Using Foreign Words in Foreign Settings

On the post 5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language, Linda asked a very good question: "[What] if the characters are only speaking/thinking one language which is not English but the narrative is in English[:] which words should be in English and which, if any, should be 'foreign'?"

One of my very first writing tutors was Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I'm pulling straight from that. If you're a world-builder of any sort, I highly recommend finding a copy of this book.

Technically, any story outside a modern English-speaking setting requires all dialog and narrative to be "translated." This is obvious for a story set in modern-day Japan (where the characters are speaking and thinking Japanese), but it's just as true for stories set in a fantasy universe, medieval Europe, or any setting more than a few hundred years in the future. So this is a common issue.

Tip #1 in my previous post was that someone speaking their native language doesn't throw in foreign terms unless it helps them to be understood. It reads as pretentious. So:

If there is an English word for what you want to say, use the English word. If hobarjee means "duck," then your narrator and characters should say duck.

Only use the foreign word if it refers to a concept for which there is no English word. If hobarjees look and act like ducks, but later on in turns out they shoot laser beams from their eyes, you are fully justified in calling them hobarjees. The word has meaning now that cannot be expressed in our language.

Though I guess you could call them "laser ducks."

Photo by Richard Bartz, released under Creative Commons
Frigging hobarjees


Steve MC said...

I remember writing a scene and using a fancy fantasy word for something like a horse, and then realizing that every word I was using was actually a translation of whatever language they had there.

So yeah, unless it's something we don't have a word for, like a buffalo crossed with a unicorn, go with the words we know.

And hey, if you do a search for hobarjees, your blog is the first that comes up.

Matthew MacNish said...

Though I guess you should call them "laser-EYE-ducks." Which is friggin awesome.

The one exception to this, I think, is if you're using terms so common, that they've almost been accepted into English. Like a character in a book set in Japan would not say "sword" when he means "katana," or a character in a book set in Medieval Germany would not say "wholeness" when he means "gestalt."

That said, this doesn't really contradict what you're saying, and of course it becomes a judgement call with certain words. Most Asian-o-philes like myself would know exactly what an obi is, but most American readers probably would not.

And then again, in a Fantasy, with an original language, you've got a whole other set of circumstances, which you and I have already discussed at lengths far too awesome for blog post comments. :)

Stina said...

Awesome advice, Adam. This makes a lot of sense. Or else your characters will sound like me when I speak a foreign language. It ends up being a mish mash of all the languages I've studied. Not the effect you're going for. :)

Rena said...

You know, there's still time to add some hobarjees to my novel...

The thing I always find distracting is when you have characters from places outside of our culture as POV characters and they use pop english (like a medieval knight describing something as looking like a donut, erg)

Sara Raasch said...

Um, you're going put laser ducks in a book now, right? PLEASE.

Dan Stout said...

The Friggin' hobarjees are the funniest thing I've seen in a while. I love that picture!

KayC said...

I'd love to see a fox try and take one of these babies down. I wonder if I can cross them with my chooks and make jobarchicks to keep them safe from the vermin.

Angela Brown said...

Ducks with lasers shooting from their eyes. How righteous is that?

Okay, but back to the actual topic. I think I'll search out that book you recommended and maybe try for a few good reads to familiarize myself with the whole foreign language in foreign worlds thing.

K. Marie Criddle said...

Ha! This is great. I know I'm a month late on this, but I'd like to suggest hobarjees as next week's Anthdrawlogy topic. You just watch me.