Being a Better Writer: Languages

Welcome back to another edition of Being a Better Writer, readers! I hope those of you who celebrated the US holiday of Thanksgiving had a good one, while those of you who didn’t at least were obliging of our season of gluttony. Yeah, it’s all about giving thanks … but in my practical experience that’s usually thanks for how many different kinds of pie one can stuff into them after devouring several pounds of turkey.

We’re coming up on the Christmas holiday season (during which I’ll be taking a short break to recharge), but in the meantime, I figured I’d continue in the same theme we’ve been following for the last two weeks (during which we’ve talked about accents and then dialects) and talk about Languages.

No, I’m not talking about foul language. Just languages. As in, languages other than the one that you’re writing in that your audience speaks and reads. From something as simple as Spanish or Italian to writing in something a bit more fantastical, like Tolkien’s Elvish or Star Trek‘s Klingon.

Now, I’m going to start this with a bit of a different tack than most of you would expect, and open with a bit on the Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres. While some simply make the assumption that the language it is written in is the basic ‘common’ language of the setting (Star Wars, for example, just seems to claim English is “galactic common”), others make the general assumption that while you’re reading the work in the language that makes the most sense to you … that’s now what the characters are really speaking. The work is just “translated” for your benefit.

Both are valid approaches to the issue, personally. Both Fantasy and Science-Fiction already ask us to accept some form of the fantastical in one way or another, so asking us to accept that the world we’re peering in on happens to speak a language that’s easily identifiable and readable to us isn’t too much of a stretch. Or that the characters are speaking their own language, but we’re getting the translated version made clear for our benefit … somehow …

Both work, and honestly, I prefer both of them to the alternative, since that alternative is not having a book that anyone could read. Sure, you could invent an entirely new language, spending years, even decades coming up with all the grammar rules, quirks, history, slang, structure, and so on and so forth, and you might write the best book ever written in that language … but none but a few of the most truly dedicated are every going to read it. There’s just not a lot of readers who would bother to learn a whole new language (especially one that won’t find use elsewhere) just to read a single book.

In other words, when we’re reading and writing books, no matter what language the characters do tend to speak, it’s a standard-accepted practice that we write the book in the language of the target audience. Those who complain about it are dismissed as being pedantic because … Well, they are. The goal is for people to read a book, not gaze wistfully at it and wish it was written in a language that existed.

Which, by the way, isn’t going to happen. You write your book in the language of the alien Skladar, the culture of your book, and you’re going to be hard pressed to find readers willing to put up with it in any number. No, you’re better off writing what you can in English or your native equivalent and then inserting words that don’t have a comparable word on their own.

Okay, so that’s all well and good. I doubt that there are too many of you that disagree with this. Like I said, it’s a commonly accepted convention, and those who hold an opinion otherwise are so small in number that they can be safely ignored. But what about when our book contains multiple languages? Say we have a character that’s bilingual? Or a character that doesn’t speak the principle language of the rest of the book. What do we do then?

Just to make this clear: Neither of these things are bad things. In fact, they’re great. Having a character that speaks multiple languages or doesn’t speak the language of the rest of your cast can be a cool tool and neat bit of characterization. However … it does come with some challenges as to how you want to approach it.

For starters, you’re going to want to go with the convention of making the most common language in your story—the one that will be the primary language—the language of your audience. Like we discussed above, this is just a common approach to storytelling. But as another language creeps in … how should we approach that.

Well, on my part, I’ve seen three methods for dealing with this. Each with it’s own strengths … but also a few weaknesses.

The first is to simply “translate” for the reader and tell them what was said. This is a rough fix … but it does work. A character comes and speaks in a language that isn’t the protagonists own, and the narration or prose simply says “And here’s what they said.” It’s that straightforward.

The problem is … it’s weak. What happens when you use this approach is that a character comes to say something, but instead of dialogue, we get an infodump. A summary of what was said, instead of cool conversation. Which is both jarring—especially if it’s wrapped in dialogue on both ends—and kind a clunky tool, as the author even has to come up with a way of articulating their explanation … often taking refuge in a sort of “As we know …” situation where you’ll end up with text like “She knew that he was telling her about …” and then re-explaining to the reader what the character already knows and acknowledges.

See? Imagine reading that in your head. Clunky. Yes, it’s a way of dealing with a different language than the one your character speaks, but it’s pretty jarring. In small doses—like really small—it can work. But it’s still a bit risky.

So why is this even an option? Well … because it’s the easiest way to approach a foreign language in your work. And you can work at making it a smoother transition. But think about it: You don’t have to present any other material … or even tell the reader what that language is. At most you can name it, or perhaps mention some of the more common sounds. But you don’t have to write it out or address any of the more difficult elements of writing down a language that isn’t your own.

There are other advantages too. For something fast an off-hand, you can use this approach to keep a fast pace when you don’t want to clog a scene up with dialogue. Something like “The man shouted a quick phrase of warning, and she ducked to the side.” A reader may know from experience that the one who shouted the phrase doesn’t speak the protagonists language, but telling the reader about it in the middle of what is clearly an action scene allows us to keep the flow going.

Pros and cons. Most of the time, however, while this approach is easy, I find it’s best used sparingly, and that the other two approaches to adding another language are preferable.

First is to drop another language from Earth in as a placeholder. That’s right, just more substitution. Your “primary” language in your fantasy story is English? Well, when your character runs into someone who speaks another language, why not pick another one from Earth. What about French? Spanish? Russian?

Now, this might sound cheap to some, but consider that you’re probably already using a non-accurate language as your primary anyway. Using one more as a second stand-in isn’t going to hurt. And besides, it can actually be quite fun, as not only do you get to work out a little of how another language works, but you get to introduce your  readers to it and quite possibly give those who have a bilingual talent a bit of a bonus.

For example, in one fantasy I wrote, I used English as the primary language for my audience … but then used two other languages as well for other nations. One nation’s language became Swahili, while another’s became Turkish.

And it worked. Plenty of readers would just zoom right over the text that was given in those languages and still be able to work out the meaning by what other characters did, while a few even went as far as to punch them into Google translate and see what sort of insights they could glean. Which they did, for the record, as I could hide little previews and more overt hints of events to come in the none-English dialogue as a bit of a reward.

This to date is still my preferred method of introducing other languages to my work. Not only does it “fit” with the established rule of “Well, they’re speaking something, but it’s English for the sake of reading,” but it’s also a great, fun moment for those who speak that language.

Well, almost. And here’s the catch: This is pretty hard to pull off because it forces you to work in another language, one full of its own rules, structure, requirements … etc. Which means if you don’t want your bilingual readers freaking out, you’ve got to do some work.

And no, you just can’t plug it into Google Translate and go. Translate is a wonderful tool, but it’s also a pretty faulty one because language is complex. Don’t believe me? Watch Google Translate Sings sometime.

That aforementioned story with characters that spoke Swahili and Turkish? I’ve got a Swahili phrasebook and guidebook sitting on my desk. Multiple saved webpages about grammatical structure and layout of Turkish versus English. During editing, I’ve tracked down people that speak various languages I’ve used and asked them if they saw problems.

My point? I had to do a lot of research each and every time I used another language to make sure I was using it properly, so that when someone who did speak it stumbled across it … they weren’t pulled out of it by an obvious mistake. And if this is the approach you take … You’re going to need to do that work as well so as to not make a huge mistake where a reader thinks “That’s not what they said at all.”

Despite the work, this is still a pretty common, and perhaps the most common, approach used in entertainment. A lot of times when you see a movie or read a book that drops an “alien” language on you … surprise! It’s actually another language from Earth! For example, Star Wars does this with many of its alien languages, leading to the VA’s for those languages becoming mini-national heroes of a sort. In fact, Lando Calrissian’s alien buddy in Return of the Jedi was actually speaking a little known and fairly rare language from a small island nation. All their sentences are purely in character and real dialogue, and when the movie was released in that nation (in English, since it wasn’t worth dubbing the whole thing and they all knew English anyway), the actor became a national hero.

Now, our books don’t have actors (at least, not yet), but they can still carry that same appeal. If you use something like Ancient Hebrew in your book, even if most readers don’t read Ancient Hebrew it will still look nice and feel consistent with the world, and those few that do read Ancient Hebrew are going to be beyond themselves with surprise and enjoyment (provided you didn’t mess it up, granted).

Bottom line, this is a very common method for introducing another language to your work, be it Fantasy or Science-Fiction. It take a little work, but it’s a solid method that blends well and has a good payoff.

However, if you want to go one step further … you still can. You can go the Tolkien route. Or the Star Trek route.

That’s right. I’m talking about building your own language.

Okay, no, not in the way you think. Granted, you can sit down and create an entire language from scratch but … that’s hard. You have to condense hundreds of years of culture and linguistics from an entire society (or more than one) down into your own experience and mind. And in case that’s not clicking, I’ll summarize: You’re doing the work of tens of thousands yourself.

Which is why it’s much more common that authors and creators will invent phrases or words, but not delve into the whole language. Which is sort of how a lot of Star Trek‘s languages began: The creators came up with some simple rules for the words and sound, then worked outward from there. And over a few decades, enough was added that they just dove into it and created a language.

This is still easier said than done, however. You can’t just make up a nonsense word and call it good. Because it’s not. It’s a nonsense word.

If you don’t want it to be a nonsense word, then you’re going to need to make some rules. Establish some baselines for how this language works that all your writing with it will follow. You’ll need to decide on grammatical structure, tense, etc etc and make sure that you follow these rules. You’ll also have to think about what sort of people would actually use this language, which means digging into linguistics and learning a bit.

Which you probably realize sounds a lot like the whole “creating a language from scratch” thing above. And to be fair, it is. Except instead of coming up with all of it at once, you’re likely going to be coming up with it as needed. But you still need to know the rules and requirements, and build something that’s consistent.

But once you do? This is a pretty cool method, if I’m honest. Sure, it’s cool to use a real language as a stand-in, but making your own, while difficult, can feel very rewarding and can be a very real detail for the reader. The caveat is that it simply takes the most work out of all three approaches.

Done properly though … Well, I think the fact that there are people out there that speak Klingon, Elvish, and Dwarvish speaks for itself.

So there you have it. Three approaches to dealing with foreign languages in your work that you can stick in your toolbox and bring out as needed. Each one with different strengths and weaknesses that may or may not suit what you’re looking for.

As to which you use? Well … that’s up to you. Sure, it might seem tempting to create a language … but if it’s only going to be in one scene, or a secondary bit of dialogue, why bother? Why not just got with a summary approach, seeing as the characters won’t hear that dialogue again.

But then again, maybe they will. Or maybe you want to use it to illustrate something about the speakers.

Honestly, today’s concept might feel a little thread-bare, but that’s because so much of this topic is reliant on what you do with it. Any of these three common approaches can be found in great abundance, and any of them can work for what you’re writing based on what you want to accomplish.

In other words, this may seem pretty straightforward … and it is. This stuff is like a brick you’ll build into the wall that is your book. Or maybe a few varieties of brick. Or mortar. You get the point. Each of these is a method, a way of approaching something.

It’s up to you to use them and build them into your story.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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