Thursday, January 23, 2014

To Use Foreign Words (Or Not)

How do you feel when an author uses foreign words in a story?

I've been thinking about this lately. I enjoy the flavor of foreign words, but if not done right, they can kick me out of the story.

Here's a few things I've noticed in my reading and writing:

  1. Use idioms instead of foreign words. For instance, my Russian roommate used to always say in English, “My mind is boiling.” If you can capture an idiom like that, it gives your character a strong voice and flavors your prose, but doesn’t bog down your readers with words they don’t understand.
  2. Use sentence structure rather than dialect to convey accents.  Apostrophes and contractions  are confusing and hard to read. But a judicious use of slang or sentence structure conveys a lot. Ex: “You want to go to the party, no?”
  3. Foreign words used as endearment, greeting, or dialogue tick. I don’t think you’d need to translate these, unless they wouldn’t be understood my most readers. Ex: “That’s my purse, ma chère.”
  4. Use foreign words to confuse your readers. I love this idea from Gail CarsonLevine. If you’re going to use a foreign phrase and not translate it, then use it to your advantage. Make the reader feel in the dark along with your main character.
  5. If you use foreign words, make it clear what the word means from context.  “Pass the blinis, Sasha,” she said, eyeing the pancakes.
Another option is not to explain what the words mean, but provide a glossary at the end.

How do you use dialect or foreign words in your writing?

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