Writing Right with Dmitri: Xenoglossophobia

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Xenoglossophobia, or Dealing with Oodle-Doodle-Flip

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

A word or two about the title here: xenoglossophobia is a real word, although I thought Malabarista and I had made it up. It means 'fear of foreign languages', and it afflicts an awful lot of people around the world, especially if their first language is English or Spanish1. 'Oodle-Doodle-Flip' is what lil calls it when the lot of us start babbling in foreign tongues. ODF speakers are going to be a lot happier on this site now. We'll still put in the helpful footnotes for the non-cognoscenti2, but we're pretty sure the monolingual will stop yikesing all posts which refer to activities that take place in a language other than Bill Gates' English.

The question is: what does xenoglossophobia have to do with writing tips? I'm glad you asked. (I really am, because I'm prepared to go on about it, at length, as usual.)

If your story is set in a foreign clime – which, for our purposes, means somewhere other than England, the northern or western US, anglophone Canada, or anywhere else where more-or-less standard English is the norm3 – you need to figure out how you're going to handle the fact that people there don't talk regular. You're going to need to figure out an ODF policy that doesn't drive your reader nuts. So here are a few tips from the pros in public domain, courtesy of the Virginia Etext Library and Bel's beloved Project Gutenberg.

Translating in Your Head

One way to go is the way Charles Dickens reputedly wrote the 'French' dialogue in A Tale of Two Cities   – make up all the dialogue in the other language, and translate it in your head. This has the advantage of keeping the talk honest. I remember watching some old play (I think it was Watch on the Rhine, but I'm not sure) and shouting, 'You can't say that in German! You can't even think that in German!' This works for time-travel, too. Avoiding putting phrases such as 'it's a win-win-situation' into the mouth of Julius Caesar, say, will go a long way toward making the reader happy.

One problem, of course, is that not everything everyone's saying and thinking in ODF translates very well into English. The Gutenberg etext of Johanna Spyri's Heidi doesn't give the name of the translator, unfortunately. He or she did a beautiful job translating the dialogue very closely to the original. I can tell, because I can translate it back into German in my head. The translator didn't bother explaining the few words still in German, though: only a bilingual reader will pick up on the name of the village (Dörfli) or what the villagers call Heidi's grandfather (Alm-Uncle).

Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates4, was chock full of fun facts to know and tell about Amsterdam and environs. She recognised the inherent charm of Dutch nomenclature:

'...a very small boy rejoicing in the tremendous name of Voostenwalbert Schimmelpenninck.'.

You think that cheap trick doesn't work? I first read that book almost half a century ago (how time flies). I knew just where to find that example… Ms Dodge also made sure she explained the foreign word or phrase:

'If he looked up, he saw tall, leaning houses, seeming to pierce the sky with their shining roofs. If he looked down, there was the queer street, without crossing or curb – nothing to separate the cobblestone pavement from the footpath of brick – and if he rested his eyes halfway, he saw complicated little mirrors (spionnen) fastened upon the outside of nearly every window, so arranged that the inmates of the houses could observe all that was going on in the street or inspect whoever might be knocking at the door, without being seen themselves. '.

I checked, and Ms Dodge was born in New York City (in 1831, nosy), which might explain her interest in the Netherlands5. If she'd lived in Philadelphia, I would have been surprised that she hadn't seen spionnen before. That 18th-century invention is still common in Old City today, and they sell them in the souvenir shops.

As you can see, it is possible to include a bit of foreignness in your story without totally overwhelming your audience. When it comes to dialogue, though, there are a few other things to watch out for.

Dictionary Abuse and Other Crimes of Passion

A first warning: do not write German like Philip K Dick. Dick apparently slept through his German 101 class at Berkeley. This is the only way I can explain the sort of dictionary abuse he perpetrates. In one novel, the 'new united Germany' is called Neues Einiges Deutschland. (Ask a German.) A friend of his, Robert Anton Wilson, created a catchphrase for his conspirators: Heute die Welt, morgens das Sonnensystem. I assume he meant to say, 'Today the world, tomorrow the solar system.' What he said was, 'Today the world, every morning, the solar system.' I find this sort of thing annoying, because I think that's what editors are for: to save the author from himself6 Moral: Have somebody check your grammar, or have all your bilingual readers rolling in the aisle. Even if you're mistranslating Middle High German, Mr Dick.

Another pitfall is dialect. Don't overwrite there. It's patronising and annoying. I know everybody who's been reading this thinks I regard Mark Twain as the greatest gift to writing since the invention of paper. I am fully aware of Mr Twain's many flaws, including his tendency to write dialogue like this:

'Say, Roxy, how does yo' baby come on?'

'Fust-rate. How does you come on, Jasper?'

'Oh, I's middlin'; hain't got noth'n' to complain of, I's gwine to come a-court'n you bimeby, Roxy.'

Believe it or not, Mr Twain wrote this mess in Pudd'nhead Wilson, a book that appears, at least, to have the intention of opposing racism. I can't quote the next line in the dialogue. I can't quote it because it contains a word we now find too offensive to print.

Do not write heavy dialect like Mr Twain. It's rude, and distracts. So what can you do? Remember…

Italics: Your Friend

Most writers who go outside their own borders know this trick, but I'll repeat it, anyway. The very best thing to do is to salt (and pepper) your dialogue with common words in the ODF of your choice. This gives the reader a pleasing sense of being there. The trick is to use words the reader already knows, or can guess.

For example, the evil Prof Dr Dr with the monocle sneers, and before trying to throw the stalwart British hero off the cliff, calls him a Schweinehund. Even if you don't know what that means, you get the idea. Any child who reads this will now use the word Schweinehund at least ten times in the next 24 hours, in an attempt to increase his vocabulary. Keep the soap handy.

If your plot requires you to use a lot of ODF that isn't common knowledge, try putting in a glossary at the end of the book or story. Keep the glossary short, as this sort of behaviour verges on the didactic and may be resented. On the other hand, it's why I became a Germanist. Some kind soul – I think it was a Mr Eric Williams, formerly of the RAF – had left a glossary in the back of his World War II memoir. I was so fascinated by the language that I just had to learn it. I will be forever grateful to that man.

Oddly enough, people in the first half of the 20th Century didn't seem to mind foreign words as much as people do now. Nowadays, if you use a word or phrase that is unfamiliar to readers, they complain, using their ignorance as a measuring rod for your prose. As late as the 1920s, people seemed to feel that reading was supposed to be educational – at least, a little bit – and didn't mind guessing at meanings. The writer gave them clues, as in this example from PC Wren, author of Beau Geste7:

I decided to sally forth, buy some pyjamas, order them to be sent in at once, and then fortify myself with a two-franc dinner and a glass of vin ordinaire   – probably très ordinaire   – in some restaurant.

The italics warn us that this is French, that we are not expected to know it. Notice how superior we feel when we get the joke? 'Hey, I got a joke in French!' Making the reader feel smug is always a winning tactic.

Here is one of my favourite passages from Beau Geste. John, the narrator, is in France, jointing the French Foreign Legion. (It's complicated.) He's telling us about a conversation he had with an old soldier who is showing him the ropes:

'Why should they go insane?' I enquired in some alarm.

'They shouldn't, but they do,' said my mentor. 'We call it le cafard. The cockroach. It crawls round and round in the brain, and the greater the heat, the monotony, the hardship, the overwork, the over-marching, and the drink – the faster goes the beetle and the more it tickles...Then the man says, 'J'ai le cafard,' and runs amok, or commits suicide, or deserts, or defies a Sergeant... Terrible...And do you know what is the egg of this beetle? No? It is absinthe. Absinthe is the uncle and aunt of the grandparents of cafard. It is the vilest poison. Avoid it. I know what I am saying. I was brought up on it...Terrible...I had some just now, after my wine...'

I promised never to look on the absinthe when it was green, nor, indeed, when it was any other colour.

That last line is one of my favourite fiction phrases of all time.

Now we've learned about le cafard, which plays a part in the action at Fort Zinderneuf.

Your Savoir faire is everywhere

Okay. Get your grammar straight, check. Don't overdo the dialect, check. Keep it reasonable. Use italics. Make the reader feel clever.

One last point, although I shouldn't need to say this: don't make fun of the language or cultural group you're describing. Somebody will notice. Somebody will take umbrage. Even if they didn't, you shouldn't. No ifs, ands, or buts, no 'it's only in fun' or 'I'm 1/32nd that, and it's self-deprecating', no nothing. Just don't do it.

That speech you've been googling is somebody else's mother tongue. Someone sang a child to sleep in that language. Treat each and every language you encounter with the utmost respect.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

17.10.11 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Trust me on the Spanish part. I'm a former ESL instructor. Many, many South Americans hate learning English.2'Cognoscenti' is Italian for 'people in the know'.3Ireland, Scotland, the American South, Australia, New Zealand, Quebec, and South Africa are all foreign. You know this, and I know this. People in New York, Toronto, and London know this, and don't intend to let us forget it anytime soon.4Never put semicolons in titles. That's so last-millennium.5New York City was originally New Amsterdam.6If you don't think Bel's going to proofread this, think again. Especially the French part. I cannot spell French for toffee.7If you haven't read the Beau Geste trilogy, I hope you will. For one thing, it's rip-roaring good fun. For another, Wren can be very funny when he chooses. You can steal lots of licks from him – especially if you want to figure out how to get away with writing romantic stories in a modern age.

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