Foreign Languages

A friend offered four possible ways of portraying foreign language in prose and asked fellow writers (myself among them) which is the preferable method:
1) Repetition in the dialogue using the main narrative language: The German tipped his hat to the Englishman. "Wie heissen sie? What is your name, sir?"

2) Explanation in the tag: "Wo yao yi ping lu de che," she said, ordering a cup of green tea.

3) Direct translation in italics: "Ite maledicte in ignum eternum!" Depart ye evil-doer into everlasting fire!

4) Don't offer any help; let the reader sort it out for himself.
My preference lies with #2 although I've also used #4 and tried to provide enough context that the reader will have an idea. I agree that one should be very judicious in the use of foreign languages and especially to make sure that what you've written is correct.

In a fantasy/science fiction context, unless you're a linguist like J.R.R. Tolkein, I think a writer should avoid creating a language and using it in the text at all costs. Rather, think of the general sound (gutteral, singsong, &c.) and describe that rather than making up words.

That said, I found a very good "toolbox" for creating new languages here: http://www.zompist.com/kit.html and have tried it out myself. In the end, I decided it was way too much work for the results a non-linguist sucha as myself (I only speak one language, a linguistic phillistine, really) would get out of it.

1 comment:

Sophia's Favorite said...

I do #3, although I only explain something if the POV character speaks the relevant language. So there are whole secondary scenes happening in some of my books that people who don't speak German (and at one point, Austrian German, which is actually a different language) simply will not understand.

I like it that way, though.

The Language Construction Kit (I have known it from of old) is fairly helpful, though I found its style irksome in places.

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