I’m Hoping You Will Know What I Mean*

Recently, I read an interesting online forum thread on the use of language, and it got me to thinking. The question had to do with the inclusion of foreign words and phrases in crime novels. The person who raised the topic was referring specifically to novels written in English (but that include words and phrases in another language), but I think it’s an interesting question to ask regardless of the language of the book.

There are some very good reasons to include words and phrases in other languages. A character who doesn’t speak much English might very likely use another language. It wouldn’t seem credible otherwise. You’d also expect the use of another language in a novel that takes place in another country, or within another culture. But that said, words and phrases in another language can be distracting, and pull the reader out of a story, especially if the reader doesn’t speak that language.

This means that if the author is going to integrate words and phrases from other languages, it’s got to be done carefully. When it is, it can add to the authenticity of a story, and give the reader a strong sense of place and local culture. And there are plenty of crime novels where this is done effectively.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot can tell you that his first language is Belgian French. It would be natural for him to use that language, and he does use some words and phrases that are consistent with that background. More than once, he says things such as ma foi, c’est incroyable, or other expressions. But the use of French doesn’t overtake the novels, and the words that Poirot does use are clear from context, or their meaning is given in the next sentence, as in this example from Hallowe’en Party:

‘Ça depend,’ said Poirot
‘I know some French,’ said Miranda. ‘That’s it depends, isn’t it?’

Rhys Bowen’s Evan Evans series takes place in the small Welsh town of Llanfair. Evans is the local constable, and takes his commitment to the local people very seriously. He’s gotten to know them, and they know him. Throughout this series, Bowen offers a look at what it’s like to live in a contemporary Welsh town. Part of the way she does that is through the use of the Welsh language. The people who live in Llanfair speak Welsh, as does Evans, and they use it in conversation. However, the series is written in English; and, for those people who don’t speak Welsh, it might be frustrating if the novels used too much of that language. So, the Welsh words and expressions that Bowen uses are defined in a glossary. And many of the expressions can be understood through context.

Anya Lipska’s Kiszka and Kershaw series features Janusz Kiskzka, who is originally from Poland. He now makes his home in London, where he serves as a kind of ‘fixer’ for the local Polish community. In Where the Devil Can’t Go, for instance, he’s asked to find a young Polish girl who’s gone missing. He’s in the process of looking for answers when he becomes a ‘person of interest’ in a murder that Detective Constable (DC) Natalie Kershaw is investigating. He’s able to help her with the case, since it involves the Polish community, and the two find that they work well together. Kiszka speaks Polish within that community (although those conversations are written in English), and uses Polish words and expressions at times. This is in keeping with his background and character; in fact, it might seem odd if he didn’t. But those words are usually either interjections or understandable from context, as in this example:

‘I thought you were saving up so you could go home [to Poland] for good,’ said Janusz. ‘You’ll be here forever if you let Gosia spend all your smalz on carpets.’  

In this way, the dialogue seems realistic, but doesn’t distract readers who don’t speak Polish.

Becky Manawatu’s Auē is the story of Taukiri and his younger brother Ārama, who were born on New Zealand’s South Island. Their father has been murdered, and their mother has gone into hiding. Now, Ārama is living with his Aunt Katy, and Taukiri has gone to North Island. As the story goes on, we learn more about what happens to the two brothers as both try to live with the tragedies that have happened to them. We also follow the stories of Jade and Toko, who are trying to build a life together against considerable odds. We slowly learn what happened to that couple, and as the novel unfolds, we see how their story and that of Taukiri and Taukiri and Ārama intersect. We also learn more about the murder. Many of the characters in this novel are Māori, and they use words and expressions in that language. It adds to the sense of place and local culture, and it makes the characters more believable. But the use of Māori doesn’t overwhelm the story, and the words are given enough context so that the reader can understand the meaning:

‘…she forgot her own sister died. We’d all gone to the tangi. I’d watched Aunty try not to cry…’

The context helps give meaning to the words.

And that seems to be key to using words and phrases from another language. They’re possibly most effective when their use comes naturally to a character. And they’re probably easiest to understand, and least distracting, when there’s a solid context for understanding their meaning. What do you think about this? Do you get distracted when a story uses words from a language you don’t speak? If you’re a writer, do you use words from other languages?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Michelle.

12 thoughts on “I’m Hoping You Will Know What I Mean*

  1. Must admit I pretty much always hate when words in another language are sprinkled through books purporting to be written in English. Since the only other language I have even a passing acquaintance with is French (hence why Poirot’s occasional French doesn’t bother me), it simply throws me out of the story, even if I can work out the meaning from the context. Right back to Walter Scott and his interminable Latin, and up to the book I’m currently reading which claims to have been translated from Hebrew but is full of untranslated terms that I have to stop and google every few minutes. I guess on the occasions it’s done well I probably don’t notice, but as soon as an author or translator fails to make their meaning clear my enthusiasm for reading on drops dramatically.


    1. I think you hit on the real key to including words and phrases in another language, FictionFan. If the author is going to do that (because, say, a character speaks that language), then it’s got to be done in a way that makes the meaning clear with one read. If using a word or phrase means the reader has to stop and find the meaning, then it’s not clear, and it risks pulling the reader out of the story. As you say, if it’s done well, the reader may not even notice. If it’s done poorly, it can send a book right to the DNF pile.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot, your post is very timely because I was thinking of the same issue. Recently I read Indian writer Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim which has a sprinkling of Mumbaiya Hindi words and phrases. For me this wasn’t tough to understand but I was wondering whether somebody not conversant with the language would find it so easy to navigate through the book. Pinto does explain through subsequent dialogues (but not always) the meaning of those words and phrases. To me, the use of the language brought out the flavour of Bombay and I enjoyed it.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Neeru. I’ve read several Indian writers, and I’ve noticed, too, that there is sometimes Hindi or Kannada or another Indian language used. I don’t mind it if the words and phrases are short and easily understood through context. In fact, as you say, it can add to the atmosphere of the story, and it gives you a real sense of the place and culture. It only takes me out of the story if there is a lot of the other language, or if I cannot understand it through context.


  3. I think I notice it more specifically when there are a lot of street names in foreign set fiction. German ones in particular can slow the story down fractionally. I say that because I’ve just finished a 30s set Berlin tale.


    1. I know what you mean, Col. Street and other place names can be difficult. That sort of thing can slow me down, too. But of course, I think a story is more realistic for including those names, so it’s a hard balance.


  4. The fictional village in the Asterix comics is in Bretagne, near Rouen.

    The types of homes in the Asterix comics are based on the style of Gaul homes, and the circular urban planning of the villages on Gaul urban planning.

    Goscinny had lived in Bretagne, he was the co-creator of the comic.

    In the comic, the Gauls beat up the Romans, in reality, Gaul was a Roman colony, where Caesar was when he crossed the Rubicon.

    Charles De Gaulle’s name means “Of Gaulle”..

    Astérix comics have names that end in x, a lot of French words end in x, like deux, mieux, voeux, the x is not pronounced, I think the spelling likely comes from the Gaul language.


    1. Thanks for these examples, Absurdification. They show that the use of words and phrases in different languages isn’t just a part of crime fiction. And it’s interesting to know the background for those choices.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Gaulle was primarily in Bretagne, I think.

        The village in the Astérix comics apparently has a lot of details of Gaul villages.

        Someone from Bretagne is called “Un Breton”, like someone from Normandy is called “Un Normand”.

        Britain is called Bretagne in French.

        Great Britain is called “La Grande Bretagne”.

        The French province of Bretagne in English is called Brittany.

        British in French is Brittanique, like Encyclopedia Brittanica.

        England is called Angleterre, land of the Angles, the Angles are the people of the UK after whom England is named.

        Angleterre is closer to Angle than England.

        Terre in French means land, earth, ground, soil.

        The word terrain, a French-English cognate, is derived from the word terre.

        Angleterre means land of the Angles.


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