Characters Who Speak a Foreign Language, Part Two

My post on foreign language dialogue Tuesday sparked a conversation in the comments with another writer about the subject—a conversation that reminded me of another technique I used in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. This technique doesn’t indicate that someone is speaking in another language; rather, it shows that a speaker has an accent. Rather than alter the spelling of English words to indicate that, I played with word order based on what I knew of the character’s first language. Here’s an example of what I mean:

I have a scene where a ship is being refused admittance to the port at Amsterdam:

As the boat turned back, the old Dutch pilot slapped his forehead. “Verdomme! Idioot!” He snatched the salt-stained cap from his head and wrung it between his hands.

“What is wrong?” Captain Stephenson demanded.

“Three weeks ago, a notice I read describing this ship and forbidding us from guiding her. Now, Jezus Christus, I will be hanged unless my age and bad memory they excuse.”

Just a hint of this can go a long way toward making a speaker sound foreign, and it’s much less phony than writing something like “Tree weeks ago, a notice I ret tescribing dis ship,” etc.


Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

5 responses to “Characters Who Speak a Foreign Language, Part Two

  1. Pennie

    I like this solution. I am translating a short story with a similar challenge, in which a native Portuguese-language speaker assumes a fake Cuban accent to mask her true identity. (Of course no-one is fooled by her attempt, which is the punch-line of the story.)
    I think I will play around with the technique you have shared. Thanks!

  2. Accented speech or dialect can be quite controversial. I once posted a piece to SYW that contained two very short lines of dialect. One critter wrote that she just could not read any of the piece because dialect bothers her so much. I later won an award for that piece, but learned to take it in stride that some people can’t stand dialect. It’s one of those live/hate issues.

    • Yes, people do have strong feelings about that sort of thing, which is why I try to be as subtle as I can while still getting the point across. Congrats on the piece winning an award.

  3. yubahome

    Having spent quite a bit of time in the country, I think that’s a very good approximation of a Netherlander’s attempted English.

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