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Writing a setting where English is not the common language.....

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Dec 1, 2017.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Hey everyone,

    I know most of you create your own worlds, so this is perhaps not an issue for you, because readers just assume the dialogue is a "translation" of whatever language is spoken in that world.

    I, however, like to write urban fantasy, and my story is set in Old Montreal, Quebec. The story is written in English, but Montreal is a very (very) French community. Everyone speaks primarily French. The store names are in French, the street names are in French, everything is in French.

    Now, I have a pretty decent grasp on French. What I'm wondering, though, is how to give that french "flair" without it being too much, or too confusing for the reader. The MC obviously is narrating in English, but how do I get the point across that most of the dialogue is occurring in French?


    To be more clear... there are British and French characters. So some dialogue will occur in English, other dialogue will be in French.

    I've seen it before where writers sort of put the other language dialogue in italics, so the reader knows they are speaking French but it has been "translated."

    I've also seen it where they just write the French and hope the reader can put the pieces together... but since I'm writing for kids I don't want to expect to much or make it frustrating for them... .
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2017
    LWFlouisa likes this.
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Back in the day we used to have a couple of linguists on the site who would pretty much insist that you just shouldn't try, that doing any kind of accent or wording change to reflect a language would just end up butchering it.

    I saw a video about an actress who does accents in two dozen languages - forgive me, I couldn't find it in a cursory glance - but for french, she said that they tend to speak with their lips, with their voice being forward in their mouth, making them look just a bit pouty.

    When I was in HS I did a comedy piece in an Irish accent and was able to look up some of the differences. With Irish, there are speaking pattern differences, such as trying not to stress any word by reorganizing the sentence structure to do that for you (You're the one who did it? vs, "So it's you that's the one who did it.") I'm sure similar quirks exist with french speakers. You could try and youtube French accents for tips on the subject.

    If you can pick up a casual tip or two, go for it. But really, I wouldn't try too hard to Frenchify your language. You've got to balance research workload, reader impact, and the risks of screwing up. I can't decide for you specifically, but for most of us I think the balance doesn't work out.
    Heliotrope and goldhawk like this.
  3. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

    You can give your story a French flair by only having the shops and streets in French. That would be enough for most readers. But if you don't know French, don't write the dialogues in French.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  4. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    I would only write dialogue in french if it serves a real purpose. For example if someone is speaking the language to the current POV and he/she is not able to speak the language him/herself. That way you show the linguistic barrier in a very clear and precise manner. If the POV does speak french, than I would skip it. Most of your audience will likely not understand a lot of french themselves and I don't think it is wise to risk alienating them.

    The italics idea could work. Accents can work as well if you have a good grasp on them, though even if you do it is probably best to keep it light. Even an accurate accent can become grating over time if you have to read it.

    Names of people, places and other things that have names can all be done in french, although I would make sure to translate them when you do so the first time. We might understand french, but many readers will not and readers, like all people, don't like feeling stupid. Personally I don't think this means you shouldn't use fancy or foreign words, but the meaning of said words needs to be obvious in the context somehow. If you make readers grab for a dictionary, there's a good chance you've lost them.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I would, at most, throw in a few french words that are easy enough to understand that they're clear by context - such as: oui, non, mon dieu, fromage.
    I'd then have the french-speaking characters use these a lot. I might also try and give one or more of them some kind of verbal tick they use often.
  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    yeah, I'm not talking about accents or wording changes... I'm talking about letting the reader know "This person is speaking French" or "this person is speaking English".

    I do speak French. I'm wondering how much I put in to make it feel "authentic" without alienating anyone.

    Ok.... so more context, lol.

    The MC would be French/ English. Her dad is British, but she has spent her entire life in the French colony, so she would be bilingual. She has grown up in Montreal her whole life. So everything up until almost the inciting moment would be French people speaking French, except for her dad. (but obviously I'm writing it all in English).

    At the inciting moment she will introduced to the important characters who are also British (like her dad), and so they will speak English. For the most part the rest of the book will be her speaking English.

    So what do I do? How do I alert the reader that "This girl is living in Montreal. They are all speaking French even though I'm writing this in English, except for her dad who speaks English."

    Then later on show the rest of the guys speaking English?

    Gah! This is driving me crazy.

    Imagine your character is half elf, half dwarf so he is bilingual. He starts the story in Rivendale, where they speak one language, but then travels to the capitol of the dwarf town (I have no clue what that is) and they speak another language.

    How do you show this?
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I think this is my best bet.

    This too.
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Literally.... just tell the reader what language it's in.

    "So what?" she said in French.
    "How are you father?" she always needed a moment to get used to speaking in English with him.
    "I'm happy to be here in London," she said, hoping her English was good enough.
    ApaCisare and Heliotrope like this.
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Yes ^^^ that's what I'm wondering. Ok, I'm going to try that. It seems hokey in my head but I think it might work.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Since you speak French, I'm sure you already know this, but in Montreal your character would be speaking Quebecois, which is a dialect, making it even more treacherous to strike the right tone.

    So, you have some people speaking English, some French. When does that matter? Most Quebecois are bilingual. As often happens with minorities, they will sometimes choose to have language difficulty when they are feeling threatened, pretending not to understand, or to misunderstand. Conversely, an English speaker, especially if in a position of power, might demand the other speak English, dammit!

    IOW, I can picture specific situations where it would be relevant, but for the rest, why even mention it? And in specific situations, how you handle it in the narration might vary from one specific situation to another. For example, maybe she brings home a English friend for supper. The father shoots off some rapid-fire questions or comments, and the daughter must apologize for him. In that scene, I should think the actual French (Quebecois) would be appropriate, so you'd want two or three sentences. The daughter could relate what he said in her apology.

    In another scene, they are in a lecture or some other venue and the friend admits she didn't understand a word of what was said. In such a case, the mere statement would be sufficient.

    As ever, general rules can be formulated but rarely used. It comes down to the scene and the writer. As for the initial setting, just saying it's Montreal should be enough. If you wanted to be more explicit, the dual-language signs everywhere would serve, though your MC would scarcely notice such things. If you introduce the English speaker early enough, they could comment on it.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  11. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Since I don't speak French, if I were in this situation, I'd not write the dialogue of the French speakers, but paraphrase and translate it to the English via the narrator. If I knew some French, I might write a few French phrases in the dialogue, with quotes around them, for the benefit of readers who know French, and then paraphrase and translate those phrases and any additional dialogue to English via the narrator. For street and place names, I'd use whatever names were on the street signs, as they were, possibly followed by translations from the narrator.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Yes, thankfully my sister lives in Montreal and is married to a Frenchie, so getting accurate "jargon" will not be a problem, lol.

    Great suggestions, and I think I know how I could use some of these.

    Yes, this is what I'm thinking. I'm thinking, since the scene opens up with her and her dad at home and the land lady banging on the door I can have the land lady screaming in French, because it's not what she's saying that matter, its more the idea that she is angry. The dad can talk to her in English, since that is his native language, and she can comment on how they always speak English at home, but she has to translate for him outside of the house because he never did pick up the language fluently like she did... something like that...
  13. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Personally, I’d stick to the signs and location... a few slips of simple words at most. I’d look to H’wood for an example here (but not for how to behave with the opposite sex). Do the 3 Musketeers speak in French? Hell no. Do we know they’d be speaking French? Sure. French are silly that way.

    When I have languages foreign but understood, the simplest is most often the best (mentioned above): dialogue tags.

    Italicized dialogue would irritate me, but I’d survive.
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I know. It's exactly this that is bugging me. I have written stories before where it is set in Spain, or Italy, or whatever, and I got buy by using a few "señor" and "senoras" and "ci" etc, because the setting was self explanatory and everyone was obviously Spanish.

    Like at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast where everyone comes out signing "bonjour, bonjour, bonjour," so you know it is France, but then everything after that is english except for a few "mon cherie-s" etc....

    I'm getting mixed up with the bilingualism. With starting just assuming everyone is speaking French, but then switching to English later. I don't know why it's bugging me so much :(
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2017
  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Ditto on what Svrtnsse said. You can just flavor in French here and there, making sure, the reader can understand or make a good guess at what the French means just based on context.

    On the practical side of things, if everyone in the scene is speaking the same language. I don't think you have to do anything. You might flavor in some French if you want, but not necessary.

    But, if one of the character's speaks a different language, say English, here are a few things you can try to remind the reader that French is the primary language.

    1. If the POV character only speaks English, have the French speaking characters speak French, and put in the French, then have the English speaking ask them to speak English or have the French speaking characters realize the English speaking character can't understand and switch over to English for them.

    2. Kind of a flip to 1, If the POV character is a French speaker, have them speak, and you can have the text be in English, but you can have them slowly realize that the English speaker in the room doesn't understand a word they're saying or have the English speaker pipe up about not understanding.

    3. Now if you do 1 and/or 2 once or twice, it's established that French and English are being spoken and that some characters don't speak French. Once this is done, I think you could have characters drop in what language they're speaking at the moment if you deem it necessary.

    Eg. Bob walked into the bakery. The person behind the counter didn't look like they spoke French, so erred on the side of speaking English.

    I know the example is a bit clumsy, but hopefully it gets my point across.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  16. LWFlouisa

    LWFlouisa Troubadour

    This sounds amazing.

    Well like, I'm considering a couple of different conlangs myself. One is a hybrid of Japanese and Franco-Dutch. The others are encipherments of these constructed languages: Guinevorian and Lilithian code. Guinevorian is closer to Franco-Japanese of the Cliff dwellers. And Lilithian is closer to Dutch-Japanese of those who live in the valleys and trenches.

    I'm going to need to think how to do translations, without sacrificing the security of Guinevorian or Lilithian dialects.

    The whole idea being how Guinevorian and Lilithian are obscure originators of the Franco-Dutch Japanese variant. Similar to Indo-European in the real world.

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