Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bad language - le mot juste

No, sorry, I’m not discussing profanities today – I just want to concern myself with a discussion about the use (or misuse) of ‘foreign’ language in books. The driving force behind it is that I’ve encountered incorrect grammar, spelling, word usage and etiquette in a number of books that I’ve recently read.

I accept that I’m a bit more pernickety than most which may be because I’m a European, married to a former modern languages teacher (now also an author) or just plain fussy. If you’re going to sell books they need to be right – in every aspect.

Let me give you two examples (from different books). Both characters are supposed to be spouting fluent French:

"Vous perdu?" This is meaningless. It should be "Vous êtes perdues?" (are you lost?) and, before anyone argues, the 'e' is because the group being asked the question are all female.

"Viola". Viola is a stringed instrument - the author meant "Voilà" meaning 'there you are'.

But it’s not just dialogue that needs attention.

The English language contains a whole host of non-English words and expressions and, if we're going to use them, we need to do so correctly. The second example (above) can be dismissed as being plain sloppy but the first opens a whole can of worms.

For example, in German, French, Spanish and Italian, there are different ways of saying ‘you’. There’s ‘you’ informal (as you might say to a friend, lover, child, animal), 'you' formal (as you might use when talking to a superior, an official, a stranger, or over the phone) and ‘you’ plural.
I make this point because get it wrong and you will likely cause offence. Using an informal ‘you’ to an official will wind them up a treat as it suggests that they are inferior and insignificant or using the formal ‘you’ to a friend would call into question the depth of your friendship suggesting that they were a ‘distant contact’ rather than a mate.

We're used to English which is a good general purpose, easy-going language. We don't convey status (for example) in our use of the word ‘you’, we convey it in the surrounding language as in:
  • "You must not do that again"
  • "I'd respectfully ask that you desist from repeating this action"
  • "Is it possible for you not to do that?"
Not only that, titles are very specific, too. For example, Madame, Mademoiselle, Frau, Fräulein (these must be in capitals) etc are all quite clear in their usage but offensive to the addressee if applied incorrectly.

This is just one aspect of the monumental mess you can land yourself in if you use a ‘foreign’ language and then make a fist of it.

The solution is actually quite simple - keep a list of all the phrases you want to use and the context (remember – the relative statuses of the individuals will probably be relevant). Put this up as a job for a native speaker on one of the commercial writing sites and you'll probably get the whole lot done for $25. It's money well-spent if it stops your book from having a whole load of badly-translated English.

I’m not being a prima donna about this. If you’re laissez-faire in the way you use another language in your magnus opus, you risk putting yourself in zugzwang (if you don't know it, look it up - it's one of my favorite words!). Now, maybe that's just a bit of schadenfreude on my behalf.

Clive West runs Any Subject Books which publishes a range of quality books from up-and-coming authors. They're always interested in new submissions which are welcomed via their writers wanted page. Clive's wife, Damaris, has written a number of books including an account of their life in Italy called A Postcard From Umbria.

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