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.