Parlez-Vous Le Fiction?

Or, How Much is Too Much Foreign Language in an English-Language Novel?

That's an interesting question that I wrestle with in each of my books--in several different languages, including made-up ones. DAWNFLIGHT features Latin, ancient Welsh and "Pictish" (the made-up language, since they left no writings) phrases sprinkled throughout.

In my opinion, unless you, the author, are fairly certain that a foreign word/phrase will be well known to your audience, or can be reasonably intuited from the context, then it's best to offer a translation. Sometimes that's easy, as when a character asks for clarification. Other times, I do it through the viewpoint character's own thoughts, as in the following example from MORNING'S JOURNEY:

> > >

Gyanhumara raised her other arm. The spread wing-tips and lashing tail of this creature were decidedly draconic.

Alayna leaned forward in her chair, animosity—but not surprise—etched into every line of her face. “State his name and titles.”

“Ròmanach Artyr mac Ygrayna”—Roman Arthur son of Ygraine, Gereint mentally translated—“Càrnhuileanach Rhioghachd agus Àrd-Ceann Teine-Beathach Mór”—Man of Clan Cwrnwyll of Rheged and...High-Chief Great Fire-Beast?—“Bhreatein.” Of Brydein. He had never heard anyone render “Pendragon” in Pictish; they always uttered the word with their quaint accent. After listening to that mouthful, he understood why.

< < <

Another of my projects, SNOW IN JULY, is a historical-fantasy-romance set just after the Norman Conquest. The hero and his best friend are Norman French. Originally, I had a lot more French (mostly modern; some of it "aged" wherever I could figure out how to do it) in their dialogue, but ultimately I decided that it was detracting from the story's pacing, so I removed much of it. The friend—and comic relief—doesn't have a very good grasp of English, which led to fun passages such as this one:

> > >

Ruaud, obviously smitten, made no attempt to correct Waldron's error. Alain coughed mildly into his fist. Ruaud shook his head and released Lady Kendra's hand as if he'd been burned. "Pardonez-moi, mon seigneur et ma demoiselle, mais je m'appelle—"

"En Anglais," Alain whispered, irritated yet amused that Lady Kendra had befuddled his friend so thoroughly.

"Ah, oui. Apologies, my lord and my lady." Ruaud grinned, spreading his hands. "I call myself Ruaud d'Auvay. Sir Robert's—how say you? Man of speaking?"

< < <

The bottom line:

Always keep in mind that your audience will be primarily composed of non-linguists, and develop a sense of what best serves the needs of both your story and your reader.

Back to: [Top of page] [Index]

Revised 14 March 2013