Although the first part of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is set in the United States, one of my main characters is European. Jerome Bonaparte’s first language was Italian, and his second was French. Betsy had studied French from an emigré when she was a schoolgirl, and her lifelong dream was to live in France, so it only made sense to assume that the two of them spoke French to each other quite often.
The problem is that many of my readers won’t know that language. So how does a writer tackle this issue? I took a variety of approaches.
One tactic is to write the dialogue in English but to say that it was said in French, as in the following example:
The two young men were speaking in French and, apparently assuming that Americans could not understand the language, spoke at full volume even though their comments were far from discreet. Betsy, who had learned French from Madame Lacomb, heard one of them say, “Bonaparte, I think the young lady before us is the one whom Mlle. Pascault described, the girl called the Belle of Baltimore. Certainly, I have not seen anyone else who fits the description.”
A second tactic is to sprinkle the text with small phrases that are either well known or similar enough to English that they are easy to figure out:
“Pardonnez moi.” Jerome bowed, sweeping his arm elegantly to one side.
A third tactic—and this one is my favorite—is to plant context clues in the surrounding text, so the reader won’t feel lost even if they don’t understand exactly what the characters are saying:
Jerome lowered his voice. “Je rêve du jour quand je te présenterai à Napoléon. Il verra que j’ai choisi un femme aussi élégante que Josephine.”
Although Betsy felt gratified that Jerome would compare her favorably to Josephine, she could not allow him to assume their marriage was a certain thing.
Because a large part of Betsy and Jerome’s story concerned the interaction between and comparisons of two different cultures, I wanted their dialogue to show that. These three techniques allowed me to accomplish that goal.