Babbling In Fiction

The Secret World Chronicle, one of the podcasts I’m listening to (and one you should be checking out too) brought a question to mind that I’ve been thinking about for years. In various media, characters who speak multiple languages are handled very differently. Let’s take the example of TSWC.

There are several Russian characters in the section I’m listening to now. When they’re presumably speaking in Russian they have Russian accents and may use the occasional Russian word. Their grammar is appropriate to their level of education/intelligence in their native speech. When they switch to English, we get more “Russglish” and their English is broken in ways I think a real Russian non-fluent in English would speak.

In prose, of course, we can’t rely on an actor to get across accents and the like. We either need to use a dialectical form of English or make use of words from their native language peppered throughout their non-native language. When they’re speaking in their native language we can make use of dialog tags or text markup or both to indicate the shift. In this case it strikes me as odd to use a foreign word rather than its native translation. The dialectical option was used by Steve Alten in The Loch, rendering large chunks of dialog hard to read when a Scottish person was speaking. The fusion option is used a lot in books I’ve read and in stories I’ve written with Hispanic speakers.

In movies, I’ve seen some actors use the same techniques used in TSWC. That’s a little jarring since I know in theory when they’re speaking Russian, for example, and I’m hearing it in English. I prefer subtitles in those cases. I’d rather hear the language they’re actually speaking in, even if I don’t speak it, and read the translation. To me that’s preferable than using actors who speak in a heavy accent or in a Standard English accent and I’m to assume when they make the language change. Obviously that requires using actors that can pull off multiple languages, and that is not always an option. That’s also not possible in fiction that’s purely auditory in form. For me, TSWC has chosen the best option available that I’m aware of.

Whatever media the story is in, I’m curious as to other’s opinions on the best approaches to presenting multi-lingual characters. I’m also interested in how it’s handled in the non-English speaking world.

–Read the first couple of chapters of Ginnie Dare online. asin=B0054R6LVQ


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