multiple languages

Hello All,

I seem to have come to a sticking point with my latest novel. The central character is from West Africa in the 19th century who has learned to speak English over a number of years from a visiting trader. In the story he embarks on a voyage that takes him to the Mediterranean and Morocco and he also meets a Spanish and a Greek person. My problem is that the dialogue, for obvious reasons, is in English, so that the reader understands what's being said. My problem is credibility, that is it would be very unlikely that everyone he meets can speak English. Obviously my character can't just have a translator pop up at the right time any more than he could drag one around with him. Writing in the foreign language and translating after would not be an option either as the character isn't going to understand it anyway and the reader would just skip through anything they can't decipher. 

So, do I just completely ignore this and write the whole thing in English? To me this just makes the story implausible. My book is finished but I still need to address this little conundrum of plausibility. Anyone else had this problem? Any help or advice gratefully received.

Comments

  • Skoob_ymSkoob_ym ✭✭✭

    In the book The Black Mountain, which was told entirely in the first person, the character gives us a preface saying that he couldn't ask for things to be translated as they happened, so his companion reviewed the important conversations with him whenever they were alone. Thus he is able to report what people said and did, without actually being able to understand the statements at the time.

     

    That's one option: Saying that these things were translated later.

     

    Or you can have him use small gestures and signs to make himself understood, or you can say that he has learned a few phrases of Greek and Spanish.

     

    Or you can ignore it entirely, and frankly, many readers will miss it. Of course, thsoe who do not miss it will certainly call it out to you.

     

    I think that the first option is best. Perhaps:

     

    A Note To The Reader:

    Rather than forcing you to decipher dialog in many languages and with many accents, I am showing you the conversations in English. Often they were actually in Spanish, Greek, Zapotec, and Ubuntu, so [character name] had to rely upon translators, sign language, and crude symbols sketched in the ground to make himself clear. Along the way, he learned a few phrases of each host language, as travellers abroad can not help doing, and these were also a great help to him.

     

    However, to write these conversations as they happened would be burdensome to me and confusing to you, so I have done us both a favor by rendering them in English. I hope that this will not interfere with your enjoyment of the story.

     

    - Author

    (or if this is said to be a diary or first person account, make that " - Editor" or something similar)

     

    That would be my best suggestion. I hope it helps.

  • What you have to ask is, in such a real situation, what would you do?

     

    At one time in films and TV all non-English spoke English with an accent, even to each other, so we would know they were foreign. Nowadays subtitles are used. You cannot really subtitle speech in books.

     

    I suppose the best method is > Hanz replies in German, "would you like a sausage?"

  • In such pieces of fiction, foreign characters speak broken English (Me like Queen Victiorian, very good man) or a quaint form of English like that of Hercule Poirot. The problem is that if a character speaks broken English, he will fall into the picturesque category, and will belong to the background crowd, so you can't easily make them tragic or romantic heroes.
    If all the characters are foreigners, it's a matter of suspension of disbelief; Everything they say is in standard English, but the convention is that they speak their own language. This convention is the same for translations.
  • Some interesting food for thought from all of you. I've considered how in the movies such as 'Gladiator,' for example, where the characters speak English and the audience is expected to suspend belief, realising that of course they spoke something very different in ancient Rome. It's a little more difficult in a novel. Kevin's suggestion that the people he meets Quote: 'he replied in German,' wouldn't quite work because my character wouldn't understand the reply. And that's the problem...my character only understands his native African tribal tongue and the English he has been taught.

    I think my two options are: completely ignoring it or a very close look at altering my manuscript without slowing anything down.

    Thank you all for your input.

    Cheers. 

  • Actually, I'm just having a look how Phileas Fogg managed it in his voyage 'around the world in eighty days,' but I think his companion Passepartout was multilingual, so no help there.

  • Some interesting food for thought from all of you. I've considered how in the movies such as 'Gladiator,' for example, where the characters speak English and the audience is expected to suspend belief, realising that of course they spoke something very different in ancient Rome. It's a little more difficult in a novel. Kevin's suggestion that the people he meets Quote: 'he replied in German,' wouldn't quite work because my character wouldn't understand the reply. And that's the problem...my character only understands his native African tribal tongue and the English he has been taught.

     

    But that's simple enough because you just follow it with a line that says he could not understand what was said. If you feel the need then even have my example in German. Hanz replies, "möchten Sie eine Wurst?" Then the reader can be as puzzled as the non-German speaker (unless the reader can also read German of course.) Then would follow how he finds out what the German said, if it's important that he does. Nowadays you just need to use a Smartphone to listen and translate  Smiley Happy

     

     

  • Simple. They never speak to anyone who cannot speak English   Smiley Happy

     

    Do not forget that at the time the UK held a lot of the world and had got them to learn English. It's still the commonest second language in the world if not the first.

  • Marquesa, now that I think of it, how can your characters communicate if they do no speak one another's language? From the way you posit the situation, there should be no dialogue in your book, so that it should be limited to a narrative in English.
  • Well people do manage to do so, even if only by charades. Or they find a translator. But as I said, it depends when it is because smartphone applications can translate even the spoken word to the spoken word, if not just to text.

     

    http://www.att.com/gen/press-room?pid=22626

     

    Far from perfect, but better than nothing.

  • It's set in 1830. The English language had spread widely by then but not amongst the poorer citizens of Spain, Morocco and Greece. Most of the characters are commoners. Having no dialogue would completely destroy the book, it's the most dynamic way to create character (from their actions and speech) as opposed to narrative description which can become turgid and tiresome for the reader. Don't think they has smartphones in 1830, but a good idea for next time if I ever write something more contemporary.

  • At that time, in such situations, travellers employed local interpreters. There also existed the lingua franca, a mixed language used by sailors of all nations round the rim of the Mediterranean. If your lead character is a common man, he may well catch a smattering of it along the way.
  • It's set in 1830. The English language had spread widely by then but not amongst the poorer citizens of Spain, Morocco and Greece.

     

    Very often around that time the well-educated throughout Europe would also know Latin, being mainly Roman Catholic. But that's not much help if your main character cannot speak it Smiley Happy

     

    Most of the characters are commoners.

     

    Why exactly would a commoner be someplace he/she cannot speak the language? Few of them ever left their area, unless at war, and then you don't need to understand someone you are about to shoot.

     

    Having no dialogue would completely destroy the book,

     

    Yes it would. In my opinion it's that that makes a story.

     

    it's the most dynamic way to create character (from their actions and speech) as opposed to narrative description which can become turgid and tiresome for the reader.

     

    Indeed, but a bit of both is best and is unavoidable.

     

    Don't think they has smartphones in 1830, but a good idea for next time if I ever write something more contemporary.

     

    Well you have only just said the period, and it's not really so far back that people would not be multi-lingual. It only takes one of those someplace to act as translator. Yes, smartphone, save it for a time travel storySmiley Very Happy

     

    OK. Why is the person in a place where he/she does not understand the language? Or are you saying that everyone in your story does not speak English including he/she? If that's the case then just do it all in English. No explanation is needed.

  • Kevin, I'm convinced that some mornings you wake up feeling argumentative, and other days you post in your sleep. Smiley Tongue

     

    In this case it is a fait-accompli that the man DID travel abroad, despite being a commoner and despite the fact that he didn't speak the language. People doing uncommon things -- that's what makes books interesting. A book in which someone did nothing except what people normally do and in which nothing happened except what normally happened would be so unbearably dull as to be unreadable.

     

    Even books describing an unusual life, in which the common things of that life are described -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic for example -- are interesting because they are about an uncommon and unusual situation, namely, being in a Soviet Gulag.

     

    Consider Marco Polo. Do you think the man spoke a word of Mandarin before he travelled to Cathay, and served the court of Kublai Khan? Of course not; nobody in the Western World did. Polo's story is interesting precisely because he did not stay home and do the normal thing that people of his station and class normally did.

     

    And as a result, we have spaghetti.

  • Lingua Franca...that's a good idea. Juat researched it, it became less common in the 19th century and English worked its way in as the more 'common tongue.' As the central character finds himself in such places as Moroccon bazaars and merchant vessels around the area it is plausible to work English as the 'lingua franca' into the story. Thanks Potetjp, I may well be able to resolve using this idea.

  • There are several kinds of "lingua franca" in various parts of the world.

     

    The Cajun "patois" that is part-French, part-Native-American, and part-English is one example, or the New Orleans patois that combines French with West-African dialects and a few English borrow-words.

     

    There are South Pacific dialects such as Tok Pisin, which consists of English borrow words with Chinese grammar. A different form of local jargon with the same composition (English words in Chinese forms) is called "Pidgeon English."

     

    The entire Tagalog language is arguably a patois constructed by the Spanish as a common language for the Philippine Islands, but based largely on the Tagalog tribe and Spanish. Residents of the RPI typically speak a local dialect, such as Visayan or Ilocano, plus English, and usually Tagalog, however, as PotetJP can tell you, sometimes even high government officials are better in English than Tagalog. One often also finds Spanish spoken among the older people in remote villages.

     

    Along the border of the US and Mexico, there is a form called "Spanglish," which is mostly Spanish with many English borrow-words or combination words, such as "Truka" for a pick-up truck, a word which does not exist in Castillian Spanish. The warning "Watchale" (Watch-a-le) meaning "Watch out!" is commonly used.

  • Kevin, I'm convinced that some mornings you wake up feeling argumentative, and other days you post in your sleep. Smiley Tongue

     

    Then again I read the posts and notice what they do not say.

     

    In this case it is a fait-accompli that the man DID travel abroad, despite being a commoner and despite the fact that he didn't speak the language. People doing uncommon things -- that's what makes books interesting. A book in which someone did nothing except what people normally do and in which nothing happened except what normally happened would be so unbearably dull as to be unreadable.

     

    You have read it all then? The background can make a massive difference, such as why a commoner is way out of place. It would have cost a fortune to travel in those days, and take a long time. And you do not really have to tell me what makes a good story   Smiley Happy

     

    Even books describing an unusual life, in which the common things of that life are described -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic for example -- are interesting because they are about an uncommon and unusual situation, namely, being in a Soviet Gulag.

     

    And why are you telling me this? I asked what is the man doing there, when commoners at that time did not Travel far. Background ...

     

    Consider Marco Polo. Do you think the man spoke a word of Mandarin before he travelled to Cathay, and served the court of Kublai Khan? Of course not; nobody in the Western World did. Polo's story is interesting precisely because he did not stay home and do the normal thing that people of his station and class normally did.

     

    But merchants did. Fred Bloggs the plate maker did not. And he was not the only one, or the first, in fact he first went with his father once he was old enough. His dad and uncle had been trading there for decades, but Marco could speak and write in four languages, one being Mongolian, who ruled a lot of China at the time ...

    The main difference is that Marco wrote a book about it, and that's why we know of him.

    and I still have no idea why you are telling me this. I asked for the background because I do know history.

     

    And as a result, we have spaghetti.

     

    Hoops? What I wonder is why such clever people never invented the fork.


  • marquesa wrote:

    Lingua Franca...that's a good idea. Juat researched it, it became less common in the 19th century and English worked its way in as the more 'common tongue.' As the central character finds himself in such places as Moroccon bazaars and merchant vessels around the area it is plausible to work English as the 'lingua franca' into the story. Thanks Potetjp, I may well be able to resolve using this idea.


    Lingua-Franca is used to describe any common language used by different nationalities to communicate, but of course they had to learn it first, just the same as any other, but it died out in 1680.

     

    But we still have no idea what the man is, what he is doing there. That is highly important to the original question. He does not sound like a commoner to me. But it's not that hard to buy and sell things when one does not speak the language. All you need to know is what the currency is worth, to be able to nod and shake your head and wave your hands about  Smiley Happy

     

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u75XQdTxZRc

  • Actually, the Chinese did invent the fork, then went to chopsticks because forks were too easy, and eating should be a dainty and precise pleasure, rather than merely shoveling food into one's mouth.

  • Further explanation: The central character is a simple West African boy who, in 1830, sets out on a journey on a homemade raft to find someone he has betrayed to make ammends. He becomes lost at sea and eventually finds himself in various locations around the Mediterranean. (that's as much of the story as I'm giving away) So, for all intensive purposes, he is a 'commoner,' not Marco Polo or any equivalent. Potetjp's suggestion of 'lingua franca' seems the plausible resolution.

  • Happy to help you, Marquesa. The Mediterranian lingua franca was still alive in the middle of the 19th century. Then it gradually disappeared being replaced by broken French since French was taught in the Maghreb to the general population, and to the upper classes in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, particularly in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.
  • Skoob_Ym. I beg to disagree. Tagalog is neither a patois nor a lingua franca, but a full-fledged language. I think you confuse it with Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog and bamboo English. Taglish is a pidgin. During the Spanish period , the lingua franca based on Spanish and Tagalog was called Chabacano / Chavacano. There are still pockets of Chabacano speakers in Manila (Ermita), Cavite and Zamboanga.
  • Further explanation: The central character is a simple West African boy who, in 1830, sets out on a journey on a homemade raft to find someone he has betrayed to make ammends. He becomes lost at sea and eventually finds himself in various locations around the Mediterranean. (that's as much of the story as I'm giving away) So, for all intensive purposes, he is a 'commoner,' not Marco Polo or any equivalent. Potetjp's suggestion of 'lingua franca' seems the plausible resolution.

     

    So this is a boy from a place almost still in the 'Stone Age'. OK. Would he not have to learn the  "language of the Franks" first? So if he is finding himself in foreign lands would he not have to find some one who could speak that and his own language to teach Lingua Franca to him? I would still image he would come across many people he would not understand.

     

    There is a possibility that he would already speak Spanish, French or English though.

     

    West Africa is on the Atlantic. Ocean currents could have dragged him any place other than the Med.

     

    Did you read the other opinions at those links?


  • potetjp wrote:
    Skoob_Ym. I beg to disagree. Tagalog is neither a patois nor a lingua franca, but a full-fledged language. I think you confuse it with Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog and bamboo English. Taglish is a pidgin. During the Spanish period , the lingua franca based on Spanish and Tagalog was called Chabacano / Chavacano. There are still pockets of Chabacano speakers in Manila (Ermita), Cavite and Zamboanga.


    I stand corrected. That makes much more sense, that the Spanish would use an existing language to impose as the common tongue, rather than inventing one on the spot.

     

    When I visited there, the Tagalog spoken in the streets was rife with American borrow-words -- a business suit was an _Americano_, toothpaste was _Kolgeyt_, and Colgate brand toothpaste was _Kolgeyt Colgate_, etc. This was probably, in retrospect, the "Taglish" of which you speak. I had this confused with Chabacano.

     

    Perhaps a better example for my list of linguistic oddities would have been German; All Germans speak Hochdeutsch, but many Germans also speak a regional dialect -- Kolnische, Berlinische, Bayernische -- and in general a German can identify another German-speaker by accent, much the way that we Anglophones can identify a Canadian by the word "About."

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