Dialect in Dialog – doing right by the reader

That chat Don McQuinn and I began on Dialog in fiction has spun new conversations.
See Don’s recent James Rollins Interview on Dialog. (James Rollins writes  best-selling thrillers.)
(Our first “dialog” is here.)
Don asked Jim a proxy question for me in that interview: how to let readers know the meaning of foreign words in dialog, without disrupting the flow.  Jim provides great examples from his work in that interview with Don.
Why I asked: I wrestle with the issue all the time.

While first writing the Accidental Heretics series, I had a few models in mind for panoramic historic fiction.

First, I think Diana Gabaldon succeeds when she uses Scottish Gàidhlig in dialog to establish the sense of entering a foreign world, tagging  Jaime Fraser’s dialog to advance his character.

Next, I love Dorothy Dunnett’s long-arc long stories across cultures and historic points. However, I hated her huge chunks of text in other languages that I can’t read. Frequently these chunks of dialog and text were crucial to the plot.

But Dunnett provided no translations. For anything.
Worse, I read her books before either Google or Bing provided online translators.

Not that I’d get out of bed, find a PC, and type a giant chunk of text into a translator in order to learn plot elements that I missed. Maybe if I re-read her work on a Kindle, I’ll find a brand-new version of the story.

Sorry for the diatribe.

The Accidental Heretics explores a lost culture, when people spoke a language that’s now nearly extinguished. Linguists guess how Occitan sounded based on the few remaining modern speakers. Yet you know from high school English how Middle English and Chaucer’s English differ from modern English (no matter what variation of modern dialect you speak).

I wanted to give readers a flavor of the language, using everyday words like please and hello to clue readers into seeing how Occitan resembles other Romance languages.

I also emphasized maledicta — so I could read the International Journal of Verbal Aggression instead of focusing on my writing.

Wait, no! I mean, I use oaths as dialect tags for the characters:

Tomás the mercenary is the master of Verbal Aggression: The English phrases that follow his dialect tags imply rather than translate what he said. When he swears creatively, I render it in English:

They walked along uncompanionably. In spite of not wanting to, Isabella found herself saying she was sorry.


“Blessed Mary and the perpetual virgins, it’s too late to be sorry,” Tomás said.

“You swear like my grandfather.”

“I swear like my own father, ma dòmna. It’s only a coincidence.”

Isabella, a free-thinking widow, uses “women’s curses” (fe-maleticta?), like Sancta Maria…except when she’s truly furious:

Marshall Guillem said, “Your grandfather will have my hide on a stick if anything hap­pens to you, ma dòmna.”

Jhezu del tron!” Isabella called on Jesus in heaven, a man’s curse. “I can hurl a javelin as a well as any bordonier. And Al-Malik is bet­ter trained than any horse here, including yours.”

Guillem looked doubtful. “Do what you like, since you always do. Just stay on your horse.”

Jean-Luc, a spy disguised as a blacksmith and superstitious as all heck, calls on the Virgin Mary and blesses himself—in French, if no one is listening.

“Everyone knows you can’t chase a mouse under the bed at pre­sent,” Felicia said. “I’m certain to be safe with you.”

“You are the best nurse I’ve ever had,” Jean-Luc said, in his wretched local accent.

Merci beaucoup, maître forgeron.”

Il n’y a pas de quoi.” His reflexive reply spilled out in French.

His angel laughed again. “I thought that’s what it might be. Your accent wasn’t learned at the knee of any Breton mother that people here ever met.”

I carefully provide the English meaning in close proximity to the Occitan, Catalan and French words…except frequently used words or phrases are translated in text only a couple of times.

On the series Web site, I published a Heretics Glossary and an explanation of language in the 13C Languedoc.

So: did I succeed in being easier to read than the truly erudite Dorothy Dunnett?

From some readers I’ve heard:

“I was swearing in Occitan in the garage yesterday. It made me smile.”

“I speak Spanish, so I liked seeing that I understood the meaning.”

“It says right away on the page what the words mean.”

However, I’ve also heard from other readers:

“It’s hard to read, because of all the foreign words.”

“I kept wanting to look in a Glossary.”

To satisfy the last group, I’m including the Glossary in the second edition of Accidental Heretics, coming out later this fall.

What I’m doing while writing Book 3, in order to serve the “it’s hard” reader:
continue to follow Don McQuinn’s and James Rollins’ advice:

read dialog aloud to make sure it sounds real.

Even though I’m not a medieval Occitan speaker.

About anniepearsonOK

Author of the Restoration Rules and Rain City series; managing editor of Jugum Press.

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