By John Gilstrap
The title means that I speak Spanish, but only a little. (And don’t yell at me for not knowing how to put the tilde on the N. I tried, but it doesn’t work on WordPress the way it works in Word.) Are you impressed? I didn’t think so. Did it fire you up to read more? I wager it did not. For many, all the title did was cause confusion.
Which brings used to my topic this week: How to handle foreign words in fiction. More precisely, how I handle them in mine. Spoiler: avoid them because they stop the story. Consider the following exchange:
“Alto!” the guard shouted. Stop!
“Que ocurre?” I asked. What’s wrong?
“Manos arriba!” He raised his rifle. Put your hands up.
I’d write it this way:
“Stop!” the guard shouted in Spanish.
I answered in the same language. “What’s wrong?”
He raised his rifle. “Put your hands up!”
The secret to the fictive dream that Brother Bell speaks so effectively about is dependent upon keeping the spell alive in the readers’ minds. Foreign words are dams in the flow of imaginary images.
When the story is set in a different language . . .
Several of my Jonathan Grave thrillers are set south of the U.S. border with Mexico and everyone speaks Spanish only. I’ve established from the beginning that Jonathan and Boxers both speak fluent Spanish, thanks to the work they did for Uncle Sam back when they were still part of the Unit and involved in drug interdiction. Thus, while my writing is strictly in English, I establish early on that everyone is speaking Spanish. Done and done.
If the time comes when our heroes speak to each other in English, I write, “he said in English.”
Now here’s the tricky part: Because all dialogue is presumed to be Spanish, the reader will never see the gratuitous “Gracias” in dialogue. They’ll see “Thank you.” I learned this trick from Jeffery Deaver, where, in his fabulous book Garden of Beasts, which is set in pre-war Germany, everyone addresses Hitler as My Leader. That is the English translation of Mein Fuhrer, and it would be inconsistent to switch to German for the sake of an honorific.
When the POV character does not speak the language that is spoken to him . . .
Let’s go back to the first example, where the guard is challenging our hero. If the hero doesn’t know the language of the person shouting at him (whether it’s Spanish, Arabic or Swahili), I think it’s silly, and a bit distracting, to quote words that our hero doesn’t understand. In that case, I’d lean toward this kind of narrative:
The guard yelled at me. I guess the words were Spanish, but how could I know? When he yelled again and raised his rifle, though, I knew I was in trouble. “What’s wrong?” I yelled as I raised my hands.
If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, you know that I don’t believe that there are rules for writing. It’s all about giving the reader the best ride you can. So, TKZ family, what do you think about this foreign language stuff?