreciate about other languages is the speaker's ability to use English words in creative ways that never would occur to us but that often paint the most fascinating word pictures in the minds of listeners. By extension, this would include our readers.

  19. Linda, I suspect since both are Romance languages, the word similarities simply overlapped. You could probably do fine in Italy with your Spanish and French.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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