When Your Characters Speak a Language Other than English

(This article originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s blog. Thank you to Jane for posting it!)

You’re writing in English, but your characters speak a different language. How do you express their words? Here is what not to do:  do not have them speak in broken, stilted, or awkward English to indicate that they are really conversing in another language.

The most egregious example that I have seen of what not to do is in a book called The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais, which is about an Indian family who flees Bombay and ends up in France, where they open an Indian restaurant 100 feet from a respected French restaurant with an upwardly mobile proprietor. First published in 2010, this book was favorably reviewed by many outlets and adapted into a 2014 movie.

 In the book, sometimes the Indian family members speak to each other in natural-sounding English, and other times in broken English. Here is an example from page 9. The father and son are watching guests arrive at the wedding of a rich man’s daughter. “ ‘He a billionaire,’ Papa whispered. ‘Make his money in petrochemicals and telecommunications. Look, look at that woman’s emeralds. Aiiee. Size of plums.’ “ Later, on that same page, the father, still speaking to his son, says in more natural-sounding English: “ ‘Listen to me, Hassan,’ he roared over the traffic. ‘One day the Haji name will be known far and wide, and no one will remember that rooster.’ “ I assume the father and son are speaking a native Indian language throughout this conversation, and it is unclear why sometimes their conversation is in broken English, and sometimes in natural-sounding English.

On page 20, the family is discussing a recipe that’s not working in their restaurant:

“What’s this? This not like I taught you.”
“Wah?” said Bappu. “Last time you tell me to change. Add more star seed. Add more vanilla pod. Do this, do dat. And now you say it not like you teach me? How can I cook here with you changing mind all the time? Make me mad, all this knockabout. Maybe I go work for Joshi—”
“Aiiee,” screamed my furious grandmother “Threaten me? I make you what you are today and you tell me you go work for that man? I throw everyone of your family to the street—”

The book includes many more cringe-worthy examples of the Indian characters speaking in this odd, broken English—not like any English I’ve ever heard a person from India speak.

 When your characters speak a language other than English, you might think that you need to present their conversations using the word choice and sentence construction of a new speaker of English—how that speaker might sound if they were to speak English. But this would be a mistake. They are not speaking in English. Perhaps they don’t even know English.

Think of yourself as a translator or an interpreter. When translating from a language other than English, the translator or interpreter strives to be true to the literal and figurative meaning and mood of the original while converting the words into natural-sounding, idiomatic English. You will be doing the same with your characters.  To further complicate things, you might have characters who speak in multiple languages during the course of a story or novel. Maybe they speak in English with some people, and in a different language with other people.

Vikram Seth navigates a multiplicity of languages beautifully in his novel A Suitable Boy, which begins at the wedding of Savita and Pran. About six pages into the novel, we learn that some characters have been speaking in English, while others have been speaking in Hindi. The author tells us so: “His conversation with his father had been in Hindi, hers with her mother in English” (p. 8). But both conversations have been written in natural-sounding English. Here is Lata’s conversation (in English) with her mother on page 3:

“Now, now, Ma, you can’t cry on Savita’s wedding day,” said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother’s shoulder.
“If He had been here, I could have worn the tissue-patola sari I wore for my own wedding,” sighed Mrs. Rupa Mehra. “But it is too rich for a widow to wear.”
“Ma!” said Lata, a little exasperated at the emotional capital her mother insisted on making out of every possible circumstance. “People are looking at you. They want to congratulate you, and they’ll think it very odd if they see you crying in this way.”

One of the things I love about this passage is that while both characters are speaking English, the mother’s English is a bit more formal (not using contractions, for example), while the college-student daughter’s English is a bit more casual.

 A few pages later (p. 7) we read Maan’s conversation (in Hindi) with his father, who is speaking of a bride he has chosen for Maan:

“So that’s all fixed up,” continued his father. “Don’t tell me later that I didn’t warn you. And don’t get that weak-willed woman, your mother, to change her mind and come telling me that you aren’t yet ready to take on the responsibilities of a man.”
“No, Baoji,” said Maan, getting the drift of things and looking a trifle glum.

Although the characters are speaking in Hindi, the conversation is in natural-sounding English.

Should you mention what language your characters are speaking? Yes, if you think it will help readers understand the characters and their milieu. Vikram Seth tells us. And so does Jhumpa Lahiri, in her poignant, lovely story “The Third and Final Continent” (the last story in her collection The Interpreter of Maladies). 

The main character in Lahiri’s story is a young man who has recently arrived in the U.S. He is fluent in English but speaks in a formal, stilted way in that language. Here is a conversation with his elderly landlady’s daughter (p. 185):

“I come once a week to bring Mother groceries. Has she sent you packing yet?”
“It is very well, madame.”
“Some of the boys run screaming. But I think she likes you. You’re the first boarder she’s ever referred to as a gentleman.”
“Not at all, madame.”
She looked at me, noticing my bare feet (I still felt strange wearing shoes indoors, and always removed them before entering my room). “Are you new to Boston?”
“New to America, madame.”
“From?” She raised her eyebrows.
“I am from Calcutta, India.”

               The new immigrant’s English contrasts with Helen’s English, who is a native speaker. Later, when his wife arrives at the airport to join him in the United States, the main character mentions speaking in his native language (p. 191):

Instead I asked her, speaking Bengali for the first time in America, if she was hungry.
She hesitated, then nodded yes.
I told her I had prepared some egg curry at home. “What did they give you to eat on the plane?”
“I didn’t eat.”
“All the way from Calcutta?”
“The menu said oxtail soup.”
“But surely there were other items.”
“The thought of eating an ox’s tail made me lose my appetite.”

In this passage, Lahiri translates the Bengali into quick-paced, natural-sounding English. We can hear the characters toss these lines back and forth as they make their way to the home they will share.

In addition to conversations, a fiction writer has to think about the character’s inner thoughts. A character probably thinks fluently in their native language, even if they are struggling to speak English, so you as the writer must make your language reflect this difference. I assume that in Lahiri’s story, the main character thinks to himself in Bengali. He tells the story in the first person, and his narration is rendered in clear, educated, natural-sounding English. Here are the first few sentences of the story (p.173):

I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name. For three weeks I sailed on the SS Roma, an Italian cargo vessel, in a third-class cabin next to the ship’s engine, across the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and finally to England.

The main character’s voice when narrating is different than his voice when he speaks English, as well as his voice when speaking Bengali. If he were to narrate the story in the same formal, stilted English in which he speaks, we would get a very different impression of him as a character. He would be the object of a joke. Instead, we are treated to the voice of an intelligent, thoughtful man making his way from one continent to another, striving, as we all are, to live the very best life he can.

When writing characters who do not speak English, it can be helpful to be familiar with the language they are speaking. That way, you can use certain sentence constructions or ways of speaking that are common to that language even when translating the dialogue into English. For example, in Kannada (the language that my parents speak), I notice a liberal use of rhetorical questions. When I imagine characters speaking in this language, the way I write conversation or inner thoughts in English will naturally include rhetorical questions. In “Mirror” (included in my collection These Americans), a new immigrant mother is narrating the story in first person. After admiring herself in the mirror, she feels ashamed. “Who did I think I was? A princess or something?” (p. 2). 

No matter what language our characters are speaking, writers should strive to express dialogue and inner thoughts in a way that reflects the language of the character. If they’re speaking English, and they speak in dialect or don’t know the language well, then yes, you are allowed to render their English the way they really speak it. But if they are speaking or thinking in their native language, please take the time to accurately translate their language into fluent English, since they are of course fluent in their native tongue.