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Foreign Language in Fiction

[1]Please welcome author Ann Mah [2] to Writer Unboxed today! Ann–who is based in Paris and Washington, D.C.–is the author of two novels, The Lost Vintage and Kitchen Chinese; a food memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating; and a cookbook, Instantly French. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section. Her articles have also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing 2017, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn.com, and other publications.

I’m so glad to have her with us today to talk about using foreign language in novels–something she does very well. Case in point, her novel The Lost Vintage–which received a starred review from Library Journal–is set in Burgundy, and laced with both an intriguing mystery and the perfect amount of French. And Ann’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese, is currently $1.99 across ebook platforms. [3]

Thanks for being with us, Ann!

Foreign Language in Fiction

My love of travel runs so deep I’ve managed to combine it with my work, writing books and articles set in far-flung places. With these foreign settings comes foreign languages, the words, greetings, and cadences helping to recreate the identity of a place. I find it impossible to write about a country without hearing its sounds, and in my books set in France and China I’ve sprinkled snippets of the local language. But when does a foreign word or phrase add color and authenticity – and when does it become distracting? I consulted a few popular novels and chatted with a few authors to try to find the sweet spot.

Set in Naples, Italy, Elena Ferrante’s bestselling Neapolitan quartet is steeped in the city’s gritty seduction. Its main characters come from a neighborhood characterized by poverty, violence, and Mafia vendettas, and they speak to each other in Neapolitan dialect. Despite this lingua franca, Ferrante writes the dialogue in proper Italian, while offering an occasional reminder that the conversations are taking place in dialect. “This saves the reader from having to struggle through laboriously rendered, potentially offensive slang à la Huckleberry Finn,” writes Justin Davidson in Vulture. “It also makes it impossible to forget how far the narrator, Elena Greco, has traveled, from her days as a postwar urchin to the heights of literary respectability.” Although Ferrante largely omits dialect from her text, the HBO adaptation of the series’ first book My Brilliant Friend cast local actors who perform in dialect with Italian subtitles. As a result, Neapolitan becomes “the language of the imprisoning neighborhood,” writes Davidson. “Italian is the language of ideas, the imagination, and social mobility – in a word, the language of freedom.”

For author Stephanie Cowell, foreign phrases can “remind the reader every now and then where the book is taking place,” she says. “The best use of this I’ve seen is in a memoir called The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.” Written by Lucette Lagnado, the book tells the story of her childhood growing up in a Jewish family in Cairo. “When the mother speaks to her in French, it immediately provides context to the dialogue,” says Cowell. “It goes back to the tradition, the old against the new,” with the author depicting both parents speaking French to instruct and reprimand their daughter.

In 19th century England, Charlotte Brontë presumed her readers to be so well-educated that she didn’t bother to translate the numerous French passages that appear in Jane Eyre. “Brontë makes French into a kind of license for freedom of speech issued to both the eponymous heroine and the novelist herself,” writes Emily Eells in the academic journal, “Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens.” In the novel, Jane’s French language fluency helps her attain a post as governess, a job that offers her a rare income and independence. “Thanks to the French language, Brontë’s heroine succeeds in constructing her own space in the Victorian domestic world,” writes Eells. (And if you’ve ever been mystified by the book’s French phrases, The Toast offers a hilarious translation.)

In her memoir, The Fortress, which tells the story of a marriage unraveling in Bulgaria, France, and the United States, author Danielle Trussoni uses foreign words to add subtext. Describing her life in Sofia, she refers to a “sladkarnitsa” (Bulgarian pastry shop) and “pechka” (primitive stove) without overtly defining them. “I pepper Bulgarian in that chapter to make the reader feel alienated because that’s how I felt,” she says. “I didn’t know the language.” Her forthcoming horror novel, The Ancestor – set in the Alps on the border between France and Italy – uses Franco-Provençale, an extinct dialect, to create a 19th-century atmosphere. “The local population had a patois that was a mixture of Italian and French,” she says. “But the aristocracy spoke very proper French.

Along with adding texture and authenticity, Trussoni feels that bits of foreign language offer “a space of imaginative and narrative freedom,” she says. “It adds ambiance and characterization and lets the reader fill in everything that could fit in those words.”

After all, isn’t that what great fiction is all about?

Over to you, WU’ers: What do you think about foreign language in novels? Do foreign words add ambiance to fiction, are they distracting?

If you’re inspired, feel free to share an outtake in comments.