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Language

I have never really understood the desire authors have to slip the occasional foreign word into story, especially in dialogue. I got thinking about this yesterday, in relation to Nam Le's 'Cartagena'. The story itself is a coming of age story for a child assassin in Colombia, and it is a pretty decent read, though I found myself stumbling over parts when the author did thinks like this; "You have been a good soldado, he said. I think it is time we met. This week, I think."

The meaning of the word isn't very difficult to figure out, as the occasional bit of Spanish rarely is, and the context of it makes it fairly clear, but I wonder about its use. Throwing it in, to me, doesn't reinforce the cultural world that a character lives in--mostly it draws attention to the fact that it is written by someone who is writing in English. It reminds me, in fact, of an old comic character called Gambit. He used to show up in old X-Men comics with the worse Cajun dialogue, in which he calls every girl 'chere' and so on and so forth.



However, ignoring that, and returning to dialogue: I suppose the convention wisdom behind dropping in parts of other languages is to add authenticity, to further help the author build up his or her world. In theory, a few bits of Spanish or French or Japanese can do for you what a few hundred words here and there will do for world building and culture--at least, in a lazy fashion. I'm not yet convinced that it is nothing more than a shortcut that authors use in place of a real understanding of their topic--which, I might add, isn't a slam on the Le story, since I didn't have any real problem with the cultural building there, in as far as I knew much about Colombia. But still, when he dropped in the bits of Spanish, I did find myself thinking that they were unnecessary, and not doing him any favours.

Perhaps it's just me, though.

(crossposted)

Comments

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ashamel
Oct. 27th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
I think it is a fair way to convey the use of a different language -- although if it's the only way, it will likely be insufficient and distracting, as you say.

When I was writing stuff about Japan, I tried to restrict my use of Japanese to words that don't quite translate into English. Particular weapons and such, but also 'hai', which means 'yes', but with a more abrupt context of obeying orders immediately.
benpeek
Oct. 28th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
the hai thing always, always bugged me ;)
ashamel
Oct. 28th, 2009 04:14 am (UTC)
You will be spared any exposure to a final version, at least.
girliejones
Oct. 28th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
I think actually it's quite authentic. When you grow up in houses where people have other cultural background, they throw the odd word into every day English too. There are words in my own vocabulary that I use and get shocked when people will turn around and question ... because I never knew that wasn't English. My vocabulary has bits of Yiddish and Swahili in it because sometimes people find that some words just don't translate, so they don't.
ashamel
Oct. 28th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
That is true when you have bilingual characters. It's a bit trickier when you're translating native speakers, which Ben may be talking about, at least in the first example.

If "You have been a good soldado" was all in Spanish (and I don't know if that's the case), why are only certain words of it translated?

As always, fiction is a carefully built lie that has to feel authentic -- but since different people react in different ways, it's a moving target.
girliejones
Oct. 28th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC)
Yeah that's fair - if we are supposed to be reading it as though it were Spanish, then yeah, why not translate that one word.
benpeek
Oct. 28th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
yeah, what i'm talking about is what david mentioned. i mean, it's suppose to be entirely in spanish, after all. the other stuff, that's not a prob, and it is as you say, fairly common in multi language house holds and such.
benpayne
Oct. 28th, 2009 03:20 am (UTC)
Remy always annoyed me, although no less so than Rogue with her spelt-out Southern accent. "Ah had this dream"
benpeek
Oct. 28th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
yeah, she's no better, really.
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