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.