lost in lack of translation

The new non-horror novel is moving right along.  As I expected it’s super challenging and is really making me think about the use of almost every single word I use.  The pacing is tricky in that there are a few “sub-chapters” and while I know how the story needs to flow, I’m still not quite sure how it needs to be structured.

More than that, this book takes place where 90% of the population speaks Spanish.  And I do not speak Spanish.  So I’ve been using Google Translator for initial help and eventually hope to hand the first draft to someone who is fluent in the language.

But that’s not the tricky part.  The tricky part comes in the fact that the protagonist of the story is American.  Three central characters that he comes into contact with speak absolutely no English.  Now, I have somewhat fixed this by the inclusion of a translator (whom is also my source of comic relief) and have also found some pretty unique and creative ways to make his lengthier translations more enjoyable to read.

The problem I am having is how to write conversations between two Spanish-speaking characters without the translator.  Of course, being that I write in the English language means that since the rest of the book is English (with the exception of a few phrases and very brief sentences), I assumed it would be okay to simply write their conversations in English.

But how do you do that, if other characters are speaking certain scenes in Spanish?  Do you preface it with something like, “Speaking in Spanish, he continued…” or “The conversation continued, both speaking in Spanish…”?

Both approaches seem super cheesy and uncalled for.  But despite the research and reading I have done on the topic, there doesn’t seem to be any real solution for it.  I am happy with my solution for simple translations via the translator, but this one is tricky as hell.  I have even tried stating early in the novel that a certain character does not speak a lick of English, assuming that the reader would understand that when they read him speaking in English, it’s me, as the writer, making the translation to English.

It’s all very confusing.

Has anyone experienced this in their own writing?  If so, how did you approach it?

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3 comments

  1. Why does it have to be in Spanish? You seem t be making things necesarily difficult for yourself. Most people speak English and if they don’t you can always come up with a reason for them doing so. Even if they are speaking Spanish, you can always put it in English and scatter it with the odd bit of Spanish as a reminder.

  2. Go the Cormac McCarthy route. Write it in Spanish and screw the reader. Whenever I read McCarthy, I keep my Spanish to English dictionary from college handy. His stories would be missing a certain flavor if he wrote specific dialogue sets in English when the intent is from a Spanish speaking character. Also, on the note of writing in a language you know nothing of: I once wrote a short story (“El Vientre de la Serpiente” trans. “The Belly of the Snake”) and had a friend fluent in the language give feedback. I can’t remember the specific example (as in the wording) but it was a scene in a bar with a drunkard hitting on the waitress. My friend said, “No, no. He wouldn’t say it quite like that if he’s a rowdy drunk. He’d say this.” So, that’s worth taking into account too. When your book is done–or at least as each chapter is done–find someone fluent in the language and have him or her give their feedback. Does it sound stilted? Always a good question, particularly when you can’t answer it on your own because you’re not fluent.

  3. How about establishing early on that Spanish is in italics/different font, and then just continuing that?

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