When you use foreign slang, you have to be careful. You can’t take a dictionary and translate your English phrase—word for word—into the other language. You might be creating a sentence that means something different than what you intended. And the results might be embarrassing.
For one of my novels, I used some Spanish phrases in the dialogue of my secondary character, who was originally from Mexico. One phrase I used was ‘Está muy caliente’, which in English translates to ‘he’s very hot’.
Or does it?
After writing the phrase, I read the following in Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles:
She flashes me a sexy smile and leans closer. “Estás muy caliente.” I think she just called me hot. That’s not the way we say it in Meh-hee-co, but I get the idea.
Whoa, so what does the phrase really mean? I spent the next hour, online, pouring through idioms to find out what it meant in Mexico. Here’s where I used the phrase in my novel. The italicized part is the proper translation:
“You should definitely give Aaron a chance. He’s cute. Very horny.” She started counting his attributes on her fingers.
Yep, you can stop laughing now. That’s definitely not what my character wanted to say.
When you add foreign slang in your story, check a foreign slang dictionary specific to the country your character is from. Or better yet, have a native speaker of the language read over the phrases to ensure you haven’t made any mistakes*. And remember, idioms used in England can be very different to those used in Canada or the US. The same is true for Spanish idioms spoken in Mexico compared to those spoken in Spain.
Another thing to watch out for is simple translations that can be found in a beginner’s guide to the language. For example, I recently read a novel in which the author used a simple phrase in Finnish. What the author had meant to say was ‘Anna’s House’ (Annan Talonsa), but what she really wrote was ‘Anna my house’ (Annan Taloni). Most readers wouldn’t know better, but it irritated me because the mistake was easy to avoid.
It’s not an agent or editor job to verify that you used the language correctly in your story. That’s solely your responsibility. Take the time and get it right so you can avoid embarrassing mistakes.
Has anyone else used a foreign language or foreign slang in their stories?
*(In my defense, I did do this. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher said I could use the term, but there’s another term too. I didn’t clue into the subtext which told me my phrase wasn’t the best choice. I only realized that later on.)
Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.