The Superpower of Speaking Other Languages

I found a list helpful for writers wanting to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue/Marty Stu character.  If a protagonist had three or more of the traits that character had failed the test. One item that caught my attention was “Speaks five or more languages fluently.” There are a few rare individuals that can do that. They’re just not incredibly attractive and able to run the mile in under four minutes. I want to make reading stories which involve other languages easy for the readers to comprehend, but if it is too easy, the illusion is broken. Readers realize no one can be that perfect.

So, creating a character whose strength is foreign languages does present some challenges. In one of my earliest novels, I followed a twenty-something Texan adult traveling around Paris and speaking French with a few intentional errors. However, he receives more positive attention from the females than his strikingly handsome and strictly monolingual friend. This Texans language ability was not superb but enough to impress some Parisians. As my character was not completely fluent in French, I had him think about what he was going to say in English before he spoke in French and then translate the other person’s response in his head. This prevented the need for translation notes during conversations.

What if inability to comprehend the other person’s language is one of the core problems in a story? For example, most characters in an historical fiction novel live within the Island city of Tenochtitlan. As ancient Aztec nobles they speak Nahuatl and I do not. That should not present a challenge if I do my research. Classical Nahuatl translators exist online, but my readers will not want to resort to that. To give a richer sense of the nature of this Mesoamerican society. I use authentic names for people and places. I even insert a few Nahuatl culinary terms for food such as avocado, chayote, chipotle, and chocolatle.

The difficulty occurs both for the inhabitants of this city (and me as a writer) when the Spanish conquistadors march over the horizon. There will be scenes in which characters from both groups appear and each group will be confused as to what the other one is saying. Of course, there are a few translators, natives from other groups who have been with the Spanish explorers long enough to pick up some of their language. But, as they will not be fluent in Spanish the translator’s dialog will change depending on who they speak to. They may use a stilted speech towards the Aztec nobility as they are not part of that group. When they translate communications to the Spanish soldiers, it will be at the level of a four-year-old.

In each instance you want to give the reader an authentic feeling of how the point of view character senses the dialogue. If the reader only comprehends as much as they do, this avoids breaking the illusion of the difficulty in communicating. Yet, the book can still be written almost completely in the language of the reader.

This entry was posted in languages, Literary devices, Novels, Translations, Writer's resource, Writing trends. Bookmark the permalink.

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