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Monday, January 9, 2012

How Not To Mutilate A Foreign Language

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.  


Suzanne Lilly said...

Yes, I've used the wrong terms before, and my students just about fall over laughing whenever I do. It's a quick way to learn what to say and what not to say. Thanks for the tip about a foreign slang dictionary. For some reason, it never even occurred to me to look in one.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I use Turkish slang in my MS set in Istanbul. (I speak decent Turkish.) Some idioms in other languages are...interesting. Also, using too many is difficult for the reader, unless an idiom is perfectly self-evident by action or explaination, which tends to break into my voice. Less is more, I've been told. ;)

ilima said...

I've used Hawaiian language in mine, after taking 5 years of classes. But I still get nervous and will want an expert's eyes on it before it gets published.

Susan Lynn solomon said...

In a recently published story, Witches Gumbo, I used a few Louisianna Cajun phrases. That patois is particularly troublesome because many bayous use their own slang--often a combination of French, native american, and English. I was comfortable with it because the phrases came up while I researched a particular geographic location. If I hadn't found the phrases, I couldn't have used them. So, you're very right: research is an author's best friend; failing to do it completely is our nemesis.

Emilia Quill said...

Actually 'Anna's house' would be 'Annan talo' in finnish, not 'Anna talonsa' XD

Good point though. I'm lucky that while English is a foreign language to me, it's easy enough for me to find a native English speaker to point out what I've gotten wrong.

Joan Leacott said...

I used Italian phrases and had two Italians check my language. You guessed it, several phrases had two slightly different interpretations. I went with the phrase closer to my English meaning.

Tere Kirkland said...

Oh, idioms! Louisiana Creole French is as different from proper French as French Canadian is, so I've had to be very precise and ask for lots of reputable help with some of the novels I've written.

On top of that, a direct translation for slang almost never works, since it's usually a localism.

Like, if you said you felt hung over, and tried to translate that to French in babelfish, you'd get "Je me sens accroché plus de", accrocher meaning "to hang".

But the idiom for having a hangover in French translates to "My hair hurts", and the word hangover is "gueule de bois", which breaks down to "wood-mouth", if I'm remembering it right. ("ta gueule" means shut up)

An expert's opinion is really your only option. Winging it usually results in embarrassing mistakes!

Cherie Reich said...

This reminds me of my Spanish teacher in high school. She went to Quebec during college and thought she'd try out her French. Well, she wanted to order a hotdog, but she translated it word for word into French. The man at the counter had a great laugh over the fact that she actually ordered a dog in heat instead of a hotdog.

I have used a little bit of foreign language here and there, but I do try to make sure it's correct or use just a word here and there to add to it that I know is correct.

C D Meetens said...

I haven't used any foreign language in my stories. I think I'd be concerned about getting it wrong, and for someone else reading it who knew what it should be - that could destroy their reading experience, which would defeat the point.

Stina said...

Oops! You're right, Emilia. You can tell how self absorbed I am. I'm used to saying my my my. ;)

Stina said...

Are you sure, Emilia? I just double checked my grammar book (which I bought while living in Finland), and it says the same thing I wrote here. Even my mom, who's from Finland, agreed with me.

Rin said...

I guess I've got a bit of an edge in certain foreign languages, then. I live in a country where English isn't the native language, and you get a lot of colorful dialects ranging from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese and provincial Chinese to pidgin English to English used in very different contexts. People here say 'comfort room' instead of 'bathroom' or 'washroom', and 'tissue paper' instead of 'napkins' as examples.

I remember as a kid visiting the U.S. for the first time, and asking the guy behind the McDonalds counter for tissue paper. He had no idea what I was talking about, until I pointed to a pile of tissues. "Ohhh, NAPKINS." He said. Then we both started laughing.

Anonymous said...

Very sound advice, Stina. I worry about doing the same. I'll have to remind myself to double-check. At the moment, though, I'm "creating" a language from scratch and that is really fun, however, I do have to compare it elsewhere to make sure the word/s aren't duplicated to mean something else. I love the way Diana Gabaldon uses many languages in her Outlander series (Latin, French, Spanish, the Queen's English, and of course, Scottish Highland (well that description might not be what they refer to it as, but it's kinda what I call it. Lol.)

E. Arroyo said...

I encounter that all the time. I'm bilingual English/Spanish and there are so many different Spanish versions of Spanish. Here in the US the new generation have come up with Spanglish. Spanish/English which helps too. LOL.

Jonathan Dalar said...

I will always consult an expert in the language if I'm going to use it in writing. While I'm usually able to use my own expertise in languages when writing, if I'm using one I don't speak, I will definitely spend some quality time working out exactly the point I'm trying to make with an expert - preferably a native speaker. And even with languages I consider myself an expert in, I'll often talk to a native about the subject, ensuring I'm not forgetting some colloquialism or double entendre.

This is something I highly recommend all authors do. I can't count the number of movies and books I've seen where I understood the language they were speaking and laughed at the absurdity of what they were trying to say in relation to what they were actually saying.

And when you have a character purposely mistranslate something, please, please don't go for the funny misunderstanding when it would never be mistranslated that way.

Emilia Quill said...

Yes, I’m sure. I’m a native Finnish speaker, and “Anna’s house” is definitely “Annan talo”, not “Annan talonsa”, which is grammatically incorrect. It’s “Annan talo”, if you’re referring to a house owned by a person called Anna, or “Annantalo” if you’re referring to an arts centre in Helsinki. The -nsa suffix is used with the personal pronouns “hän” (“he/she”) as in “hänen talonsa” (“her/his house”) and “he” (“they”) as in “heidän talonsa” (“their house”), but not with names of people and other nouns. So “girl’s coat” would be “tytön takki” (not “tytön takkinsa”), but “her coat” would be “hänen takkinsa”.