Foreign words in foreign settings

One of the issues to be resolved when writing fiction with a setting outside the English-speaking world and with non-English speaking characters is how much of their native language to use in dialogue. Too much will confuse and probably annoy the majority of readers unfamiliar with the language. On the other hand, a sprinkling of foreign words (in my case Spanish) reminds readers where the book is set and gives a flavour of the country concerned. It serves, along with descriptions of landscapes or other features of the environment – physical or cultural – to build up an atmosphere. Sometimes, when my Spanish characters speak, I find myself thinking in Spanish, of how they would say something, and then translating it back into English, though this needs to be done with care so that the English sounds natural too.

It hardly needs saying that the most important consideration when using a foreign language is that the meaning should be clear. If the words are unintelligible to readers, it defeats the purpose and will just antagonise them. The simplest way of introducing the relevant language is to use the common words with which most English speakers are familiar: si, hola, gracias, vino to give a few Spanish examples that don’t require translation. I often insert the kind of fairly meaningless words that pepper the speech of Spanish natives. Bueno or pues, meaning ‘well’ and used as fillers while people are considering how to respond, add a touch of local seasoning. The Spanish sigh, a long drawn-out ay, or common interjections like ¡anda! or ¡hombre! can easily be introduced in appropriate places. In some instances the context makes the meaning of a word or phrase obvious, but if that’s not the case, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to follow it with a translation, so long as this is done sparingly: too much and the novel comes to resemble a language lesson.

Another challenge is that of expressing in an authentic way how natives of the country in question speak English. Accents can’t easily be conveyed in a written text but the grammatical or lexical mistakes or other features transferred from the characters’ own language certainly can. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie adds the suffix –o to English words in order to give the flavour of how Nigerian Igbo speakers converse in English. My long experience of living in Spain and teaching English to Spaniards means I am thoroughly familiar with the most common mistakes they make when they speak English. These will not be the same mistakes made by a German or a Russian or a Japanese. So writing a Spanish character communicating in English (for example, Paco to Alice in Secrets of the Pomegranate), I know exactly how he will talk.

Glancing through some of the other books with foreign settings on my shelves – books set in Turkey, in India, in Russia, in Mexico, in France, in Nigeria – I find most of their authors opt for a similar approach, using variable amounts of the native tongue. Elif Shafak uses Turkish or Arabic words only rarely while Adichie includes whole sentences in the Igbo language. Despite being totally ignorant of Igbo, this doesn’t bother me as a reader, though others might feel differently. In Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh quite often uses Hindi phrases followed by their translation, as well as some wonderfully colourful pidgin-type language, the meaning of which you have to guess (but who cares?). I just love the sound of ‘cunchunees whirling and tickytaw boys beating their tobblers’. Like the made-up ‘nadsat’ slang used by Antony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, it’s fun to try and interpret. I’d be interested to know what other readers and writers think. Are words or phrases in an unfamiliar language irritating or do they add a welcome touch of exoticism?

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