Take the 2-minute tour ×
Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Diving (OK, dove) into conlanging for a novel I'm working on. The Conlang is atmospheric and allows for some subplot intrigue, but it's not absolutely essential to the story. I've got basic grammar, punctuation, and syntax. My question is about providing translation for the conlang pieces. Where the POV doesn't speak the conlang and he has no direct access to translation, won't provide a translation. But when the POV does understand it, and the other characters do not, I'm not sure how to proceed.

Leave it untranslated?

In-line translate? eg. The Preacher said, "Gibber gibber bibber frabbish, gibber blabber!" ["Son, she's no lady. She's your wife!"]

Suggestions

share|improve this question
1  
See also this question: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1742/… –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 7 '11 at 12:28
    
If you're into this sort of thing, you might be interested to know that the Area51 proposal for Planned & Constructed Languages, where this sort of question would also be on topic, is now in the commitment phase. If you haven't already, please consider committing to that proposal. –  Mark Beadles Apr 6 '12 at 18:04

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

If you're writing for an English audience, your readers are expecting an English novel. From a reader perspective, it is utterly tedious to read a lot of dialogue you cannot understand. Providing translations can help, but that's equally tedious, since the POV character won't have those translations. I would recommend keeping use of foreign language to a minimum.

If the POV character understands the language, then I would suggest that everything should be written in English with the understanding that they're talking in Conlang, and also that the other characters don't know what is being said.

Example:

"We should take them to the desert and get rid of them," said Thrull, switching to Conlang. He glared at the three tourists. "They're useless."

The tourists blinked and smiled, confused. "What did he say?" asked the one with the camera.

"He said he'll take you to the ruins." replied Tomas. "For a fee."

If the POV character does not understand the language, then I would not necessarily write the dialogue in Conlang, but rather show that the person doesn't understand what's being said. Have the POV rely on the speaker's body language, facial expressions etc. to try pick up what's being said.

Example:

Paul listened as Tomas and the one called Thrull spoke in their harsh, guttural tongue. Thrull's lips curled in a sneer, and he glared at Paul and his friends as he spat out his final words.

Paul tried to smile. "What did he say?"

"He said he'll take you to the ruins," replied Tomas. "For a fee."

Paul looked from Tomas to Thrull's leering eyes. That must be some fee.

When I've overheard people talking in foreign languages, I am completely unable to repeat what was said because of the strangeness of the words, and the speed at which they talk, so it's unrealistic from a POV perspective to have conversations written down in foreign languages.

That's not to say you can't put in some of the language. There are one or two words that get repeated, such as curses, swearwords etc., or short, easily-pronounced phrases, and there you can probably write them as is, because it's something that the character will likely pick up on, even if they don't understand them. Also, sometimes there are written words, signs etc. that the character can repeat. In those cases, the character can ask what they mean, or someone (knowing the character can't understand) can translate for them.

share|improve this answer
1  
Nice answer Craig, you said everything I was going to say, but in more detail. Adding to what you said, everytime you read a WW2 novel, the Germans dont start talking in German do they? Most books use 1 or 2 German words, like Achtung, but then stick to English for everything else. –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 7 '11 at 8:30
1  
Great points, Craig! I think I'm struggling with finding the right balance of spare usage. For example, when I think of foreign languages used in writing, I think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Shakespeare's Henry V. Eco uses a number of languages that he doesn't expect the reader to understand, but he does it to great effect. Only a handful of spectators would have understood the French at the end of Henry V, but the scene is still intelligible. And better off for the French. Much to think on.... Thanks! –  patrick Jun 7 '11 at 20:13
    
@patrick - Glad that was helpful. Btw, if you're writing something as good as Foucault's Pendulum or Henry V, ignore almost everything I've said ;) –  Craig Sefton Jun 8 '11 at 7:53

If the POV character doesn't know the language, then the reader won't be able to understand it either. A fix could be separate chapters in different POVs allowing the reader to 'learn' the language. An advantage in this case is that the readers will know more than the characters in the book. It's always good to let the readers have and edge on things; they'll keep hoping the characters will discover what they already know...helps to keep the reader's interest.

On the other hand, if you can have a secondary character who DOES know the foreign language, then he can either translate or just interpret what is being said. The reader won't know if the translations are accurate or not, so it takes away some of the intrigue, but if the POV character trusts the interpretor, then it tends to work well enough.

share|improve this answer

It depends on readers you are targeting. Leaving foreign language fragments fully untranslated could be quite challenging for a reader but then they (fragments) need to be used sparsely and carefully. No matter whether the foreign language is constructed or just unknown (and unfamiliar) among your potential readers.

Edit: Content (meaning) of a foreign language fragment should emerge from the context.

A good example can be the "Windtalkers" movie where the foreign (existing but almost unknown) language fragments are untranslated.

On the other hand, some readers can consider this as disturbing and insulting.

share|improve this answer
    
I agree with Indoril. I dont like it either when authors put quotes from foreign languages, and dont translate them. It makes me wonder if they are essential to the plot, should I use google translate, or just read on? Anyway, it is insulting. –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 7 '11 at 8:23
    
Exactly. When I was twelve I had been trying to plough through the Tolstoy's "War and Peace". It was an edition where the sentences in French were left untranslated. Cried from anger, literally. –  Nerevar Jun 7 '11 at 11:57

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.