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Suppose you have a character who has a rank in a foreign military - say, Feldwebel Hans. That's the equivalent of a Sergeant.

On one hand, having people call him "Herr Feldwebel" gives some flavor and authenticity to the story, and I'd really like to do this. On the other hand, most readers won't know for sure what a Feldwebel is (I found out thanks to Wikipedia!) and what's his relationship to, say, an Oberst (Colonel) who berates him.

How would you handle this? I rather use the original names for flavor, but I can't figure a non-contrived way to explain the native language equivalent rank.

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Tagged as [fiction], but please remove if incorrect. –  Neil Fein Feb 1 '11 at 2:27

8 Answers 8

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Don't explain, demonstrate. You can show the meaning of a rank by what people of that rank typically do, and by the way characters of different ranks react to each other.

If an Oberst berates a Feldwebel, and the Feldwebel reacts as if berating is within the bounds of their relationship, readers will understand that Oberst is a higher rank than Feldwebel.

If a gaggle of Gefreiters buzz with alarm and excitement upon learning of "The Oberst's" imminent arrival, you can be sure that an Oberst is someone of importance, and that Gefreiter is such a low rank that one would very rarely interact with an Oberst.

To whom does each rank issue orders? To whom does each defer? With whom does each typically work? With whom does each typically hang out socially? (The latter can help to differentiate officers from enlisted.)

What are some other elements of the relationships between ranks? If you can name them, you can demonstrate them.

Also, you can demonstrate rank by the nature and scope of decisions on which each rank is focused, by the kind of orders they give and receive.

Also note how people react to receiving a given order. Are they proud to be given that responsibility? That suggests a responsibility usually given to someone of higher rank. Do they feel insulted? That's a responsibility usually given to a lower rank. Chagrinned that they're still doing this menial work after so long in their current rank? That's a sign of a responsibility typical of their rank. And if they've been in their rank "too long," that likely suggests higher-ups see them as unsuitable for promotion (which hints at the meaning of the next rank).

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My own attempt went along these ways, and initial feedback shows it works :) So I'm accepting this one. Thanks! –  ggambett Feb 1 '11 at 20:08
    
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson did this fairly well. He made up a whole slew of ranks (gyorn, gragdet, arteth, and others) and you always knew where they ranked just by how they acted to each other. He had some explicit telling at one point but it was unnecessary. –  StrixVaria Feb 1 '11 at 20:15
    
Yes, I had Sanderson in the back of my mind as I wrote that. In the first scene of Mistborn, you know that an "obligator" is someone to be obeyed without question... or at least placated. –  Dale Emery Feb 1 '11 at 20:23

There are a couple of ways of handling this.

The obvious way is to have a wall of text at some point explaining the foreign military ranks. A variant is to have two (or more) characters discuss the ranks and how they map. You could take this in all different directions: your purpose is to inform the reader, but the characters could easily have other motivations for the discussion.

A third is for some characters to use a near equivalent, even though most of them use the foreign word. This is a cute little hook for enhancing characterisation, but you do have to think about how the subject would react to the -- to him -- alien designation. This could lead to a discussion of comparitive ranks, of course, but you could get away with a potential discussion that doesn't actually happen. Except, of course, you've told your reader just enough.

A fourth option is to not explain the equivalences at all. This works if you can clearly delineate throughout the novel what his duties and responsbilities are as well as how he interacts with those above and below him. This avoids the preconceptions of the English terms, but you have to work harder to describe the non-English structure.

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I would always strongly caution against a "wall of text" strategy for anything. Two characters discussing the rank system (or comparing it to one familiar to the reader) is a better alternative, provided the situation allows for this to occur naturally. I like the fourth option, but it could become confusing if characters cover a wide spectrum of ranks. –  sjohnston Feb 1 '11 at 1:59
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There's also another option that I've seen a lot of authors do: a glossary of sorts at the end of the book. Break down the military chain of command in a reference section at the end. If readers are curious, they can flip back there and check things. –  Ralph Gallagher Feb 1 '11 at 2:09
    
Yes, the 'wall of text' option is rarely a good idea. Someone like Neal Stephenson can do it, but I daresay most authors probably could not. –  staticsan Feb 1 '11 at 5:40
    
Some authors, like Simon Scarrow, put a "historical note" at the beginning briefly clarifying ranks, organization, and very the setting. I obviously can't speak for anyone else, but I never bother reading something called a "glossary" unless it's in a textbook...probably because of the textbook association... –  kitukwfyer Feb 3 '11 at 20:13

One option is to implicitly or explicitly translate the ranks.

If your characters are, say, German, and presumably speaking German to one another, but you are writing their dialogue in English, then you're already implicitly translating. The reader understands that the English dialogue is actually German being translated for their benefit. Using English-language equivalents may lose you a little flavor, but it's unlikely to perturb the reader.

Explicitly would be something like:

"Hai, Shogun," she said. Yes, General.

It's a little more intrusive, but it allows you to use the translated word from that point forward.

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First remember that for many readers "Colonel" and "Sergeant" are just as alien as "Oberst" and "Feldwebel". A civilian who doesn't know rank may well assume both are just some kind of soldier. To truly understand the rank dynamic, show how the two interact, or how one person reacts when he is preparing to meet (or surprised by) someone of another rank.

How do they think about each other? Sergeants worry about whether the colonel who is coming is a good or bad officer; Colonels don't have time to worry about the sergeant they are about to meet. Lieutenants worry about themselves, and occasionally about the next officer up the chain, while Captains worry about their lieutenants.

How do they act around each other? Use the right verb to convey the tone and intent. A lieutenant may question a captain or correct a sergeant but may feel the need to instruct an airman. A Major, on the other hand, will not explain much of anything - he will order or direct and then probably leave, unless he's recently promoted and still falling back into the habits of a Captain.

Speaking is pretty simple because you have the honorifics and shortcuts that make military speech so efficient. But even the difference between "yessir" and "yes, sir!" lets your reader understand the speaker a little more.

Show the work that they have to do. A sergeant's job is greasy, muddy, back-breaking, or tedious. A lieutenant's job might be more accurately described as titchy, stressful, or never-ending. A colonel's job might not seem like work at all until you realize he's doing it from the time he wakes up until the time he sleeps, for months on end. Describe the tasks they are working on when the narrative interrupts them.

If you put enough clues about their clothing, work habits, and relative moods, the reader will understand the people and not just their relative ranks.

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A number of good answers, indeed.

But why not just leave it as "foreign"? Flavor indeed. Don't think it's too hard to find out, and it gives not just flavor but authenticity.

Compare original-language (for the character) parts in movies: they can be left subtitled, or just not translated at all. And if it's just some ranks, well... I'd really at least try leaving it at that, without explanation.

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You can also use an appendix. These don't have to be as dry and as detailed as they have the reputation for. (I think Lord of the Rings put many writers off using an appendix). For instance, Simon Scarrow writes incredibly successful fiction about a pair of Roman warriors, one a Centurion and the other his Optio. Understanding the structure and the ranks of the legion is fundamental to enjoying the story, so he includes a simple two page appendix explaining this at a level of detail appropriate for the story (that last part is key). He also includes his appendix at the start of the novel, so it's almost more like a non-fiction prologue.

On the other side of the scale, you can just not explain them at all and assume that either the reader knows them (which they might if they are well-read or well-travelled) or just that a detailed understanding of the hierarchy is not important to the story. It might be enough to know that Oberst is higher ranking than the Feldwebel and that's all you need to know. This is the approach Louis de Bernières, who writers higher brow fiction and often sets his books in foreign countries, takes.

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If you only have one or two ranks to explain to the reader: Simply explaining it in the text may be your best option; i.e., exposition may be the lesser of the evils. The clumsiness will be over quickly, and you can then move on with the plot. (If this is particularly difficult, you can always use a footnote; it pops the reader out of the story juust a bit, but that will also make the reader remember this if its important. Footnotes aren't usually the best idea in fiction, but one or two can be fine if you keep them very short. (sjohnston's answer is essentially an inline footnote, and can work very well if you want to be less obtrusive.)

If there are many such ranks: You can set the flavor of the work with a Table of Millitary Ranks, similar in flavor to a Dramatis Personae but less troublesome than a glossary.

You also have the option of using exposition, which can work only where it's done very, very well indeed.

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In case foreign definitions occur more than once or twice, I would keep foreign names in the text, with no explanation or footnote. It would be then convenient to provide a glossary of all foreign definitions at the end of the novel, and may some additional infos for further reading / bibliography.

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