Monday, August 22, 2011

Novels W/ Foreign Language

By chance I happened to recently read three novels with sprinkles of a foreign language. It got me to thinking about my preferences for the way a another language is incorporated beside the principal one. Since my understanding of the three languages - Spanish, French and Russian, goes from passable to nothing, I figured this would be a good topic. I will begin with an example from each book.

The first one comes from a young adult novel* that will be released later in the year.

"Hola, Mrs Hernandez Hola, Mari, Coma esta? Luz's mom asked how I was doing as she opened the back door and let the smoke out. "Estoy, bien" I told her I was okay."

The second is from Paris Noire by Francine Thomas Howard.

"Non. Non. Je dois voir mon fils, mon" In her worry, she'd had spoken French.

The final one is from Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac.

Vlad straightens up, looks down at me, raises one eyebrow. "Blagodariu," I say. I thank you. "Da Eto figna," he replies. Nothing to it.

Out of these three languages Spanish is the only one I know. I think that's part of the reason I had the biggest reaction to how it was incorporated. One of my reading pet peeves is an instant language translation (ILT), especially when its greetings. Even more so when its Spanish.

I could be assuming too much here because I've studied Spanish. Not everyone learns Spanish. Or French or Italian, two similar languages that would make it easier to understand a basic phrase or two. Some study, Arabic, Chinese, German or one of the many other languages with no similarities to Spanish

Though I still have a difficult time believing American readers must be spoon fed a translation for "Coma Esta."

The use of Estoy
My Spanish is barely passable. Considering I've lived in a predominantly Spanish speaking neighborhood for the last three years it should be much better. However I am still 99.9% sure estoy is not used outside of the classroom.

I was reminded of that scene from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou is in a bar in Mexico with her father. When she starts speaking Spanish the formal way its taught in high school everyone laughs.

Paris Noire
I've never studied French but found it easy to follow. I don't know what the example says but in context I understand its meaning. Howard never stops the flow of the story to give translations. The understanding through context approach worked very well for Paris Noire since only a little French is used. Mainly greetings.

Wolf Mark
Finding out that Wolf Mark had a little Russian was a nice surprise. It also helps round out this (lengthy) post since its a language I am not at all familiar with. I found myself reconsidering my stance on instant language translation.

I did find the ILT helpful at first but I soon wanted it to stop. They started to feel clunky and not natural to the story . Even though I don't know Russian, hints would've been preferable.

One of my favorite novels last year was Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse (one of the best prologues ever) A lot of Spanish is intertwined in the novel. What I didn't understand through context I had to look up. It did slow me down a bit but I didn't mind at all, I prefer to work for it.

Instant language translations take me out of the narrative. It also implies - The reader won't know what this means, they won't be smart enough to figure it out and will be too lazy to look it up.

I like to get the gist of another language through context and with the help of a few hints. If that doesn't work I prefer to look up what I don't know.

*I felt the execution (I just finished watching Project Runway. Nina Gracia Don't Play) of including Spanish was very poor. This shouldn't to be anyone's first impression of this novel since it could turn readers off. I enjoyed the novel and don't want to do that so I won't reveal the title.


tanita✿davis said...

Ooh, just got my copy of Wolf Mark, so very much more intrigued now!

Hints are preferable, to me, but operating on the idea that editors probably pressure writers in this regard, I usually let my annoyance pass. Remember how they changed the Potter books from that dastardly confusing British spelling to American spellings? And how they changed word usages, because the assumption is that our kids are just so feeble minded that they'd get confused if they had to encounter a wellie? Um, yeah. That's how it goes; they assume that teens ARE both too lazy and too uncommitted to the text to look things up, thus the lengthy translations.

'Least that's my two centavos (cents). ;)

Sarah Laurenson said...

I'm reading the third book in the Magickeeper series (MG, Erica Kirov). There's Russian in them all, I think. She doesn't do an exact translation. The MC doesn't know much Russian, so he puzzles it out as best he can.

"After they had fallen in love, she told him a Russian expression: Eslib kazhdiy raz koda ya dumayu o tebe padala by zvezda, to luna stalaby odinokoy. Something about stars and the moon; that if a star fell every time she thought of his dad, the moon would become lonely."

There's no getting that one through context. I am curious about anglicizing the alphabet though. Would this be more interesting or harder to understand in cyrillic?

She also includes some direct translations when it comes to naming the food they eat. It's an immersion in the culture that I can appreciate.

de Pizan said...

If there are hints around it that you can get the gist without an immediate translation, I like it. I don't like when it's like in the first example--where they say it in one language and immediately say it again in English. It's just redundant. What does kind of drive me crazy is in 19th century literature, they'll sprinkle it liberally with French, German and/or Latin phrases which may or may not have any hints as to what it means and in some editions they won't provide a translation in the footnotes or endnotes.

Doret said...

Tanita -for proving my point and making laugh with (cents)

Sarah your right, there is no getting that through context. Do you think you'd like the direct translations more or less if they were in the back. How is the Magickeeper series?

de Pizan - The English repeat is a pet peeve of mines as well. If a hint won't work I would be okay with a person answering in English.

I won't be trying my hand at 19th century literature anytime soon. I once tried reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame it was not pretty.

Sarah Laurenson said...

The direct translations are so small and don't really break the flow for me mostly because it's the MC telling himself and not breaking the fourth wall. And sometimes she uses description (like with borscht and describing it in a disgusted way) that tells the reader what borscht really is and not simply saying beet soup.

She also uses his thoughts to say he's sick of cod soup, then he says "No more ukha." A little later another character talks about turning the bad guys into stinky cod and making ukha out of them. So it's teaching me the language in a soft way.

I love this series. It's got a heavy dose of Russian culture - including the food. It's got good and evil with the evil ones being led by Rasputin. It intertwines the present day and the search for missing magical artifacts with real events and people from history. It's a nice light read - flows well, moves fast.

Sayantani said...

Nice post - I think a well written narrative that pulls the reader into a new world doesn't always need to explain itself. I think (hope) that as the world gets smaller all our abilities to tolerate "not knowing" or "figuring it out from the context" is getting larger - in fact, that is what linguistic, ethnic, national, regional etc. minority folks do every day. I think sometimes it's the position of privilege to be completely intolerant of being made to feel like you "don't know".. thoughts?

I just posted a few weeks ago a similar discussion on explaining or not explaining in multiculti kidlit.

Salman Rushdie never explains - or he does, but in context, never literally

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Yes, yes, yes! Instant translations set my teeth on edge. There are so many other deft ways of conveying meaning that we really don't need to have characters having to serve as translators as well. Contextual understanding is the only way. We have to trust young readers. The problem of course is that the more we use the parenthetical comma phrase approach to this craft issue, the more readers will come to expect that as the standard. Shudder! I did a blog post on this some time ago:

Claire Dawn said...

Thanks for that. I am a Barbadian living in Japan. All my stories are set in Barbados or Japan or imaginary worlds, so there are always some words that the audience won't know. And I always worry abotu how to convey their meaning. You've given me a lot more to think about.