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Thread: When to use foreign words

  1. #1
    Seventh Year Hufflepuff
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    When to use foreign words

    So I'm sure I've read a thread on this somewhere on this site, or it came up in a thread somewhere but I can't find it.

    When setting a story in a country where the people do not speak English, when is it appropriate to use non-English words? Some stories just throw (especially Japanese) foreign words around for no reason at all, though some concepts really don't translate.

    So what does everyone think? When do you use foreign language words, if at all?

    For the record, I'm working on a China story (or trying to) and dealing with family names is a pain, e.g. there is no word for just "grandmother", the terms identify paternal or maternal in the word. Chinese is ridiculously convoluted when it comes to family names. Translate or keep in Chinese with explanations? What is worth explaining (my father's third uncle who is younger than his father)?

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    This is definitely going to be something you need to think about carefully.

    If you have a look at Tim the Enchanter's story Für das Größere Wohl, you'll find that he mixes in words like Mutti and so on. I as a German don't have any problem understanding that, so I don't know how much a non-native German speaker understands. Maybe if you were to read Tim's story and see for yourself, you could try to do something similar.

    As for the family words: How about using the Chinese word, and when you use it the first time, you explain it with a note at the end of the text? You could do that with each word you come across; however, I think you would need to limit yourself to a few words only. I would think people would quickly pick up the various words and be able to read the story without having to check back what it means every time it comes up, but that is only when you don't use too many words. Otherwise it might get too much and turn the readers off.

    What you could also do is write the words in English, but simply say the character speaks Chinese. That won't work every time, I'm sure, but it's at least an alternative to keep in mind.

    Altogether, though, I don't think there's a recipe for when to use how many foreign words. You as the author need to find the golden middle. Advanced or beta readers might give you an opinion on that before you publish and let the crowd loose on your story.
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  3. #3
    Inverarity
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    In general, if you are writing dialog that the characters are speaking in their native language, you should write the English translation without mixing in random words transliterated from the language they are actually speaking.

    Not to bash on Tim (whose story is excellent), but it drives me nuts when characters are speaking in another language but the author inserts "Hai!" or "Potter-sama" or "Mutti" or "Nyet," etc., in their dialog, to remind us that they're actually speaking Japanese or German or Russian. It's an easy habit to fall into, because it's done even by some professional writers, and I've probably done it myself (he says, trying to cover himself in case someone digs through one of his stories and finds an example.... ) But it's wrong. It's meant to convey a foreign "accent," but if they're speaking their native language, they don't have an accent and they aren't speaking foreign words.

    The exception would be if there is a particular word that has a strong cultural significance and which doesn't easily translate directly into English. So for example, I'll occasionally make an exception for Japanese dialog when the writer has a character addressing another character by "-sama" or "-chan" or some other honorific, especially if it represents a change in their status, because those honorifics are significant in Japanese and makes a big difference whether you address someone as "-kun," "-san", or "-sama," etc. Likewise, if Nazi-era German characters use lebensraum in their dialog, I wouldn't object (even though it has a plain English translation), because that word had a very specific meaning behind it, and using it carries a cultural and political weight that the reader will grasp, one that would be lost if the author just wrote "living space."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Inverarity
    The exception would be if there is a particular word that has a strong cultural significance and which doesn't easily translate directly into English. So for example, I'll occasionally make an exception for Japanese dialog when the writer has a character addressing another character by "-sama" or "-chan" or some other honorific, especially if it represents a change in their status, because those honorifics are significant in Japanese and makes a big difference whether you address someone as "-kun," "-san", or "-sama," etc. Likewise, if Nazi-era German characters use lebensraum in their dialog, I wouldn't object (even though it has a plain English translation), because that word had a very specific meaning behind it, and using it carries a cultural and political weight that the reader will grasp, one that would be lost if the author just wrote "living space."
    Hm... cultural significance. So what to do about words for relatives (at least in Chinese) and words for food? Maybe food is just me, but sometimes English translations of different kinds of food are just annoying...

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aida
    Hm... cultural significance. So what to do about words for relatives (at least in Chinese) and words for food? Maybe food is just me, but sometimes English translations of different kinds of food are just annoying...
    I would think that foods, especially ones that are culturally specific, would always be referred to by their original name. Spaghetti is spaghetti, tacos are tacos, kung pao is kung pao...changing the name of something like a food is likely to become more confusing than clarifying.

    As for the relatives, I suppose if your character is speaking English, the relative is Chinese, and that's the name the speaker is using for the relative, then that would probably keep from straying into the realm of mixing languages.

    For example:

    [in English] "Maman, where is my hat," Victoire asked Fleur.

    But, if Victoire asks in French:

    [in French] "Mum, where is my hat," Victoire asked Fleur.

    Hope that made sense/was helpful.
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  6. #6
    Wizengamot Ravenclaw
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    Once again, I'm going to go to Red Scarf Girl for help in answering this question. And since it is also a story that takes place in China, it will be quite useful. Excerpts from select works of Lisa See will be used as well.

    To answer the question about family, I would say the words Mama and Baba for mother and father would be alright, just because they are so similar to the English versions of the words we have all come to recognize: mama and papa. Although, I have heard in your character thread how in China, other relatives are often called 'Paternal Grandfather' or 'Third Aunt'. These I would have in English just because calling relatives this is such a foreign concept to an English audience. Every English speaker can understand have a particular name for their mother or father, but these names for other relatives will be strange enough in their native language. I would keep those in English.

    In the Red Scarf Girl, Chinese words were also used for words that might not necessarily have a word for it in English. For instance, Ji-Li Jiang was the da-dui-zhang of her entire school, the student chairman. I suppose this would be somewhat akin to the idea of a class president. But the word 'class president' is not used because 'president' is considered a democratic, and especially western term. And student chairman might not be a term that would be completely understood by all English readers. When I first hear it, I thought it was some sort of adult bureaucrat in charge of something at the school.

    Another Chinese word used in the book was da-zi-bao, a sort of poster students were forced to write when classes stopped. This was just because there really was no word for this in English. Thre was not even a concept for this in English. So that was why a Chinese word was used in this case.

    So a good general rule of thumb is that it is generally okay to use foreign words when the English word would be equally foreign, like the example above. And as Invararity has said several times, if you need to add a glossery for foreign words, you are using too many.

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    Alright, another translation question.

    In Chinese, like in Japanese, it is considered polite to tack call people your brothers and sisters, even if they are not your brothers and sisters... people meaning, people of your generation and who are family (cousins) or are close to the family in other ways.

    What would make more sense? Zhang-bro? Zhang-gege? Big Brother Zhang?
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  8. #8
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    I would say to use the English translation, Big Brother Zhang, in most cases of just conversation. Mama and Baba are a special case because most people would be able to guess that you mean mom and dad, but something like 'Big Brother', and especially said in a way that isn't very signifigant to a Western audience, it would be a lot harder to distinguish.

    So yeah, I would have Big Brother in English, but use the Chiese if it would make more sence phonetically, like when I told you I don't see a young baby knowing how to say 'Big Sister', but using the Chinese 'Dei-dei' would make more sense.

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  9. #9
    Vorona
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    Another time to use foreign words in a story is if the narrator/main characters don't know that language. Obviously, you can also describe the types of sounds used (as in, "The other man made a series of gutteral grunts mixed with hisses that (Name of Main character) did not understand.

    One other thing - before reading this thread, I would have suggested not changing family member's nicknames, but when I saw the example with "Mum," I thought, as an American, that it would be weird for a French person to use such a British form of address. Of course, "Mom" would be just as jarring to an English reader. So, I really do think that the specific word actually used (i.e. if it's a French person speaking, and they're speaking in French, then put it as Maman. If they're a French person speaking English, pick the version (Mum vs. Mom) that that character would know. In narration, stick with whichever version of English you're using, but in dialogue, I think it's better to go with the foreign word.

    Edit: unless it was clear that the culture in question was not Russian, I would never think of Baba as father, but as grandmother, and it's more of a slang for "old woman" than a term of endearment. And I agree that Big Brother Zhang works best for me, of the choices you offered.

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