More than just Volocio out here…

On Writing with a Foreign Language…

So my current project takes place in South America…in the beginning.  I have a group of characters who speak Spanish.  The question here is how do I portray that? Do I write in English and just say it’s in Spanish?  Do I write some bits in Spanish and then immediately translate? Or do I go the David Mitchell route from Cloud Atlas and just write certain excerpts in only Spanish and let the readers hope for the best?

I think I’m trying a little bit of everything.  Mainly the dialogue is in English; however, I have managed to put in a little phrases here and there (being half-Peruvian, I use what I grew up with).  I feel that it makes it a little more real by adding this little dash of flavor.  Examples?

I have a character who has a line that goes something like this:

Oye huevon! Que haces aqui? Why are you not at the church yet?”

I don’t translate it.  If you’re familiar enough with Peruvian Spanish, you’ll get the ‘huevon’ bit.  If not, it doesn’t effect the story.  It is simply a name that one character is calling another in jest.  “Que haces aqui?” What are you doing here?  I don’t translate that either since but you see what I did there? What are you doing here and Why are you not at the church yet are asking the same questions.

In essence, I added a little dash of culture but what is important is still in English.  Don’t get me wrong, I do write some dialogue where it has to be translated.  But if you do this, use it sparingly.  So far, it is one of the few places in this project where such a practice is used:

“Parca,” the old man whispered. Reaper.


“¿Me puedes ayudar?” Can you help me?

Cesar nodded. “Por supuesto, señor.” Of course, sir.

What other ways of utilizing a foreign language do you use?  Granted, not all of us are Tolkien’s here who can develop a complete language for books (although, like Tolkien, I did study linguistics….I just wasn’t a professor).  Do any of you try to use your own language when writing?



3 responses

  1. I think as long as you stay consistent in one method any of the ways you mentioned will work. If you have a first person narrator who speaks English, you could show his/her internal thoughts translating what the other characters are saying. Just an idea!

    September 18, 2012 at 2:44 am

  2. This is a tough one. On the one hand, writing dialogue in Spanish maintains the authenticity, but on the other hand, too much dialogue in a foreign language could alienate readers who speak English primarily. I agree with the previous poster, that you’ll probably be fine if you stick with a consistent method, but my preference would be to write with the audience in mind. If the book is intended for a primarily English-speaking audience, then I would keep the Spanish to a minimum and translate where necessary. Good luck!

    September 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

  3. Hi, it’s Carlos from the writing group. I was looking up Volocio, curious about its origins, and stumbled onto your blog. This is a topic that interests me quite a bit.

    I think the general rule in writing is, “It depends.” Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is all set in Spain, and he uses this idiosyncratic translation which can be a bit odd at times but which gives this sense of linguistic uniqueness. (‘Cago en la leche of…” becomes “I obscenity in the milk of…”)

    So far, I’ve generally stuck to straight translation, save for tossing in a word or two where it feels appropriate or necessary. Since I generally write fiction with weird or uncanny elements, I find the use of untranslated Spanish can heighten the sense of strangeness.

    Buenos Aires has this really interesting dialect (which is also used in tangos) that I’ve wanted to translate using a somewhat similar approach to Hemingway’s. Some of it works pretty easily, like having a character talk about “spending some mangos,” which the reader can understand from context. (“spending some morlocks” might be a little harder to pull off.) Others are a little tougher, such as the wonderful word “chamuyar,” which can be translated as sweet talking or bullshitting. To me, it’s a very porteño word, both in being a regional term and in the fact that it’s a popular local mode of communication.

    September 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm

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