TRANSLATION Do your characters all speak English?

For the most part, children’s books in English ignore other languages. Even in books set in other countries, other times, or other worlds, everyone just speaks fluent English. Julie Sullivan asks how real this is.

Have you noticed that in time-slip stories, the hero or heroine never has trouble understanding the locals? Never mind how improbable that is, as you’ll know the first time you try to ask directions in a foreign country with your school French or Spanish. It is a convention of fiction — it doesn’t disturb us.

British children in ancient Assyria, illustration by Harold Robert Millar for E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet (1906)
But why not use the dislocation of not speaking or understanding as part of the story? What about using the foreign words as colour to make your story more vivid? The wonderful French word dépaysement means to have an experience like being taken out of your own country. Using an imaginary or real foreign language, instead of pretending that everything takes place in English, can add to your story. (It’s best practice to italicise foreign words.) Here are a few ways to do that.

— A foreign exclamation like Bonjour, Madame or Ciao! that you don’t need to translate can instantly show your reader it’s a foreign country, sometimes more effectively than a long description.

They aren't speaking English. 
Dutch baker's children, photo by X Posid on Public Domain Pictures

— However, it’s stilted and silly to use the foreign expression just to show they’re all speaking another language. If a bunch of German officers are talking to each other, why would one of them suddenly say ‘Was?’ instead of ‘What?’

— If it’s a word or expression your readers won’t know, you can either explain it by the context, or by adding the translation immediately. This is useful if the word is going to reappear, maybe because it describes something that doesn’t exist in English. For example, ‘The chief was holding a mere, the jade symbol of her authority.’

Photo of Pare Watene holding a mere, by Gottfried Lindauer, in the Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand, on Wikimedia Commons

— Sometimes a longer foreign phrase can breathe the atmosphere better. You can provide a translation just afterwards: ‘All those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: “Auta i lómë! The night is passing!”’

— A literal translation of a foreign expression, especially if it’s strange in English, can point out that the characters are not only not speaking English, but live in a different culture. ‘“His mother was spinning black wool.” So — he was the black sheep of the family, then!’

Old woman spinning, Wikimedia Commons

— Names and titles can help convey strangeness. In Chinese fiction from the last century, many peasant or even upper-class characters are called just Second Brother or Zhao’s Wife and have no other name. If a mother is calling her child ‘little mouse', ‘my sky’, or ‘my soul’, or if the hero calls the teacher Takada-San instead of Sir, you will remember you are not in our world. Names can be especially good in books for younger children where you don’t want to put in a lot of foreign words.

Kipling used all of these techniques brilliantly in Kim, a spy story set in 1880s India. (I’m not going to talk about the problematic aspects of Kipling's writing here; there are plenty, although he is also undergoing a reassessment in India and elsewhere.)

Kipling spoke fluent Hindi, his first language. His characters use thee and thou and expressions from Hindi and other languages to indicate they are not speaking English. Here a lovable, talkative old noblewoman from the hills is travelling along the Great Trunk Road in a litter with dozens of servants. 

The Great Trunk Road, Kim (1901), bas-relief by Kipling's father, John Lockwood Kipling, who lived in India from 1865 till 1893.

A District Superintendent of Police, faultlessly uniformed, an Englishman, trotted by on a tired horse, and, seeing from her retinue what manner of person she was, chaffed her.

'O mother,' he cried, 'do they do this in the zenanas? [She has opened the litter window and uncovered much of her face to see better.] Suppose an Englishman came by and saw that thou hast no nose?'

'What?' she shrilled back. 'Thine own mother has no nose? Why say so, then, on the open road?'

It was a fair counter. The Englishman threw up his hand with the gesture of a man hit at sword-play. She laughed and nodded. 'Is this a face to tempt virtue aside?' She withdrew all her veil and stared at him.

It was by no means lovely, but as the man gathered up his reins he called it a Moon of Paradise, a Disturber of Integrity and a few other fantastic epithets which doubled her up with mirth.

'That is a nut-cut [rogue],' she said. 'All police-constables are nut-cuts; but the police-wallahs are the worst. Hai, my son, thou hast never learned all that since thou camest from Belait [Europe]. Who suckled thee?'

'A pahareen — a hillwoman of Dalhousie, my mother. Keep thy beauty under a shade — O Dispenser of Delights,' and he was gone.

It’s not necessary for foreign words or incomprehension to appear in your book, even if it’s not set in a modern English-speaking environment. But it’s a good idea to think about why not.


Julie Sullivan is a translator, editor, writer and SCBWI volunteer who loves words, books and languages.

Feature image: Logo by Jess Stockham

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