Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Excuse me, garcon!

Ask that in a French café (note the e-acute accent at the end without which the word would be pronounced 'caff') and you're likely to get ignored, 'pahhed' (as only a French waiter can) or (possibly) a bunch of fives in the sneck (a punch in the nose to those unfamiliar with British slang).

Definitely NOT a garçon
Why am I bringing this up? What has a sniffy French waiter got to do with writing? We're rapidly becoming a multi-lingual society and this is naturally being reflected in the dialogue appearing in novels. Unfortunately the linguistic skills of most authors I've come across in the last few months hasn’t come close to fluency and the interchanges done in Spanish, French, German, Italian etc frequently include quite basic errors. The attitude seems to be that because the mistakes aren't in the English, they don't count – well, they do!

Going back to the title of this article, the grammatically correct French would have been “Excusez-moi, garçon” (note that the c-cedilla indicates an 's' type sound, turning the harsh 'garkon' into the softer 'garsson'). Having said this, you no longer call a waiter 'garçon' (which means 'boy'), you'd be more likely to hold your hand up and say “S'il vous plaît, monsieur” which means (non-sarcastically) “If it pleases you, sir” or “Un moment, monsieur” (One moment, sir).” You get the picture.

In Spanish, the tilde 'ñ' which adds a y-type sound to words like Señor, is often totally ignored. Likewise, German has its Eszett ß (an old form of double-s) and its umlauts that can appear over 'a', 'o' and 'u', changing the sound significantly (written ä, ö, and ü). Italian also has its accents which modify the way a word is pronounced. Not only that, each of these languages has its own colloquialisms and, while the free translation services offered by Google, Babel, Bing etc are improving by leaps and bounds, entrusting your work to a computer is not, and never has been, a good idea.

If you are going to have characters speak in a non-English language, you have 3 choices:
  1. Have it all in English and just say that they're speaking in Spanish, French etc.
  2. Start off in the other language and gradually phase in English with the emphasis on ‘gradual’ – that doesn’t mean within a sentence.
  3. Use the other language in full and only revert to English when you’re providing a translation or where your characters are actually speaking in English.
The last option is heavily problematic in that it may mean big chunks of text are utterly confusing to readers even though you've given a translation alongside. Unless you really know both your market and what you’re doing, it's best to stick with 1 or 2.

Whichever you go for, don't do what I've seen recently. That's where a sentence starts off in one language and then (because the author didn't know how to translate it) gradually drifts into English. Our French waiter isn't going to say:

“Certainement, monsieur. Que désirez-vous? Par exemple, nous avons fish and chips, beefburgers and pizzas on the menu.”

He's either going to do the whole speech in French or (having established your non-Gallic background) in English. He isn't going to switch chevaux in mid-stream.

With the rise in the number of immigrant workers, the improvements to transport and communications, and the comparatively low price of travel, it's quite likely that your novel’s characters are going to encounter some such situation. If you want to get top marks for coping with the interchanges in a manner as befits a professional writer, here's my suggestion.

Let's get this straight.
Firstly, decide how you are going to deal with the language (option 1 or 2 above). If you choose the first option, you don't need to read any further.

Secondly, assuming you aren't going to 'cop out', write the exchanges in English but bookmark them so that you can find them again quickly.

Thirdly, create a single file of all the dialogues and run this through Google's translation device (or whatever program you prefer).

Fourthly, having got a translation, put its checking up for tender on one of the many 'find a freelancer' sites. You'll probably get the whole lot looked over for $25 or less.

Having done this, you know your book is now 'anatomically' correct and that you aren't offering yourself up as troll-bait. Not only that, your completeness will shine through and enhance the professional look of your work.

Right, now where's that waiter? I want a cup of tea.

Any Subject Books publishes a variety of quality books with new writers welcome to submit their scripts. They also provide the full range of book publishing services to the self-publisher or independent author such as editing, formatting, cover design, marketing, book tours, book trailers etc. Visit the website for more information and a full price list.


  1. You know, I just had a similar challenge when working on my novel, Tainted. I wanted to give some of the foreign characters accents, based on where they came from. With some characters it worked, and others, it didn’t. One character, who is supposed to be a tough islander, came of as sounding like Sebastian from the Little Mermaid. How would recommend the most appropriate way of handling this issue would be?

  2. Writing in dialect is similar to using foreign languages so I'd suggest following the advice from above and phase it in gradually. Hear through the ears of your other characters and reflect their perception of the accents - maybe get them to mishear a few things!