After speaking English for soixante-trois ans, I am learning French. This is a particular challenge for me, because while my eighth-grade classmates were flocking in droves toward French, I was drawn to the challenge of learning a new alphabet. So I took Russian, continuing in college for a total of семь лет. I still have the Slavic rolled “r” positioned against my hard palate, forgetting to send it throat-ward for the gargle needed in French.
At long last, I understand the linguistic challenge faced by Dmitri DeLaval, the Russian-French choreographer I created in my debut novel, The Art of Falling. Dmitri: my humblest apologies.
Yet this new experience with language has me thinking differently about the manuscripts I edit.
Let me pause here to ask for a moment of self-reflection. When you hear someone struggling to speak in a language different than the one s/he grew up speaking, do you perceive them as:
1) having an intelligence equal to the sum of their errant syllables, or as
2) someone who is courageously wielding sounds that will never feel at home on their tongue so that they might communicate with a broader range of humans?
Knowing the Unboxed community to be an empathetic bunch, I’m going to hope you answered (2). The people you meet—and the characters you create—deserve this respect.
I breen dees up becoss I keep seen manuscripts wit dialogue ware ebbry syllable ees transcribed ass eet woss herd—complete with unnecessary misspellings. Unfortunately, in what I’d like to believe was a good-hearted attempt to make a cast of characters more diverse, such dialogue comes across as mockery.
Clearly, not everyone has gotten the memo: this approach is no longer cool. Yet if you want to effectively evoke a multicultural cast, how can you pull that off?
Let’s turn to the mad skills of some published authors who’ve successfully negotiated this challenge.
1. Distort idioms. When I googled why English is so hard to learn, the first thing that came up was the vast range, variety, and unpredictability of English idioms. Botched idioms are a relatable way to suggest that a character is not a native speaker, one that Jill A. Davis makes good use of in her debut novel, Girls’ Poker Night, through a secondary character named Skorka.
While Skorka does drop in the odd article now and then, she mostly messes up on the idioms. (You’ll note, however, she has the cuss words down pat.) Among them:
“No, you like the hard life, that’s why you work for the a**hole. Before that, you worked for some other a**hole. You want to hit the head against the wall.”
. . .
“I’m pumping more money into this economy than you are. Who gives a f*** if I speak the language of the green moon mans?”
While the other women sit at the poker table, Skorka gets up to slow dance by herself with her cards spread in a fan, blowing smoke rings and drinking tequila from a bottle. “It’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re a model,” our narrator says.
Davis is an Emmy award-winning humor writer (The David Letterman Show) who could have gone for the cheap laugh, but note instead the respectful way Davis distinguishes this character: by inclusion first (as a woman, she is welcome at girls’ poker night), as someone who moves to the beat of her own music second, as a bottle drinker and talented smoker third, as a model fourth, and somewhere further down on that list, evoked but not specified, is the fact that she’s from another country.
2. Use infinitive verbs. Even native English speakers have trouble conjugating some verbs (have you never had to double-check lie/lay/laid/lain?), so some non-native speakers avoid the task altogether. See if you can find the example hidden among the added prepositions in this excerpt from The House of Sand and Fog, in which author André Dubus III is evoking the speech of Mrs. Barmeeny, an Iranian immigrant, whose language skills deteriorate through several paragraphs as her fears of getting deported grow:
“Will they make us return for our country?”
. . .
“A policeman came to here last evening. He told to my husband he will deport us.”
. . .
“Please, you do not for understand, they will kill us. Please, they will to shoot my children.”
3. Remove articles. While I was creating my Russian-French choreographer for The Art of Falling, I was working with an editing client for whom syntax was a constant challenge. I have mad respect for this memoirist. Since from a young age he could speak Ukrainian, Russian, German, and Polish as would a native, by the age of twelve he was an extremely useful (and the youngest ever) agent for the Ukrainian Underground. Despite some fifty years in America, though, he could not master his fifth language, which he spoke with a heavy accent. Prone to writing things like, “Then army come and bomb go off,” our first round of edits was to simply help me get straight the all-important syntax of any story: who was doing what to whom.
One thing I noticed was that he never used articles, so I used that to evoke the language struggle of my Russian/French choreographer, adding the occasional common French word as an accent.
“This makes sense, oui? You know all roles. You will dance much, I promise.”
. . .
“Do together now, we?” Or maybe it was “Do together now, oui?” It was hard to tell with Dmitri. But to me it didn’t matter; his intention unfolded in the movement. On the tour I’d begun functioning as an interpreter. He’d try to explain something, fail to find words, then say, “Penny?” I’d ask something like, “Is it like a huge ball of energy that moves upstage on the diagonal, hitting one, then another, until we’re all affected?” He’d relax and smile. “Yes.”
Note the implied respect here, too: In movement, Penny and Dmitri have a shared language that is more primal and direct than other modes of communication.
4. Drop in foreign words for flavor. Arthur Golden did this really well in Memoirs of a Geisha by using words whose meanings we could approximate without his need to translate them in parentheses (such asides are no longer flavor, but a full pop from the fictive dream). In this first example, we can intuit meaning from context:
“Now that I knew that Mameha would be spending the afternoon with her danna, I had a much better idea why the futon in her bedroom had been made up with fresh sheets.”
Other times, it’s the thrust of the sentence itself that helps us intuit meaning:
She was a bad girl tonight and ran out of the okiya when she wasn’t supposed to.
Golden reserved instances of explaining a word for elaborating on a fascinating cultural detail:
The futon was for the geisha Mameha; I could tell because of the crisp sheets and the elegant silk cover as well as the takamakura—“tall pillow”—just like the kind Hatsumomo used. It wasn’t really a pillow at all, but a wooden stand with a padded cradle for the neck; this was the only way a geisha could sleep without ruining her elaborate hairstyle.
Adding authenticity to the novel’s need for an expanding, geisha-related vocabulary is the fact that the protagonist narrating the story is a geisha-in-training, tasked with learning these details herself.
5. Add male/female noun references. Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish have male and female nouns that require male and female articles. This could add an exotic-yet-authentic flare: “The room, she glows in the candlelight.”
6. Just tag it. Ann Patchett set herself quite the linguistic challenge in her first NYT bestseller, Bel Canto. Dignitaries from around the globe are gathered at the home of the vice-president of a South American country on the very evening that a gang of armed men rushes in to attempt a coup. The guerrillas are rattled because the president is not there as expected, and their inability to communicate only adds to the mayhem. Rather than bother with accents, Patchett simply wrote:
“Attention,” the man with the gun said in Spanish. “This is an arrest. We demand absolute cooperation and attention.”
Easy enough! But clever, too, as she has already planted a definition for a word she’ll soon render in Spanish:
Roughly two-thirds of the guests looked frightened, but a scattered third looked both frightened and puzzled. These were the ones leaning toward the man with the gun, instead of away from him. These were the ones that did not speak Spanish. They whispered quickly to their neighbors. The word atención was repeated in several languages. That word was clear enough.
Note that Patchett is turning her international spotlight on the reaction to this demand, not on the spoken words themselves. Later, she continues this practice to show individual differences:
It may seem surprising at first, such a large number of people unable to speak the language of the host country*, but then you remember it was a gathering to promote foreign interest and the two guests of honor did not know ten words of Spanish between them, although arresto made logical sense to Roxanne Coss and meant nothing to Mr. Hosokawa.
*Regular readers of this column may recognize the application here of a lampshading technique I covered in a previous post , as Patchett dispels a concern that might keep some readers from buying her premise by posing it herself, first.
Research and respect: that’s the ticket to rising above demeaning language stereotypes. The more you know about language, and the deeper you dive into your character’s relatable motivations, the easier it will be for you to write about characters from other cultures.
Help us learn: I’m sure these techniques only scratch the surface. What are some quirks of language that make for delightful evocations of a foreign birth? Share techniques that you’ve used, instructive situations from real life, or names of authors who’ve handled this particularly well. Thanks in advance!
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