PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water January 9, 2012 - 8:57am

So, I'm interested in everyone's thoughts on having untranslated foreign language dialogue in a story/novel.  I'm interested in this for two reasons: 

1) Most of the stories I write consist of fairly large amounts of untranslated Spanish dialogue.  This is a result of the characters and place.  My stories are about Chicanos in South Texas, so they speak a lot of Spanish. 

2) This article really interested me:  http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-godfather,50431/.  It's about the untranslated Italian scenes in the Godfather.

I've seen a few novels do this really well:  The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz to name a couple.

What do people think about this?  Is there a line where it passes from realism to pretentiousness?  Would you stop reading a book if the dialogue was too foreign to you? 

Also, can anyone recommend books that do this in a language other than Spanish?  I'd like to see what it's like from the other side.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 9, 2012 - 9:16am

I don't mind foreign dialogue in a story if it's appropriate - the tipping point comes when there's so much of it that not knowing the language is a disadvantage. I can gather some of the context, but if the dialogue becomes more involved, I'm screwed.

I found that with the Gunny Sack by M.G. Vissanji. The story took place in the Indian diaspora community in East Africa, and their English was full of a pidgin of Swahili, Hindi and other languages. There was so much of it that flipping back and forth to the glossary impeded the flow of the story.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz January 9, 2012 - 12:53pm

In my opinion polyglot dialogue and text can be really effective and add a nice rich layer to a story. But it should be intrinisic to the plot and setting and should never become so abundant that a reader becomes overwhelmed by it to the point it distracts from the flow of the story.

Anytime a reader has to stop reading to garner a definition, then the spell of the story risks being broken. And just like everything else in storytelling, this is another element that relies heavily on context and balance. What frames the untranslated text to provide hints at translating it? The reader should be able to at least attempt, without the use of a foreign language dictionary, hypothetical guesses based on what is happening elsewhere in the story.

Just like being lost in a foreign country and being able to deduct certain things by a truncated amount of data and still be able to find your way to the Train station. The author's job is to ensure that regardless of how complicated things become linguistically that their readers will make it to the train station on time. Otherwise they are still just lost and no reader likes to be lost for too long. 

But it also depends a bit on the intended audience. For example Germans are notorious for their English Language proficiency and many could comfortably read a story filled with English dialogue. On a similar note, in our household French and English are spoken simultaneously. My wife frequently speaks in French to our two sons and they respond in French and English, or a mixture of both to the point that they almost become interchangeable. But that is a very specific audience. A somewhat limited one.

Some authors or works that come to mind, or who intersperse foreign language or dialect well are Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights where Joseph speaks in dialect:

“’Nelly,’ he said, ‘we’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ‘ems a’most gotten his finger cut off wi’ haudin’ t’ other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlf. That’s maister, yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’ grand ‘sizes. He’s noan feared uh t’ Bench uh judges, norther Paul, nur Peter, nur John, nur Mathew, nur noaon ‘em, nut he! He fair likes he langs tuh set his brazened face agean ‘em! And yon bonny lad Heathcliff, yah mind, he’s a rare un! He can girn a laugh, as weel’s onybody at a raight divil’s jest. Does he niver say nowt of his fine living amang us, when he goads tuh t’ Grange? This is t’ way on ‘t – up at sun-dahn; dice, brandy, cloised shutters, und can’le lught till next day, at nooin – then, t’ fooil gangs banning un raving tuh his cham’er, makking dacent fowks dig thur fingers i’ thur lugs fur varry shaume; un th’ knave, wah, he carn cahnt his brass, un’ ate, un’ sleep, un’ off tuh his neighbour’s tuh gossip wi’ t’ wife. I’ course, he tells Dam Catherine hah hor fathur’s goold runs intuh his pocket, and her fathur’s son gallops dan t’Broad road, while he flees afore tuh oppen t’ pikes?’”

Anthony Burgess also comes to mind. A Clockwork Orange illustrating the importance of context surrounding a (practical) foreign language Nadsat, a derivitive of Russian. I think this is one of the best examples of how to assimilate foreign language into a text fluently so that as strange as it seems, it still becomes comprehensive through the way the author handles it.

One other example I can think of that uses foreign language in a more pure sense is Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz which contains large untranslated blocks of Latin text to convey a sense of origins as well as alienation. It is not necessary to understand them, but they serve their purpose nonetheless. However, they do reward the reader who is willing to take the next step and discover what they say by translating them.

That brings me to my final point. I love it when I read a book and learn bits of language that were once foreign. If the author handles it properly, their readers come away richer in language than they started out. Of course the risk is frustrating your reader to the point where they never want to set foot in your world again. The trick seems to be to be welcoming and hospitable so your reader is comfortable enough to learn the language as it is presented.

That is my take on it anyway.



Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff January 9, 2012 - 1:14pm

Beppe Fenoglio was an inspired Italian author who used a lot of English in his works. You can get an idea of his polyglot style by checking page 71 of this online e-book http://www.scribd.com/doc/62884361/B-Fenoglio-Primavera-di-bellezza

By the way, I've just discovered that, for the way I speak and write, I can be easily called an idiolectic. Yay.

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz January 9, 2012 - 5:04pm

Beppe Fenoglio. Nice name too.

People frequently call me idio-tic.