Monday, January 10, 2011

Todavía no habla español? Inglés?

Once upon a time, I went on a little wonder about the use of non-English phrases in books written for English speakers. Well, I find myself returned to that thought again lately.

In some recently invented spare time, I've been watching the TV show Firefly. This is for two reasons. 1) I'd been told I'd like it. 2) I'd also been told that if I don't watch it, I need to turn in my Nerd Card, and I like that Card.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, characters will randomly break out into Chinese. I don't just mean a quick hello at the start of meetings. No, they'll transition languages mid-sentence. For those of us less than fluent in Chinese (still me), sometimes you just end up sitting there thinking "what was that?" Or, if you know a tad of Chinese, you're thinking "I don't know if that means what you seem to think it means," or even, "Umm... you know you could just have said that in English, right, and let the audience understand? You know that wasn't a cuss, right?" Heck, I've been informed that you can be fluent in Chinese and sometimes you're still thinking "Ahem? What's happening?"

This begs the question, is there a benefit to using non-English words in books written for English speakers. (Or, to expand, any words not in your target language?)

This question might actually become relevant to me because back in NaNo, for the first time, I wrote a book containing non-English dialogue. My MC and her best friend, Amada, occasionally jump into Spanish. For the most part, I try to compensate in dialogue tags for the non-Spanish speakers (like myself), but I know I'm going to have to ask my betas if it works.

I must admit, I'm somewhat torn about the use of non-English language, especially outside of words people likely know. I know from experience that it can be challenging to read books where there's a lot of words you don't know because they're in a language you don't speak. It can leave you feeling like you're missing something important, and you might be, if the author doesn't compensate well in the rest of the text to catch you up.

On the other hand, if something that's non-English is authentic to certain characters, should an author fight it? After all, growing up I knew a lot of people who spoke a different language at home than at school, and when they ran into other people who spoke that language, they could transition into it pretty darn fast. So, it strikes me as something a character might do as well. Also, it lends a certain flavor to a character and a scene, and that might be a flavor that needs to be there. ¿Estás de acuerdo?

How do you feel about it? Do you ever use non-English in your writing? How do you work around it for non-speakers? How do you feel about it as a reader?


  1. Awesome discussion question. First off, LOVE Firefly and yes, a must see for nerds. I don't think I even realized it was Chinese they were speaking though, that's how clued in I am.

    I've never written a character who uses another language, outside of a few random words, but if it fits the character I think I would. The only issue I have is when there's not enough context around the phrase to really understand what they are saying.

    I read War and Peace last year and Tolstoy used a lot of French especially in dialogue. (Most of the upper classes in Russia spoke French at that time.) So instead of translating the Russian and the French into English, they translated the Russian into English and left the French in French with a footnote at the bottom of the page giving the English translaton. What a headache. But that's an extreme example.

  2. I've never written another language into my books. First, I don't know any other languages except for a bit of Spanish. Second, I've never had a character that speaks another language.

  3. Melissa -- You're right, contextualizing the non-English is totally key. You've gotta make sure people understand what's going on.

    Susan -- I think not having a foreign language character is definitely a fair reason not to have random foreign language appearing.

  4. Yeah...Firefly...*coughneedstowatchitstillcough*

    But on the subject of languages - it's pretty much up to you and your readers. There's a character in the Mercy Thompson series who will break into Ancient German when he's ticked off, or use a couple terms of endearment. The narrator (Mercy) has lived with him enough (and has picked up enough German) to get the gist and relay it to the audience.

    Granted, this character isn't a main one, so these instances are pretty few and far between. It might get a little more confusing/annoying if it's happening once or twice every page.

    I personally haven't tried second languages out in my writing. And other than maybe having a scene or two practicing for Spanish class, I don't see myself having a character fluent in it.

  5. Vicki -- You raise a good point. The fluency of a character is definitely a concern when determining whether or not a character can go off in another language. You'd need to know how the character picked it up, otherwise it'd be weird.

  6. First off - LOVES ME SOME FIREFLY!!!!

    Secondly, I was taken aback when I first recognized what the characters were doing, but then I became accustomed to it and even enjoyed trying to self-translate with what I felt fit in that situation. The key for me was balance. Firefly never let become distracting.

  7. DL -- Good point. I think the only reason I got distracted during Firefly -- awesomeness -- is that I like to pretend I speak a little Chinese, so I'd always be stopping to say "I've got to learn to say this." If I can get a reader that psyched about anything I write, I'll call that a win.