Tag Archives: language

Babbling In Fiction

The Secret World Chronicle, one of the podcasts I’m listening to (and one you should be checking out too) brought a question to mind that I’ve been thinking about for years. In various media, characters who speak multiple languages are handled very differently. Let’s take the example of TSWC.

There are several Russian characters in the section I’m listening to now. When they’re presumably speaking in Russian they have Russian accents and may use the occasional Russian word. Their grammar is appropriate to their level of education/intelligence in their native speech. When they switch to English, we get more “Russglish” and their English is broken in ways I think a real Russian non-fluent in English would speak.

In prose, of course, we can’t rely on an actor to get across accents and the like. We either need to use a dialectical form of English or make use of words from their native language peppered throughout their non-native language. When they’re speaking in their native language we can make use of dialog tags or text markup or both to indicate the shift. In this case it strikes me as odd to use a foreign word rather than its native translation. The dialectical option was used by Steve Alten in The Loch, rendering large chunks of dialog hard to read when a Scottish person was speaking. The fusion option is used a lot in books I’ve read and in stories I’ve written with Hispanic speakers.

In movies, I’ve seen some actors use the same techniques used in TSWC. That’s a little jarring since I know in theory when they’re speaking Russian, for example, and I’m hearing it in English. I prefer subtitles in those cases. I’d rather hear the language they’re actually speaking in, even if I don’t speak it, and read the translation. To me that’s preferable than using actors who speak in a heavy accent or in a Standard English accent and I’m to assume when they make the language change. Obviously that requires using actors that can pull off multiple languages, and that is not always an option. That’s also not possible in fiction that’s purely auditory in form. For me, TSWC has chosen the best option available that I’m aware of.

Whatever media the story is in, I’m curious as to other’s opinions on the best approaches to presenting multi-lingual characters. I’m also interested in how it’s handled in the non-English speaking world.

–Read the first couple of chapters of Ginnie Dare online. http://www.kindleboards.com/sample/? asin=B0054R6LVQ

Watch Your Language

I don’t read or listen to a lot of fantasy or historical fiction, but two things I consumed recently caught my interest. I just finished listening to The Ballad of Iron Percy and I’ve been watching Sleepy Hollow religiously. Both had instances where I wondered, “Would a character from that time period, or a similar time period, speak in that way?”

In the case of Iron Percy, the character of Elise Aranoun had what struck me as a very modern way of speaking. I don’t remember any idioms right off the top of my head, but more than once I thought about her manner of speech. Granted, the world it takes place in is completely fictional. That should give the author some freedom. More on that freedom in a bit.

Sleepy Hollow is more of a bit of historical fiction. Ichabod Crane awakens from a two century long nap and has no problem understanding or being understood. That’s not a big issue. He does need to be told about modern idioms, which is good, but while I know our language hasn’t changed a gret deal in the main points over the last two hundred years, I would think it would be a little more challenging. In a recent episode I was pleased that they had someone who spoke Middle English.

So, in a purely fantasy setting, where the world resembles in some fashion our own medieval times, how important is it for the author to use a more archaic form of English for speech, or at least to avoid modern phrases? I could see using the argument that what we’re getting is perhaps a “translation” of the happenings in the native language. The same would be true of historical fiction from a non-modern or non-English period. What do you think?