Monday, November 9, 2009

Citizens of the World - You Write by Jim Woods


By Jim Woods

Most of us in audience to this Blog write in English. It may Canadian English, Australian English, American English or The Queen’s English, all of which are somewhat confusingly similar. However, absolute foreign words and phrases, particularly Mexican/Spanish ones for those of us who reside in the Southwest region of the United States, or European phrases for writers who set their work in other exotic milieu, increasingly work into our English writing. Speaking for myself and my locale, many Spanish words have become commonplace, such that they don’t get recognized as anything but Spanglish. But you don’t have to be a linguist to insert occasional foreign words into your English writing for special effect, just dare with a bit of savoir-faire.

Many of us intentionally place a foreign word or phrase into our short stories or novels because they fit the mood or scene. I make appropriate use of languages other than English in my novels set in South Africa. With the interaction between several different cultures in that multilingual country, my characters occasionally are addressed by one who speaks a different language. An Englishman may converse with an Afrikaner or a Zulu, and it helps to have the non-English speaker identified by words common to his other-than-English language. It’s a way to identify the speaker without all the “He saids.” For instance, if one character addresses another one with the subservient, “Baas,” the reader will know that a black man is addressing a white, and probably an Afrikaner and not an Englishman. By the same token, if one character refers to another as a verdoem rooinek (damn red-neck), you can be sure that the speaker is Afrikaner and the object of his insult is English.

Assuming that all who read this are writing in English, use italics when a foreign language word or phrase is necessary to the text–but only if that foreign word or phrase has not become familiar to the English-speaking world. For instance, in writing in the Southwest for a southwestern readership, “tortilla” need not be italicized but “galleta” (cookie) probably should be. Make the determination on a word-by-word-case basis. Never italicize foreign proper names.

Whether you write romances or military adventure, you almost always can make use of “rendezvous,” and you don’t have to italicize it, the French word having become universal in its use. However, should you want your lovers to rendezvous in the garden, you could arrange the tryst under the tonnelle rather than the arbor.

I got that education from the packaging on my arbor kit. These days you can almost learn a second or third language from such commercial packaging. My arbor kit instructions were repeated in French and Spanish; and the legend on the carton noted that the product itself was Made in Canada, Fabrique Au Canada, and Hecho En Canada.

It’s impossible to buy electronics without being exposed to several world languages in print, including Asian ones in characters that don’t spring from my keyboard at all. The other languages that do use our same alphabet though, can be translated simply by comparison to the English version of the claims and instructions. Not only do the individual words become clear in translation, but sentence structure can be studied as well.

In our misplaced but unintentional superiority, we tend to think of those packaging labels and assembly instructions as being translated primarily from English to whatever other secondary languages that may be involved. However, when I purchased a roll-bar kit from the BMW factory, the primary installation instructions, not too strangely, were in German. Not only that but I had to thumb through several pages of other dialects of the world, including some I assumed to be Arabic, before locating English embedded amongst the world’s “secondary” languages. I suppose Germans and others have the same right as the English-speaking peoples to take pride in their native languages.

We are not alone in this world, and writing for the electronic markets certainly will cause even more blending of the world’s languages. In the meantime, and even for local consumption, toss a foreign word into your written stories or articles now and then, just for worldly effect. Explain it though, and if it’s very unusual, italicize it too. However, make sure of your translation.

In the grocery market recently, a floor under mopping maintenance was adorned with a cautionary sign in both English and Spanish. I assumed “piso” to mean “wet”– think about it– until later at a hardware store, I understood from reading a tile package that “piso” is “floor.” I was floored.

Errors and misunderstandings caused by language translations work both ways. Acting in my capacity as contract editor on a manuscript by an East European author, I changed her written phrase in the scene where her character in hiding was about to be discovered, “He retained his respiration” to “He held his breath.” It’s not that the author had selected individual words from her American dictionary that were incorrect, or even that the combination of words did not, with a little study, convey her character’s dilemma, but a part of my commission was to Americanize the language of the author’s novel. She made a special point in our initial contact to let me know that English was not her native tongue, as if I couldn’t have guessed. Some of the more blatant misuses by my European author client include interchanging subject and verb, a condition we do see in languages other than our own English. It’s not entirely wrong but hers gave the dialogue a rather stilted read, and as I say, a stipulation from my client was to Americanize her writing.

Her book is structured around the Berlin Airlift of the post WWII era, so military references are used throughout. She talks of soldiers “at the first lines” which I changed to “on the front line.” We all try to be civil but my author, in differentiating military characters from non-military ones, refers to the nonmilitary as “civil people,” a phrase I changed, repeatedly, to simply “civilians.” Because the background is the airlift, flight and aircraft terminology comes up in her writing. She writes of the “bombardments” dropped on Berlin, which I changed to simply “bombs.”

The occasional use of a foreign word or phrase can be very effective in the right places in your story or novel, but like my East European client, Hungarian actually, if we depend on a dictionary of the language we really cannot handle, we should run the copy by someone who is familiar and fluent in the language. Otherwise, we could quite likely select the wrong word, and thereby end up quedar en ridiculo (looking ridiculous).

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Contributed by Jim Woods, author of Champagne Books:

Gunshot Echoes; Assassination Safari; and Parting Shot

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