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.