Many of the books I’ve been reading recently have featured characters whose first language is not English. This situation has always presented a bit of a conundrum to both writers and film makers and I’m sorry to say that many don’t handle it very well.
As a species, we’ve reached the stage where travel is commonplace making transhumance (as people move around looking for jobs) relatively commonplace. As a child, there was a song ‘Trains and boats and planes’ which featured the line ‘a ticket to Paris or Rome’. The very idea of going to such places seemed far-fetched yet now I write this with Rome just a few hours away down the road.
Multiculturalism is a fact of modern life and, in a writing context, this means embracing foreign languages and characters. What it boils down to is that you’ve three basic choices:
- Do it all in English.
- Start off in the foreign language and gradually slip into English having made your point.
- Do it all in the other language.
The first is a complete cop-out although it does work. Sadly, it can fail to convey some of the aspects of the character or the location so you’ll have to work hard to rectify that. While the third is technically correct, you will have to find a way of unobtrusively incorporating it. You’ll also need to make sure that your foreign text is not just correct, it’s colloquially correct. Unless you’re truly fluent, that means getting it translated by a native speaker.
The second option is a simpler solution although it can easily come back and bite you. Remember, don’t change language half-way through a sentence because that puts you in the ‘Moi? Pretentious?’ category. Also, what you do write needs to be sufficient to get across the nature of your character but no more. It also has to be correct – so get it checked over.
Since there are no accents in the English language, we’re notoriously hopeless at handling them when we do meet them. These accents do genuinely matter – they change the sound of the word – so it’s essential you get them correct. French has the acute accent, the grave accent and )the cedilla (ç) which goes under some c’s to soften them. German has umlauts that can go over the letters a, o and u (ä , ö, ü) plus an Esszett (ß)which is an old-fashioned double-s.
Some word-processors may struggle to cope with these characters – that’s no excuse. If you’re to look the part, you need to include them otherwise they’re just spelling mistakes.