Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Using foreign language in your story - the balancing act!

I love to use non-English languages in a story. To me, a foreign language behaves like a form of music - it creates mood and atmosphere for the readers who don't understand it, and it further creates a layer of meaning for those readers who do understand it. I take much the same philosophy toward foreign language as I do toward alien language: the more you use, the more alien the story feels; the less you use, the more familiar the language feels.

With a story like "Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)," it's really important to me to have a point of view that suggests a person who is inside the Japanese perspective. That means using a lot of English, which might seem ironic. Making a mostly English narrative feel Japanese is all about exploring the other aspects of the Japanese point of view, like metaphors, attitudes, culturally grounded phrases and opinions, all of which can be accomplished in English. That English narrative creates a scaffold into which Japanese phrases can be embedded without having to be defined.

When the context surrounding a word is strong, the word does not need translation.

But what constitutes a strong context differs for different people. I, personally, could totally fail to provide any scaffolding context at all and still appreciate what those words are doing, which means I have to guess in my first draft which ones will be easily deduced by others and which ones won't.

Also, it depends on who is reading it.

Say, for example, with the identity of Naoko's grandmother, also known as Obaa-chan. A lot of people do know that phrase; a lot don't. In this instance I relied on Grice's Cooperative Principle of Communication, the Maxim of Quantity which says "say as much as, and no more than, is required." At the start of the story, there is one character hearing voices. The voices mention she has a grandmother. Then the single character refers to someone named Obaa-chan. Conversational logic tells us that Obaa-chan has to be her grandmother, because only one other flesh-and-blood character has been mentioned, and that's her grandmother. Right? Right.

But it's not that obvious for everyone (at least one of my readers mentioned feeling this way).

Just because something makes sense to you, that doesn't mean you can count on every reader to put together the same logic. Conversational logic depends a lot on our previous knowledge and experience!

It's just like when I hear someone saying a sf/f character name that I wrote down, and saying it in a way I consider "wrong." Who's to say that's wrong? It's what was on the page, filtered through their own phonological interpretation of the spelling. I decided long ago that it was up to them how to say it and I could explain the "real" pronunciation if asked, but didn't really have to.

When you are working with an alien language that nobody knows, you can be certain that nobody knows it. But when you are working with a foreign language, it's a different kind of balancing act. Some people know it, and some don't. More importantly, these people come to a story with different attitudes.

Some people are content to let foreign language act like musical accompaniment, and some people feel like they want to know the meaning of every word. The writer is usually standing somewhere in between.

In my own early drafts of "Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)," I discovered something I hadn't expected. A reader with no knowledge of Japanese at all was perfectly happy to let the Japanese function as musical accompaniment so long as the English parts of the story made sense, and deduction could reconstruct the meanings in critical spots. A reader with lots of knowledge of Japanese was content to see a level of redundancy in the piece because they knew that not everyone would know all the words they did. A reader with some knowledge of Japanese, but not enough to understand all the words used, was discontent with not knowing all those words and wanted to see stronger scaffolding.

Once you move out into the world where a large number of people are reading, this selection of reactions diversifies. I've heard the no-Japanese reaction a lot, I've heard the lots-of-Japanese reaction a lot, and I've heard multiple different versions of the some-Japanese reaction. My sense is that a person's reaction will be very individual, not only dependent on how much Japanese they know, but how much they want to know, how much they personally expect others to know, etc. This will be similar (with some variations) no matter what language you choose to use.

This is all part of sending a story out into the world. Every reader reads a story differently. Every reader brings different expectations. So how much Japanese is too much? How much scaffolding is too much? It's a tricky balancing act. As a writer, all you can do is respond to critique to a level that seems reasonable based on what you know about your beta readers, and then trust that later readers will read it in their own way. Because they will - that's what reading is.

It's something to think about.



  1. With knowing the tiniest bit of Japanese, I was able to understand everything critical (I thought) in your story with no problems. For me, that means I wasn't jerked out of the story with the feeling that I'd missed something.

    So for me what you did worked just right.

    I use Spanish, French, and a little bit of Latin almost as color touches when I write, and explain as subtly as necessary - preferably in some way that is not an infodump - quickly enough that the reader should barely have time to form the question 'What does that mean?' before the answer is provided.

    Having grown up bilingual English/Spanish, I just tone it way back as if I were speaking to someone who doesn't speak Spanish (my husband is a convenient reference point). Some things are better said in a different language.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Alicia. I'm glad the story worked for you, of course! As for "some things are better said in a different language," I couldn't agree more! Good luck with your projects.

  2. Really interesting post, thanks. Mostly, I'm happy to have foreign languages be in the background. It's interesting to think about the need to be aware of different readers' different levels of knowledge! I recently read a book (Talus and the Frozen King) and it featured character names that to me might as well have been made up, but I realized later were derived from Celtic (based on the location of the story, which was set in the stone age Scotland).

    1. Thanks, Steven. I've had similar experiences with unfamiliar languages. I appreciate your comment!

  3. I listened to your panel on invented languages at Baycon 2013, and I asked you a question, but the answer was hogged by another panelist. You're touching upon it here, so I thought I'd ask again. Here's my question:

    What are some techniques to introduce an invented language to the written word that make it worth the trouble?

    Here are some answers I've been able to gleam so far:
    1) Write out the phrase in the invented language, then write out the translation in italics, as internalized in the mind of the POV character.
    2) Words or phrases introduced, but decipherable through context (as you mention above).
    3) Words or phrases introduced, but there for flavor only, without hope of the meaning ever being clarified unless some fan creates the equivalent of a Klingon language dictionary (you also touch upon that here).
    4) Linguistic limitations or shaping of cultural concepts, according to the structure of a language/phrasing, etc. Basically, a Derrida/Foucault take on how language affects characters' cultural understanding (like having no concept of two or more genders, for instance).

    Can you think of any other techniques for injecting actual or invented languages into our fiction? I haven't yet looked through your archives, but plan to do so. Forgive me if you've answered this in part elsewhere already. I'll be reading through the back entries in future.

    Many thanks.