So, apparently there’s been a little change to the Proser’s schedule and I’ve been asked to jump in for Trisha. But fret not, faithful Proser reader/lurker! I shall use this opportunity to develop my stand-up routine, a dream I have had ever since I entertained the kids in grade school with unsavory fart jokes.
Have you heard the one about Stephen King, the agent and the unpublished author?
*Dodges a cyber tomato*
Whoa! Tough crowd, eh? All right, you heckling ingrates, we will stare at each other until you learn to appreciate me.
Fine, let’s talk about writing.
Okay, so you want to add a little variety to your novel and write a nonnative speaker? More power to you, my scribbly friend! After all spice is the variety of life, but if you’re anything like me sometimes you don’t know when to lay off the Tabasco sauce and you end up squinting your eyes and telling the other people at the table that you’re NOT crying.
You might say “Stefan, you extraordinarily ordinary person, why should I listen to you?”
Well it just so happens that English is my third language and I am fluent in four and I need to point this out because of self-esteem issues.
Even professional authors keep flubbing the foreign characters and the problem is so pervasive that it makes me want to throw the book against the wall or put it in the freezer. Which I don’t do, because I do most of my reading on my Kindle and I had to pull a few strings to get a hold of one, and storing your paperbacks in the freezer makes all the pretty women think you’re a freak. And then, they post lengthy diatribes on their blogs, making you look like an antisocial monster, whereas you just want to be loved and...
Buuuuut, I digress.
Well, the thing is, most authors use clichés to portray nonnative speakers, and that’s just lazy writing. So, you decided to add a nonnative speaker into your story? One of those quirky funky foreign types who whisk away all the ladies in the romance novels, but who in the real world cry themselves to sleep clutching their plushies with a disturbing fervor (can’t be just me, right?).
Most authors I’ve encountered make the sad mistake of using quasi-linguistic shortcuts to make up for the fact that they don’t speak the language. I’ve never been a proponent of “write what you know”, because I’ve never been on far away planets arm-wrestling robo-velociraptors with lasers shooting out of their eyes. Making stuff up is fine. Note I said “making up stuff”, which doesn’t translate to “you don’t have to do research.” With that being said let’s look at the worst offenders and bludgeon them out of fiction. Keep those bicycle chains and baseball bats ready boys and girls.
Oh, and a small disclaimer, before we start to dissect particular techniques. I won’t be mentioning any authors by name. It would be unfair to single anyone out and everyone makes mistakes. And maybe some authors have hired goons, and I maybe I appreciate having unmolested goolies. Also all examples are made up.
Dropping foreign words
“ Ah, you must be John, oui?” said Pierre.
People don’t talk like that. Inserting random foreign words to add flavor to dialogue is like mixing caviar with custard - you might feel all posh, but people who know good custard from bad are going to look at you as if you’re out of your mind (as well they should).
The above example is especially egregious. “Yes” and “No” are those words EVERYONE knows. So, there’s no reason whatsoever for Pierre to say “oui”. The only conceivable instances when someone would say a word in their native language (to say, an English speaker) are:
1. It is a complex word, describing a concept (as opposed to a tangible object) and can’t point at it.
2. The character doesn’t know the word in English.
3. The character wants to curse, but doesn’t want his friends to know.
Not even the second instance warrants the use of a foreign word unless the character’s collocutor is bilingual. People will try to explain a concept to you by using the words they know or by employing embarrassing pantomime shenanigans, like me when I was seven years old and had to go the bathroom in the middle of our performance of Hansel and Gretel.
I am not saying that people shouldn’t use foreign words in their dialog, but for me it all revolves around context. If language is a part of the plot, or your main character mistakes one word for another (or let’s say has been deliberately taught wrong), then that makes for an interesting feature. If you want to emphasize how exotic a character is, then make them use fancy-pants words in their own language to belittle the hero.
Make the foreign language matter , make it show character.
Otherwise you’re just pointing it out in a ham-fisted manner - hey look, this person is EXOTIC! Okay, let’s put it like this.
I walk into a bakery or a pie shop and see a lot of scrumptious delicacies. While contemplating with which delish pastry I will stuff my face with first a pie comes flying into my face and the man at the counter says: “See? We are a pie shop? Figured that out yet? Oh, gee, there’s a lot of pie on your face, buddy. Get it? PIE!”
“Yes,” I’d reply before I’d pounce on him and knock his teeth out.
That one foreign word that pops out of nowhere? It’s like a pie to the face.
I swear that analogy made sense in my head.
Get the grammar right
This pet peeve of mine takes two forms:
1. The dunce nonnative speaker
2. The Tetris nonnative speaker
The dunce nonnative speaker is a sad, sad creature. He can’t even speak his own language! So many times I’ve seen writers make these nonsensical errors - especially when Japanese language is involved.
For example: -san, -sama and other suffixes can’t stand by themselves, and yet I’ve seen it done two times, by two different novelists. That’s a five minute Wikipedia search mind you. I know where the problem lies though: they treat the suffixes of -san or -sama like the English Mr. or Mrs. It doesn’t work that way.
The Tetris nonnative speaker on the other hand? He’s one cool customer. He just doesn’t give a flying eff. He drops parts of speech like a birthday clown drops free candy. Much like in a game of Tetris the words that he drops are completely random, without any rhyme or reason to it. I can picture the Tetris nonnative speaker avatar standing atop of a tall building, his ragged badass cape fluttering in the wind while he contemplates which parts of speech he is going to ignore in his next sentence.
“Maybe I won’t use articles! Who needs those! No, wait, I will replace the male and female pronouns! Oh, the chaos I will sow!” *cue cheap villain guffaw*
All right, here’s the thing. Language has structure. Language has idioms. Language has... well rules.
Dropping random parts of speech isn’t going to make the characters more authentic. Learn which parts of speech the foreign language you want to use is lacking.
Let’s take my first language for instance. Serbian. Okay. Serbian doesn’t have determiners. At least not in the traditional sense. There’s no “the” and “a”. So unless you learn the rules by heart or get so used to the English language you’re going to have a tough time as a Serb speaking English.
“Girl want me deliver box.”
Note that I dropped the “The” before girl and “a” before box (among other parts of speech). That’s something I could imagine someone without a firm grasp on English say. You probably guessed the trick, by now, so I better stop tripping around the colorful handkerchiefs that spill out of my sleeves.
Many nonnative speakers translate sentences from their native language and the results can be awkward.
And that’s where the real nitty-gritty fun starts with foreign languages and mistranslations!
Idioms or adages are a great way to have fun with this. Many sayings or phrases have equivalents in languages other than English. You can look those up and play around with them. Another example (and one I pilfered from a friend of mine who actually made that mistake), in German people say:
Wie mein Vater immer zu sagen pflegte.
Mein Vater pflegte immer zu sagen.
Which can be translated as “As my father always used to say.”
Now, my friend who was learning how to speak English said:
“As my father nourished to say.”
Pflegen means to nourish. He translated what he’d say in German. Does it sound awkward? Sure. But let’s examine that sentence a little closer. Go ahead - read it a few times. Fix some tea and bust out those After Eight mints, let’s be all fancy here. That’s right we’re putting on our fancy literary hats.
That sentence has a nice poetic weight to it, doesn’t it?
Much better than writing something like “As mein Vater always used to say,” or some such contrived sentence.
Here’s another example, this time in Serbian:
There’s a saying that runs:
“Navući nekoga na tanak led.”
Which means to make someone tread on thin ice. Sounds familiar? Treading on thin ice means being in danger. Well, in Serbian it means trying to fool someone as in:
“The pharmaceutical companies are making Stefan tread on thin ice because his anti-depressants are too damn expensive.”
Imagine all the misunderstandings that could ensue from that! Plot twists! Climaxes! Character development! Alien abductions!
And in the end my anti-depressants are STILL too expensive, but you might have a better story.
Research grammar and language. See what you can do with linguistic quirks. The fact of the matter is while people use the same grammar and boast varying levels of vocabulary prowess, we all have our unique quirks when we speak.
And YOU can make that work for yourself.
Why? Because you are smart, sexy and self-sufficient. And you do your homework. But the aforementioned qualities help too.
Transcribing an accent is really tough. I’ve seen it done well, but those instances are rare. Transcribing speech requires a firm understanding of IPA and regional accents and it is easier to describe an accent than painstakingly spell it out.
Do I endorse laziness? No. I mean, I do sometimes, when I am too lazy to cook and feel like pizza, but me being slovenly is not the issue here.
Reedin’ traenscraybd tekst iz a paeyn in thee baht.
“Reading transcribed text is a pain in the butt,” said, Stefan in a velvet voice that oozed sex-appeal in a vain attempt to divert attention from the fact that he had spilled Brandy on his pants.
Point proven? If you really want to transcribe an accent then practice. Practice a lot.
So, in the end...
It might sound like I am ragging on people for having funny foreigners in their books, but I am really not. I just want fully fleshed out characters, which feel like real people. I love writing fiction, and when you love something, it deserves to be done right.
I’d really like to get into how to do characters who speak Japanese, but this post is too long as it is (but, hey if there’s a demand for it? Maybe one day).
There’s one last piece of advice I’d like to dole out.
In this age of the Internet (it’s a fad, I am telling you) and globalization, and a lot of people speak English reasonably well. So you can do without those little quirks. But if you want to have them anyway, make them matter and do some research. Maybe it will inspire you to learn a new language. You’ll be richer in the end. Let’s not forget the fact that you can casually bring it up during fancy dinner parties!
“Hey, do you know that Japanese has a different sentence structure than English?”
If my experience is any indication, they’ll probably just turn around and leave.
So, that’s it. In a nutshell. Hope you found it informative.