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.
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.
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.