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“Guten Tag to you, Fraülein. Mein Gott, where are my manners? Have a seat.”

April 30, 2011

Alternative titles for this post were: “Hello there, monsieur. Would you like a croissant with your coffee? Non? I see, d’accord.“ or “Ohayo! My name is Misaki. I’m very pleased to meet you, minna-san!”

Discussing writing in a foreign language and reading your comments brought about thoughts of the use of  other  languages within fiction in English.

Some types of fan fiction often use snippets of foreign languages. Certain Japanese suffixes such as “-san” are used in a lot of anime/manga fan fiction. Is it to seem more authentic and give a sense of the environment? Or is it because there is no corresponding term in English? Or is it because the writers want to show off that their knowledge of an other language? Sometimes it seems to be almost a trend to cram in as many foreign words as possible. The characters could say “hello” when they pick up the phone, but instead they say “moshi moshi”.

If we look at (British or American) films, we often see scenes set in foreign countries where the inhabitants apparently speak English amongst themselves, but with a very thick accent and random words from their first language thrown in. This has always seemed odd to me. French people do not talk to each other in English with a French accent. Either they should speak their native language (possibly with subtitles), or else the whole thing should be in English and the audience could then imagine that the scenes are “in reality” in the characters’ native language, but have been translated for their benefit.

My immediate motivation for this post is a story I’m writing that is partly set in Germany. My main character (who is British) stays there for a period of time and I am, obviously, not going to write several chapters in German (yes, the French bits in Rules of Attraction worked for Bret Easton Ellis, but alas, I am not mr Ellis). The questions is how to go about it then. Should I use “Herr” instead of “mr”, or should I go with English titles?

Personally (unless someone can convince me of something else), I am leaning towards keeping everything in English in the German section of my story. I can think of one author who managed to weave a foreign language into the English narrative extremely well, namely Christopher Isherwood. But his Berlin stories were semi-autobiographical, and the German had a certain comedic effect that fit the mood of the stories. (And he was Christopher Isherwood.) I think it would come out forced or sound like a bad parody if I tried. I hope that I can describe a German atmosphere or mindset in other ways.

Have you written a story set in an non-English speaking country? How do you feel when more languages are included in a book? Do you feel it adds something to the mood? Or is it just annoying and pretentious? Does it fit some genres or authors and not others? I’d really like to hear your opinions.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2011 8:00 pm

    I think using some of the foreign language acts as a reminder to the reader. You can go over the top, but a word here and there, I think, help create the ambiance.

    Perhaps your British character says Mr., but a German character says Herr. For me, this would serve as a reminder of who the characters are. Having a character be from a different country than where the story takes place is obviously important to the plot, so that reminder is nice to have.


    • April 30, 2011 8:21 pm

      Thank you for the comment!
      Excellent point. It’s stated quite early on in the dialogue (in English) that everyone speaks German in those chapters. The natives have German names, but if it’s not quite enough, I think you’re right that hinting with a word here and there could be one way of going about it.


  2. April 30, 2011 10:41 pm

    IMO an occasional word or phrase in a foreign language can add to the richness of the fiction, provided the foreign words and phrases fit smoothly into the story. And of course, a little goes along way.

    In one of my novels, a couple goes to Hawaii for their honeymoon, and a few Hawaiian words pop up from the locals. When the couple travels to Paris, a clothier insults the wife in French. Using the context, it’s clear what the clothier is doing.


    • May 1, 2011 8:14 am

      Again, I can see the point. 🙂 In your stories, though, is the dialogue in English most of the time? And by that I mean, does the couple in Paris speak English or French?

      I think I would feel better about including foreign words/passages if the conversation were actually in English most of the time – then it would make sense for the natives to switch to their own language once in a while. I feel more insecure about what foreign words to “keep” if the whole dialogue is supposed to be in that foreign language (but written in English).

      Thank you for commenting! 🙂


      • May 1, 2011 5:45 pm

        In my stories, virtually all the dialogue is in English- the scene involving the French clothier is the only scene in which the husband briefly attempts to communicate in rudimentary French via a “tourist translator” booklet. 🙂


        • May 1, 2011 8:48 pm

          Ah, that sounds like a great way of doing it, then. I can imagine that it makes for an entertaining scene. 😀


          • May 2, 2011 5:09 pm

            lol Thanks. The husband (protagonist) is constantly trying to “clean up” the wake of his obtuse, self-absorbed wife.



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