Whether you're writing about Middle-earth or the Beika district of Tokyo, you'll be dealing with foreign languages that you may or may not know. You may be tempted to work in some of the native languages to give your readers a greater feeling of immersion in the world. There are several things I'd like you to keep in mind though.
- Don't assume that your readers will know as much about the language as you do. Therefore, use the same language you use for the narration for all of the dialogue. Any term not in this language should be clearly defined for the reader. This also applies to honorifics, titles, and terms of address, like Mr./Mrs./Mz./Miss/Lord/Lady. Translate them or leave them out entirely.
Say someone is jumping into a fandom for the first time, and doesn't speak any Elvish or Japanese or Na'vi. They click on a fanfic that looks interesting, but they can't read the dialogue because it's a word-salad of languages they don't know. They give up and go away.
- Write the dialogue from the point of view of the characters whose point of view you're using. You can use a different language to reflect the characters' inability to understand what is being said to them, immersing the reader more into the characters' perspective.
So, you've got a Japanese character in a Japanese setting, and you're writing in English. They'll be able to understand everything said to them in Japanese, so write all of the Japanese dialogue in plain English. But, if the character doesn't speak English well, or at all, you could phonetically transcribe the English into the Japanese phonology, so it seems just as foreign and bizarre to your English speaking readers. Here's an example:
“Ah, I didn't see you there; forgive me,” Kogorou said, stepping aside.As you can see, it is as confusing and incoherent as Kogorou would find it.
The woman with a long nose and carefully fluffed brown hair looked confused a moment, then said, “Aimu sari, ai dina kachi za. Kudju ripii za?”
Kogorou blinked, uncomprehending. What was this strange amalgamation of sounds this woman was spewing?
Conan sighed loudly behind him and answered the woman. Ran tugged him aside and whispered, “It's English; Dad, they're speaking in English.”
For another example, say you're writing in English; your POV character only speaks of Westron in Middle-earth, and they meet an Elf, who only speaks Sindarin.
I stood back, surprised. To me, it'd looked like the tree and sprung to life, but now, I realized I was looking at an Elf. A real, live elf. The elf backed up a step, hands up to show she wasn't holding any weapons. “Goheno nin. Ú-ethilen dhe thostad.”Another situation that you may come across is a bilingual character. You need some way to distinguish the fact that they're speaking another language, but it needs to be in plain English. I suggest putting the dialogue in the other language in italics (no more than that though, too many layers of italics, bolding, and underlining can be distracting) or simply mention in the narration that they're speaking this other language now.
I blinked. What was this “thostad,” and did it hurt?
Ah, I didn't see you there; forgive me,” Kogorou said, stepping aside.In scenes such as this, using the foreign language in the dialogue makes sense. Most of the time, just don't.
The woman with a long nose and carefully fluffed brown hair looked confused a moment, then said in English, “I'm sorry; I didn't catch that. Could you repeat that?”
Kogorou blinked, uncomprehending. Conan sighed loudly behind him and answered the woman, “He just apologized for bumping into you. He's very sorry.”
- Make sure that the translations you use are accurate. Bad translations could end up annoying or insulting everyone who does speak the languages in question. Or rather, it's a pet peeve of mine and it drives me up the wall.
This is so bad in Anime fandoms. The Fan-Japanese is so... so... *tears hair out, flails uselessly at the screen for a few minutes, mouth starts frothing* MAKE IT STOP.
- Using foreign terms in the narration is the most effective, and could lead to using them in the dialogue.
This is pretty simple to do, actually. You have a character think about or discuss the term. Here are a few examples:
Ran scowled down at Shinichi, hands on her hips. “Stop using my name without honorifics. Little boys should call older girls 'Neesan.' I'm older than you.”Now the reader will know the significance of Shinichi addressing Ran as Ran-neesan when in his child-form, and they get some insight into Shinichi's situation and personality.
Shinichi looked down, inspecting the floor. He hated being reminded of his condition. “Yes Ran-neesan,” he mumbled to his toes.
“I don't think I heard you. Say it again.”
He glared back up at her. “I wanna go home, Ran-neesan!”
My fingers brushed across the net the Elfwoman had tucked my hair into. I'd never seen such a device before, but it was holding in all of the stray hairs with ease.In the scene, we get a taste of Elven hair-styles by having the elf character teach our human about Elven hairnets.
The Elf tugged gently on the net. “Cathrae,” she said, clearly pleased with my reaction.
“It's a cathrae.” I said, tasting the word.
“Ma!” she said grinning. “Cathrae.”
Once home, she absentmindedly stuffed her shoes into the kutsubako, a small shelf by the door that they put their shoes away in.Or, it can be as simple as this.
Write in whatever language you're writing in.
Don't expect everyone to know as much or as many foreign languages as you do.
Use foreign languages from the perspective of the characters that you're telling the story through.
When introducing foreign terms, define them carefully and creatively in the story.
Make sure the translations are correct, because this little linguist and translator is driven insane by bad translations.
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