Foreign Language in Fanfiction
by Lelia Mellini
This is meant to be a manual for fanfiction writers. It is my opinion only, formed over six years of reading fanfiction.
I speak two languages at native fluency. This gives me an additional perspective when reading fanfic interspersed with foreign language vocabulary, and what I see tends to be rather awful. I am aware that professional writers to the same thing occasionally and it annoys me from them as well. Note, though, that I said occasionally. There are fanfic writers out there whose every story is steeped in French or German. Some of these writers are excellent and I enjoy their stories very much. But their use of foreign language drives me up the wall.
Most members of the fanfiction community are native English speakers, and the Americans among them have most likely never learned another language to any degree of fluency. This makes for a lot of fun playing around with what they remember from high school. So it’s understandable. It doesn’t excuse it, though.
This unskilled use of foreign language detracts seriously from my enjoyment of the stories, especially when the writer doesn’t know what she’s doing. What follows is a list of the worst sins and exceptions.
1. A character’s speech is written in dialect or accent.
There are few things as annoying to me as this. Duncan MacLeod from Highlander is a Scot. This prompts a lot of writers to spell out his words as Scottish dialect. You turns into yew, mother to mither, no and not to noh. Authors may think they’re being clever: Hey look, I can write Scottish dialect. It is not clever. It is hard to read if one has to puzzle out the words first. It is quite sufficient to describe, not transcribe a dialect, an accent or whatever. For me, reading a character’s speech in that form makes the character sound braindamaged. Don’t. Most characters don’t even have a strong accent on TV. Exception: none, Harry Potter notwithstanding. There is, however, a lot you can do with sentence construction. I’m not familiar enough with an English dialect to give concrete examples, but you will have noticed that the syntax of a dialect tends to differ from normal speech. The reader should be able to read the character’s speech as dialect even without the differently spelled words.
2. Insertion of foreign words.
Gambit of X-Men is a prime example. As a Cajun, he speaks English with a French accent. Many writers take this to mean that he will keep lapsing out of English into French at the drop of a hat. In fanfiction, he doesn’t use yes or no but oui and non, is incapable of pronouncing th, and exchanges easy to look up words in English for the French almost-equivalent. No person who is able to speak a foreign language at any fluency would use such plump devices. I for one am rather proud that my English pronunciation is good enough to pass for native. I would never assume that anyone will understand the oh-so-cute foreign word I used instead of the English one I know perfectly well. Exception: The character has an actual excuse for it beyond the writer trying to be cute or multilingual. Maybe he doesn’t know the word or wants to give a sign.
3. Dialogue in a foreign language.
Don’t assume that your readers can piece together what the character just said from what’s going on. This is not furthering the atmosphere of the story one bit, it throws me right out of the action. The worst case is if the author doesn’t even translate the dialogue at the end of the story. You may feel that you absolutely have to show the reader the characters aren’t speaking English right now. Give it different quotation marks if you really think you have to. Better yet, write it into the text itself. You are a writer, after all. Exception: if you write for a bilingual audience who is fluent in both the languages. I did this once and it worked for that person who speaks both English and German.
4. Transposing names.
John is Johann in German, Jean in French – you get the idea. While it’s interesting to see that most names have direct equivalents in other languages, it’s no reason to have your foreign language characters rename people they interact with. This is the height of impoliteness, people! It is saying that your character doesn’t give a damn about the person they’re talking to. That greasy foreigner ought to have a normal name anyway, is what it amounts to. Do not do it. Exception: if the name really cannot be pronounced be an English speaker. Laziness doesn’t count.
(Yes, I know that our old schoolbooks have the transposed names. This is because before the age of information arrived, you knew your own language, had never heard another and it was too difficult to pronounce those names anyway. Aside from that, it was hard enough to get kids to learn without the added difficulty. Then it was too late to change it.)
5. Using foreign honorifics.
I know they do this in the movies. It’s still silly. Every fluent speaker will use the honorifics of the language he’s speaking. The more words from your native language you use in everyday speech, the harder it becomes to speak the foreign language well. This is even worse if the author doesn’t even know how to spell the honorific correctly but uses it anyway to show this is a foreign character. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen Fraeulein and Monsieur misspelled. Exception: if the fanfiction character is known in canon to use these honorifics. Then spell them correctly and use them sparingly. Exception two: Japanese and related languages. The construction is different enough from English that it doesn’t distract from the story itself.
Now for the good uses of foreign words:
1. Swearing and insulting. This is an art form and should be exercised. There used to be contests for this. Translate, please.
2. Titles (with translation). There may come a time when you want to tell what’s going on in the title to your story but that would give everything away. Use the foreign word and translate it at the bottom. Warning: Do not make a habit of this. I know an author whose every story has a Spanish title. Overuse only makes the story annoying. One or two words are plenty. Whole sentences are too distracting.
3. As clues or hints in a story. X-Files fans may remember Kitsunegari. Foxhunt.
4. As endearments. Use sparingly and make damn sure you know not only what the word means but also its connotations. I recall a piece which translated a German endearment badly enough to practically destroy the premise of the story.
5. Food names. Italian and French in particular have beautiful names for certain dishes. Use them, enjoy them, translate them.
6. Music. Opera, songs by foreign singers and poems have beautiful lyrics. Use, enjoy, translate.
As with everything, don’t overdo it. Too much isn’t as good as enough.
A little reminder: the English language has the largest vocabulary of all the languages of Earth. Do you really feel you have to use another?
- If you use it, spell it right and make sure your grammar is correct.
- Know what it means.
- A little goes a long way.
- Translate it.
- If in doubt, don’t.
- If you’re not 110% sure, ask someone who knows.