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I Love You, My Little Cabbage: Using Foreign Words in Your Fiction
by Cora Bresciano

Return to Writing Dynamic Dialogue · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When I was a child, my French-Canadian mother called me her little chou (pronounced "shoe"). In the summers, when we visited our French-speaking family in Quebec, my cousins were called chou or chou-chou by their mothers, as well. One summer evening, though, my aunt used the word chou as she was enticing us with the menu for that evening's dinner. I understood that haricots verts were green beans and pommes de terre were potatoes, but chou? Which food was her darling? I turned to my mother, who smiled wryly. "The cabbage," she replied. "Chou means 'cabbage.'" All that time, I had been my mother's little cabbage.

This episode comes back to me whenever I set out to infuse my writing with a taste of the foreign. When our fiction is set in another country or our characters speak other languages, we have the opportunity to use foreign words and phrases to enhance our writing, to establish a real sense of place, to create an atmosphere that is distinctly not American. But how much do we include? How much do we translate? And what do we do with expressions like "my little cabbage" that are authentic in another language, but sound awfully strange in English? We want our readers to know that a foreign language is being spoken; we want to impart the flavor and rhythms of the foreign tongue. But we need to be understood, as well. We don't want readers to lose anything or to become irritated with a story because they're stumped by our use of foreign words.

Let's say you've set your story in Italy. Your fictional heroine, Jennifer, is an American sculptor who's been living in Rome for the past ten years. She speaks Italian in her everyday life. When you write her dialogue, when you capture her neighbors chatting over the fence or the baker selling her bread, how do you remind your readers that these characters are speaking Italian? Here are six ways to do it:

1. Write some key words and phrases in the foreign language, but offer the English translation.

Here's the scenario: Jennifer's favorite baker finds something sticking out of the fresh loaf of bread that he's about to hand her. You can capture the atmosphere of the scene by having him utter a short phrase in Italian. Then translate it for those readers who won't understand it.

"C'é una chiave!" Sergio cried out in disbelief. It's a key! He held it up to the light.

This approach offers the best of both worlds: authenticity and clarity. We get the real thing with the Italian, but if we can't understand what it means, we need only to read on a little further to find it translated for us. The reader gets to have the experience of the Italian language without feeling inadequate or frustrated.

2. Write some words and phrases in the foreign language, and don't translate them. Some simple foreign words are well-known to many English speakers. Hello, goodbye, thank you -- most of us remember these from our high school language classes. Consider sprinkling them through your chapters just as they are:

"Buon giorno!" Jennifer's landlord called out a hearty greeting as he passed her on the stairs.

Your reader will almost surely understand this brief bit of Italian, if only from all the Scorcese films she's seen. And even if you were writing in a less common language than Italian, your description of the phrase as a "hearty greeting" would clue the reader in.

3. Translate literally some unusual foreign expressions. This strategy needs to be handled carefully, though, to avoid sounding comical when you don't mean to. If I were to write a tender scene, in English, between my five-year old self and my French-speaking mother, I probably wouldn't have her call me her little cabbage and just leave it at that. Who could read that without laughing? What I might do is explain the use of the term earlier in the story, so that at the tender moment, I could write something like:

She tousled my hair and tucked me into bed. "Goodnight, my little cabbage," she whispered as she turned off the light.

This use of an unusual word that has already been explained would let the readers see it as a sweet endearment rather than as a strange epithet. It might, therefore, evoke smiles rather than guffaws, while reminding us that Maman is actually speaking français.

4. Infuse the cadence and the syntax of the foreign language into the dialogue that you write in English.

Even when creating long stretches of dialogue that need to be written completely in English, you can keep the feel of the foreign language by incorporating some of its differences into the English. For example, the French usually use the pronoun on, or "one," rather than ils/elles ("they") or nous ("we"). So when Jennifer attends an opening of her work in Paris, the gallery owner might say to her at the celebratory dinner:

"Does one eat head of veal in the United States?"

This captures the cadence of the French and emphasizes that it is not really English that's being spoken. Asking "does one eat" in French doesn't have the formality that it does in English -- it's a perfectly casual expression. (And "head of veal" is a direct translation of tÍte de veau, one of the more exotic French dishes.)

The simple practice of omitting contractions -- which other languages tend not to have -- from the dialogue that's supposed to be in another language also can make it sound "foreign."

"Jennifer, do not cry!" Giuseppina hugged the sobbing sculptor. "This critic, he knows nothing about art!"

Substituting "do not" for "don't" gives these lines an Italian feel. And in English, we would more likely say "This critic knows..." Saying "This critic, he knows..." mimics the Italian syntax. Though we're reading in English, this sort of phrasing reminds us that we're not in Kansas anymore.

5. Enhance the dialogue with descriptions of non-verbal communication.

Being half Italian, I'm well acquainted with the Italian need to use hand gestures to communicate. Other cultures have similar propensities -- gestures, facial expressions, ways of moving the body that express what words cannot and that mark their exhibitors as being of a particular nationality. Include these non-verbal cues when you write dialogue in order to paint a clearer -- and more colorful -- picture of the foreign scene. For example, Jennifer's next-door neighbor might show his appreciation of the red wine she brings him like this:

"He tasted the wine, then closed his eyes and brought the fingertips of his right hand together, touched them to his lips, gave them a kiss and let them burst apart from each other. The classic Italian gesture of deep appreciation, for food, for beauty, for love."

As you can see, the non-verbal communication does a good job of substituting for a spoken line of dialogue. And it imparts a very Italian feel at the same time.

6. Write long passages in the foreign tongue; translate nothing. Okay, this is not a method I condone as a writer. Or appreciate as a reader. But it's precisely what Umberto Eco does. The author of The Name of the Rose regularly includes in his books passages written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek -- and offers no translations. Of course, he is Umberto Eco, world-famous author and scholar, and he can pretty much do what he wants in print -- but I always find myself frustrated by his indifference to those of us who don't speak all the languages he does. For example, he ends the introduction to his famous book with a quotation in untranslated Latin: "In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro."

Today, with the help of the Internet, you can find this quotation by Thomas à Kempis online. When I read the novel for the first time, though, in the late eighties, I had no idea what it meant, and no way to find out. And that's a shame, because when you do know, it ends the section nicely and it's also important and pertinent to the rest of the novel. The translation is: "I have searched for peace everywhere, but have not found it anywhere except in a corner with a book."

Like Eco, you could, if you really wanted, leave things like this untranslated -- it is your story, after all, and if you want to be ornery or experimental, go ahead -- but as a general rule, I wouldn't suggest it. Hopefully our use of foreign words, phrases, and references to dear little cabbages will provide our readers with enjoyment, if not peace -- and at the very least, won't cause them confusion or frustration when they curl up in a corner with our books.

Find Out More...

It's Not What They Say... by Mary Cook
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/say.shtml

Copyright © 2011 Cora Bresciano
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Cora Bresciano is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Blue Planet Writers' Room, a non-profit organization that integrates the arts, technology, and international collaboration into the teaching of writing. Cora's own writing encompasses both fiction and non-fiction; her children's musicals have been produced in Florida and New York, and her short story, "The Mermaid," won the 2008 Brogan Award in Fiction. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Having grown up in a family of immigrants from two different countries, in a house where three languages were spoken, Cora has a special interest in writing about the spaces where cultures and languages meet.

 

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