by Joanna Maciejewska
Sometimes a foreign character wanders onto our pages, and they simply insist on speaking a phrase or two in their native language. But even if you’re lucky to know several languages, they might not be the ones you need for your current work-in-progress. With the limited time in any writer’s life, it’s impossible to start learning foreign language for the sole purpose of inserting a few flavor lines. At the same time, giving up on making the character more real is not an option. What to do then?
Should you use Google Translate for your foreign phrases?
I’ll be completely honest with you. I love Google Translate for the easy access to content in languages I don’t understand. It’s great when I have an article in French, and I want to have an idea what it is about. But if you ever used it this way, you surely noticed how choppy and somewhat chaotic the translation is. Now imagine, that your perfect phrases in English get translated the same way! If you haven’t come across it yet, go ahead and give it a try! Paste a paragraph in a language you don’t know and press “translate!”
Google Translate has limited context and not all the languages behave the same way. If you’ve ever a bit of Spanish, you know adjectives got after the noun, not before it. This is a rather simple example that Google Translate could handle, but there are many more complex issues that you might not be aware of. Proverbs, slang, lack of context, and so on.
Also, some foreign phrases might be translated correctly, but they aren’t used in common speech. If you character speaks this way, they’ll sound unnatural.
Let me give you an example. I speak Polish, so let’s assume that you want a simple phrase, “thank you” translated into Polish. Google Translate will promptly give “Dziękuję Ci” as an equivalent, and even though it’s not incorrect, it’s not used in common speech. We simply use “dziękuję” (it still means “thank you”, not “thanks” which would be “dzięki”). Saying “Dziękuję Ci” would make the character sound… artificial or even passive-aggressive. On top of that, “Ci” is only capitalized in letters, emails, and direct messages, when it’s directly addressing recipient. In fiction, it’s not.
Is your head spinning already? And I’ve only taken a very simple phrase! Imagine the pitfalls of the whole sentence translated by the machine!
What can you do instead?
The Internet gives you a lot of options that are much easier and cheaper, than hiring a translator.
First, you can search for “common phrases in…” and you might find websites that already list what you need. They’ll be the equivalent of the tourist phrasebooks you can pick up at stores. Those might be an option too, but depending on which language you need, it might not be easy to find one in your local bookstore.
If you belong to any writers’ groups, especially the online ones which usually gather writers from across the world, you can ask for help there. If it’s just several foreign phrases, someone will likely volunteer to help you. If you can, search for the native speakers, because they’ll be aware of various slang expressions, commonly used phrases, or even if something has a double meaning you’d prefer to avoid.
Twitter is another good place to ask. Even if you don’t have anyone among your followers who could translate the foreign phrases you need, they might know someone who does. Or they might retweet your message, because some of their followers might now. This way, you can reach out to people you wouldn’t have found on your own. Once, I had three followers of mine tag me in a thread by some author I’ve never met who needed help with some expressions in Polish, so I can attest it works!
What if your foreign phrases are in a language that doesn’t exist?
This gets a bit more tricky, and it actually is a topic for a separate post, but let’s cover some basics.
I mentioned above that languages (especially languages that aren’t from the same family), don’t behave the same way. Which means that replacing English words with made up words won’t do, and applying the same grammar rules will make the made-up language feel unbelievable.
Once, I was beta-reading a story where there was an alien word for orphan. Let’s say it was “dadala”. The author promptly created “orphanage” and “dadalage” which suggested that aliens from across the aliens from across the galaxy used English grammar. And even if you look at the Earth languages, the word creation differs. In Polish, an orphan is “sierota”, but there’s no “sierotage”: there is “sierociniec” for orphanage.
I could point out more examples how different languages can be. In Polish, all verbs are conjugated to point out gender, so pronouns aren’t often used. Which means that Polish “went to the store” will tell you whether it was I, we, he, or she who went to the store. Meanwhile in Japanese, when you want to do something, for example go to the store, you’d attach the suffix -tai to the conjugated verb. So in a literal translation it would be something like “I to the store go-want”. (Yes, they have a different word order too!)
So, unfortunately, you need to study languages a bit. Mix and match different grammar rules, and keep track of what rules you’ve applied so far to keep consistent with any future foreign phrases. It might seem tedious, but at the same time, it can be very rewarding if you get into it.
Is inserting foreign phrases worth it?
When done in moderation, interesting sayings or foreign phrases can add a lot of flavor to the character, but at the same time it might feel like it isn’t worth the effort. After all, you don’t want to overwhelm your readers, so you won’t be using too many of them. Every writer can decide for themselves how much time they’re willing to devote to them, but with the easy connection the Internet offers, it seems like a good opportunity to get the foreign phrases right. Not to mention of possibly making some new friends along the way.
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science-fiction writer who was born in Poland, spent a little under a decade in Ireland, and now resides in Arizona. She had stories published in Polish magazines (“Nowa Fantastyka”, “Science-Fiction Fantasy i Horror”) and anthologies (Fabryka Słów, Replika, Solaris), and she also writes in English (“Fiction Vortex”, “Phantaxis”). You can find out more about her and her stories at melfka.com or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.