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Using foreign words in the dialouge of your foreign/ethnic characters (1 Viewer)

AcademicCockroach

Senior Member
I want to do that in my writing but I’m not sure if it’s disrespectful/allowed or not. I don’t mean fabricating full sentences via the help of google translate, I just mean when like a French character says ‘moi’ or a German says ‘nein’ but otherwise speaks English. I think I’m fine with languages I somewhat speak or have a basic understanding of but what of an almost completely alien one I want to spice up/give a bit of personality to my character with? I assume that google can safely translate things like numbers and simple nouns (I do double check them on multiple translation sites, back and forth). Or should I be extra safe and search for a native/experienced speaker in said language on reddit/any similar site?

Other than the ethical concern, I also don’t know if it spices up my dialouge or muddles it. I’ll give a short example and would be overjoyed to know what you think. Is it excessive? Exciting? Unnecessary? Weird?

(In this scene, ‘Oleg’ is a polish criminal, getting caught by two detectives. It’s only a quick example I made up using pre-existing characters but I wanted to make it feel natural so I did some work on it, nothing too thorough though)


“A-A-Alex? W-what— where—“ Tony opened his eyes, slowly registering the cluttered basement, the recently cut ropes tying him to a chair and the guy squirming in Alex’s hold. “Oleg?” he asked, looking at her for confirmation.

“Are you Oleg?” she repeated, staring down and when all she got was incomprehensible Polish muttering, she applied a bit of pressure, making him squeal:

“Yes, yes, kurwa, yes, I’m Oleg.”

“Careful,” Tony warned and form that, she could confirm that he was enitrely alert now.

“Shut up, you got drugged by a hoarder,” She did not move from Oleg in fear of him having more tricks up his sleeve. “Now Oleg, on a scale of 1-10, how cooperative are you feeling today? I advise against saying a single digit number.”

“Ten, ten, ten, Proszę ten, I’ll do anything, p-please just don’t kill me, ten, dziesięć, dziesięć…“ he continued in those spirits, sobbing uncontrollably underneath her feet. Alex looked at her partner, the question apparent in her eyes. Do we believe him? Personally, she wouldn’t but knowing how smoothly Tony handled criminals, she trusted his intuition in this regard.


I italicised the foreign words to make it clear they were never supposed to be english in the first place, does that look off?

(I’m not even sure if I should post this here or in the Plot and Character development thread honestly)
 

Non Serviam

WF Veterans
This is a fiction-writing convention, not a real thing. In real life, multilingual people typically speak one language at a time. If your French person speaks English well enough to hold a conversation, they won't normally use "moi" for me. But in fiction it's allowed and normal, and done to remind the reader that the speaker isn't English ---- personally I blame Agatha Christie for the way she has Poirot speak.

In my view it is much better to use a smattering of foreign words than to attempt to convey an accent in dialogue.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I think this works great. It adds flavor and the feel of there being some kind of language barrier. Which gives the interactions an edge, in my opinion.

The words you use here don’t HAVE to be understood either.
Charlotte Bronte who is my favorite writer used to write long paragraphs in French in her books and since I’m not a French speaker, I always wished there was a footnote translating it. She could probably get away with it since most educated English people at the time knew French. Sometimes authors have long pieces in Latin— also okay when everyone learned Latin in school, but those barred me out growing up. There was no Google translate.

I think English language countries are becoming more global. There has been more of other languages put into movies. I enjoy it. Especially if something helps me understand it, or right here in your work… that it’s small enough to be understood to a degree in context and the main character also might not understand, so it helps us put ourselves into the story the way the character is experiencing it.
 
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Lawless

Senior Member
There is a terribly wrong way of doing it, but I'm going to skip it because it doesn't look like you intend to do it like that.

Now, to take your example, when a Pole is used to saying "kurwa" every once in a while when speaking Polish, then it is plausible that it would occasionally slip into his English speech. I've actually heard it happen in the real life. But it's more frequent that one becomes familiar with the corresponding English word and gets into the habit of using that even when speaking in one's native language.

It's also perfectly natural that under great stress, a person would be unable to recall words and switch to his native language.

(BTW, do the Poles use the name Oleg? I don't know, maybe they do, but it doesn't sound quite right.)

Now, Google Translate has become synonymous with "hilariously wrong translation" in the public opinion, but it's no longer justified. For some time now, it's able to translate into major world languages stunningly well, even get the complicated Spanish and French verb forms right. However, translations into smaller languages are still far from acceptable. Estonian to Russian is practically correct Russian which needs only some editing, Russian to Estonian is a ghastly mess.

In my experience with a large number of languages, in approximately 6–7 cases out of 10, Google Translate returns a better translation than Bing Translator, in 2–3 cases out of 10, it's the other way around, and in 1–2 cases out of 10, the two are identical. Yandex Transator is crap, but it has languages the other two don't have.

I would advise you try and find a translator or an online dictionary specific to your target language, as well as ask on a site such as hinative.com whether the phrases you have created are correct.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I just assumed you spoke enough Polish to know you got things right. I would never use Google translate to get words to put in to a book. You’re not using it for that, I hope? My husband speaks Polish as a second language. I can have him look this over.

Google translate is only good for semi-translating something for your own use, I’d say.
 

AcademicCockroach

Senior Member
This is a fiction-writing convention, not a real thing. In real life, multilingual people typically speak one language at a time. If your French person speaks English well enough to hold a conversation, they won't normally use "moi" for me. But in fiction it's allowed and normal, and done to remind the reader that the speaker isn't English ---- personally I blame Agatha Christie for the way she has Poirot speak.

In my view it is much better to use a smattering of foreign words than to attempt to convey an accent in dialogue.

Yes, it would be weird in real life but I guess I just saw it used so often I never really thought about it… I have no idea how specific accents could be written in dialouge honestly, I saw southern accents in some books but nothing else.
 

AcademicCockroach

Senior Member
I just assumed you spoke enough Polish to know you got things right. I would never use Google translate to get words to put in to a book. You’re not using it for that, I hope? My husband speaks Polish as a second language. I can have him look this over.

Google translate is only good for semi-translating something for your own use, I’d say.
I do speak a few words, like numbers and that one curse word (because it’s the same in Hungarian just written differently), that is why I used Polish as an example because I don’t ‘know’ it but I have heard it. But yeah, if I wanted to put it in a published book I’d definitely not rely on goole translate only, this was just a question that came to me not so long ago.

I’m more worried about the writing of them since I never see them written down but if your husband would be so kind, I’d be eternally grateful if he corrected my spelling. (Also: ‘tak’ means ‘yes’ and ‘nie’ means no right? that is like the only other things know besides człek which I heard a few times in Poland and assumed it meant ‘guy’ or ‘chap’ or something)

Oh and to reply to your previous post:
I also came across a lot of uninvited latin in my classicals, didn’t enjoy it but powered through but when it’s a language I absolutely do not understand I also find it quite enjoyable (even made up languages), it adds an element of mistery and wonder I guess. (I only read Jane Eyre from Brontë but that was a long time ago, I might revisit it now that you mentioned her) In movies I came to prefer people just speaking their mother language with subtitles, it feels much more genuine that way but that’s maybe only because I always put on subtitles even for english out of habit so I don’t have a problem with reading them.

I always try to immerse myself in the character’s viewpoint, if they don’t know the name or gender of someone I try to keep that in mind and to avoid the aformentioned ‘google translate sindrome’ when there are extensive monolouges in foreign languages (to them) I just switch perspective or write something like ‘they said something in— etc

On an off note:
It’s really funny though when you watch a Hollywood blockbuster and they put in a language as ‘background noise’ they think no one will understand and you actually do. They did this with Supergirl where the ‘alien’ language was hungarian and I almost died from laugher.
 

AcademicCockroach

Senior Member
There is a terribly wrong way of doing it, but I'm going to skip it because it doesn't look like you intend to do it like that.

Now, to take your example, when a Pole is used to saying "kurwa" every once in a while when speaking Polish, then it is plausible that it would occasionally slip into his English speech. I've actually heard it happen in the real life. But it's more frequent that one becomes familiar with the corresponding English word and gets into the habit of using that even when speaking in one's native language.

It's also perfectly natural that under great stress, a person would be unable to recall words and switch to his native language.

(BTW, do the Poles use the name Oleg? I don't know, maybe they do, but it doesn't sound quite right.)

Now, Google Translate has become synonymous with "hilariously wrong translation" in the public opinion, but it's no longer justified. For some time now, it's able to translate into major world languages stunningly well, even get the complicated Spanish and French verb forms right. However, translations into smaller languages are still far from acceptable. Estonian to Russian is practically correct Russian which needs only some editing, Russian to Estonian is a ghastly mess.

In my experience with a large number of languages, in approximately 6–7 cases out of 10, Google Translate returns a better translation than Bing Translator, in 2–3 cases out of 10, it's the other way around, and in 1–2 cases out of 10, the two are identical. Yandex Transator is crap, but it has languages the other two don't have.

I would advise you try and find a translator or an online dictionary specific to your target language, as well as ask on a site such as hinative.com whether the phrases you have created are correct.

I’m kind of interested in the ‘terribly wrong way’ you mentioned, just out of curiosity :D

Yeah, the ‘kurwa’ thing I’ve heard happen in real life so I’m fairly confident I got that right. I chose Polish as an example because I know at least a few words. I did know a polish student named ‘Oleg’ but it’s also true that he was half Russian so it might be a Russian name (google says it probably is). There are a few polish historical figures with it so it’s not a terrible choice I hope at least.

Oh I didn’t know that about Google translate but nowadays it does seem to work pretty well for languages I know (but german and english is sort of similar in my opinion so I would not take that as concrete proof) so I’m happy they are improving it in this way.

Thank you for the info and advice, especially hinative.com, I didn’t know it existed and it seems like such a useful rescource!
 

Lawless

Senior Member
I’m kind of interested in the ‘terribly wrong way’ you mentioned, just out of curiosity :D

It's when the writer knows 2 or 3 words in a language and wants to show off, yet can't even be bothered to use a dictionary and find out if what he believes to know is even right. Like one US author who tells in his novel that the Russian word "kukuruza" means "wheat". For certain reasons, the word occurs many times. Too bad "kukuruza" is not wheat, it's maize!

I also find it unrealistic when in an intergalactic civilization, some people are Russians, and they speak English like everybody else, except they say "da" instead of "yes".
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I do speak a few words, like numbers and that one curse word (because it’s the same in Hungarian just written differently), that is why I used Polish as an example because I don’t ‘know’ it but I have heard it. But yeah, if I wanted to put it in a published book I’d definitely not rely on goole translate only, this was just a question that came to me not so long ago.

I’m more worried about the writing of them since I never see them written down but if your husband would be so kind, I’d be eternally grateful if he corrected my spelling. (Also: ‘tak’ means ‘yes’ and ‘nie’ means no right? that is like the only other things know besides człek which I heard a few times in Poland and assumed it meant ‘guy’ or ‘chap’ or something)

Oh and to reply to your previous post:
I also came across a lot of uninvited latin in my classicals, didn’t enjoy it but powered through but when it’s a language I absolutely do not understand I also find it quite enjoyable (even made up languages), it adds an element of mistery and wonder I guess. (I only read Jane Eyre from Brontë but that was a long time ago, I might revisit it now that you mentioned her) In movies I came to prefer people just speaking their mother language with subtitles, it feels much more genuine that way but that’s maybe only because I always put on subtitles even for english out of habit so I don’t have a problem with reading them.

I always try to immerse myself in the character’s viewpoint, if they don’t know the name or gender of someone I try to keep that in mind and to avoid the aformentioned ‘google translate sindrome’ when there are extensive monolouges in foreign languages (to them) I just switch perspective or write something like ‘they said something in— etc

On an off note:
It’s really funny though when you watch a Hollywood blockbuster and they put in a language as ‘background noise’ they think no one will understand and you actually do. They did this with Supergirl where the ‘alien’ language was hungarian and I almost died from laugher.
Lol I guess they don’t think of how funny it is to the speakers of that language. Lol.

Yes, I like it in action and thriller movies when the language is in there.
 

AcademicCockroach

Senior Member
It's when the writer knows 2 or 3 words in a language and wants to show off, yet can't even be bothered to use a dictionary and find out if what he believes to know is even right. Like one US author who tells in his novel that the Russian word "kukuruza" means "wheat". For certain reasons, the word occurs many times. Too bad "kukuruza" is not wheat, it's maize!

I also find it unrealistic when in an intergalactic civilization, some people are Russians, and they speak English like everybody else, except they say "da" instead of "yes".
Yeah that does sound like a bit of an ignorant (and lazy) thing to do.

Why is it that I know at least five books with that specific thing in them 😅?
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Yeah that does sound like a bit of an ignorant (and lazy) thing to do.

Why is it that I know at least five books with that specific thing in them 😅?
It’s pretty funny if it is Hungarian that often! Lol. I think there are real non-English languages for Star Wars aliens as well. Yep! Found an article:

I know someone who is creating very compex languages for their WIP. She is really into linguistics. I gotta say, it’s impressive. Whatever languages she is interested in, she learns (I’m talking about languages like Navajo) and then she is pulling concepts she likes from different languages. I need to read her WIP. I have stalled… so I need to go do that!
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Yeah that does sound like a bit of an ignorant (and lazy) thing to do.

Why is it that I know at least five books with that specific thing in them 😅?
It’s pretty funny if it is Hungarian that often! Lol. I think there are real non-English languages for Star Wars aliens as well. Yep! Found an article:

I know someone who is creating very compex languages for their WIP. She is really into linguistics. I gotta say, it’s impressive. Whatever languages she is interested in, she learns (I’m talking about languages like Navajo) and then she is pulls concepts and sounds she likes from different languages together. I need to read her WIP. I have stalled… so I need to go do that in
 

Lawless

Senior Member
I’m not sure if it’s disrespectful [---] I also don’t know if it spices up my dialouge or muddles it.

Foreign words in the midst of English text are very appropriate when the character really talked in that language.

"[Spanish text]!" he shouted.
(with a translation below)

looks a lot cooler than

"[English text]!" he shouted in Spanish.

although the latter doesn't really bother me and is obviously more comfortable to read when a conversation is entirely in that language.

That said, there's a book in which I wish all the conversations were really in the original language. You have probably heard about Švejk. I can imagine it's not among the Hungarians' favorites, but it's huge over here. Now, the book is written in Czech and set to the most part among the Czechs, but at the time when it was customary even for the Czechs to speak German in educated company or at official situations. Like in that scene where an officer's mistress writes to him in German and he evidently writes back in Czech.

Mr. Hašek wrote the book in Czech and understandably didn't bother to put everything that was said in German into German, but when I was reading the book (translated into my native language), I found myself at one point wishing he had. I really wish there existed a version of the book where the narrator's text were translated, but all direct speech were in the language in which it was actually spoken. It would add a lot to the immersion if it were clear what exactly was said in Czech and what in German, and I wouldn't even mind reading the translations at every step. Too bad there can be no such thing.
 
I don't recommend doing that. It's only okay if the words you use are widely spread and most people know them; otherwise, this could ruin the reader's appetite for your novel. In the example you gave, you were overdoing it and I felt that as a reader. That was irritating. My advice is, keep your writing as simple as possible. Take Hemingway and Agatha as role models; their genius was in their simplicity. Hence, never complicate things for the reader.
 
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