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Languages Buzzing Around Us
by Tess Fragoulis

The Use and Abuse of Dialect and Foreign Tongues in English Novels

The business of the novel should never be about private revelations, games or jokes hidden in foreign words, or the erecting of self-serving obstacles made up of clumps of letters that the reader will trip on. Nor should it be about short-cuts, catch-words or phrases that take the place of the careful and slow weaving of details that creates convincing atmospheres and characters. If the writing of prose is about clarity, then this clarity should extend to everything that appears between the book's covers; every word, no matter what language it's in, must be well chosen, and offered to the reader not like a test where blanks must be filled, but like an anticipated gift to be slowly and gratefully unwrapped.
In the film Trainspotting, for example, the characters all speak in a thick Scottish brogue that is initially incomprehensible. If you're anything like me, however, your ear happily adjusted, deciphering the lilts and inflections of the dialect until all your anxiety at being left out subsided and you felt you made some sort of breakthrough into a foreign tongue. It's obvious that the Scottish characters' use of language is as integral to their story as is the setting. Trainspotting isn't just a film that happens to be set in Scotland, it's a film about a group of Scottish junkies in Scotland at a specific time, experiencing things that could only happen to them because of who and where they are. Their dialect, whether it includes me or shuts me out, is not just local colour, it is the story. They are as they speak. And through their language, I, the outsider, am given an inside experience.
This use of Scottish brogue, which works so well in the film Trainspotting, is a disaster in Irvine Welsh's novel, upon which the film is based. Though the characters, storyline and setting are the same, the everpresent dialect (as in "Aw, ah sais. Ah wanted the radge tae jist fuck off ootay ma visage, to go oan his ain, n jist leave us wi Jean-Claude") flattens out the fictional world and everything in it. This is most problematic when it comes to characterization since the differences between the characters disappear in the relentless and identical use of Scottish idiom. Trainspotting has, for example, numerous narrators telling different parts of the story in the first person. Sometimes these narratives overlap, sometimes they push the story forward, and other times they offer an outsider's point of view from a character we don't encounter again. It's not necessarily the multiple narrators that are the problem, but the fact that, for the most part, they all sound, speak, spell exactly the same (at least the distinctions, if there are any, are lost to the non-Scot). Since most of the narration is in the first person, the reader never gets to step back from the characters, to observe them from an objective distance through a language that is not necessarily their own. We never get to see the characters, we only know them through their speech, through the language that every other character uses in exactly the same way. In the film version there are tics, facial expressions, gestures, and other physical characteristics which compensate for the identical speech patterns, but in the novel, all we have is the speech, so a differentiated point of view is virtually obliterated. Observe:
Franco: "Anywey, the other fuckin week thair, ah wis doon the fuckin Volley wi Tommy n Seks, ken Rab, the Second Prize, likes?"
Spud: "Ah clock Franco at Queen Sticky-Vicky's statue, talkin' tae this big dude, a casual acquaintance, if ye catch ma drift. Funny scene, likesay, how aw the psychos seem tae ken each other, ken what ah mean, likes?"
Rents: "This sortay gits us thinkin. How the fuck dae ah ken ah'm no homosexual if ah've nivir been wi another guy? Ah mean, really, fir sure?"
Apparently the speech patterns are supposed to tip us off as to who's narrating, but it is only really through a process of elimination that this becomes clear. If the narrator observes the actions of Spuds, Franco and Rents, maybe it is Sick Boy talking. From the dialect as well as the content of the observations (most of these characters hang around at the same places at the same time observing mostly each other), the distinction is not easily made.
I will admit that the Scottish brogue in Trainspotting is at times exciting, vigorous and shocking. These are qualities I look for in all prose. And I would never suggest that whitewashing the novel's language, cleaning it up, is desirable. But I do think that a more sparing use of the brogue would have yielded more satisfying results for a reader not steeped in that particular dialect. (This, of course, raises the question of how responsible a writer is towards her audience, or whether a Scottish audience was all that Welsh had in mind, or whether he just wrote the thing to please himself.) How much is too much, and how much is necessary in order to get across the feel, the rhythms of a language without sacrificing everything to it?
A similar question emerges when considering the use of foreign languages in novels. How conscious should a readerýreading a novel written in English, but set in a foreign localeýbe or want to be of the fact that the characters might be speaking a language other than English? A good translation of a foreign novel will, for example, adapt itself so well to its new language that it is unimaginable to the reader that the book was written in any other language. When I read Manuel Puig, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Milan Kundera, though I am certainly experiencing something of how their native languages shape their thoughts, give birth to their landscape, another part of me remains completely unaware of the foreignness of the characters and the language they are speaking. There is sometimes a smattering of foreign words left in these translated texts, either as a reminder to the reader of the text's original language or because certain words and the concepts they express are untranslatable. Sometimes these foreign words are allowed to hang like strange and exotic fruit, left to the imagination and discretion of the reader. Sometimes they are translated within the text, either directly or indirectly (through context). And sometimes the foreign author (or her translator) is so kind as to provide the reader with glossary so as not to leave too much to chance.
Jorge Amado in his novels Dona Flor has Two Husbands and Tereza Batista: Back from the Wars provides a glossary for many of the terms he uses in the text, often pertaining to the local religion (babalorixa: spirit father, high priest; figa: clench-fist fertility symbol; macumba: voodoo ceremony with singing, dancing drums), as well as other words whose translation would be unwieldy. Is it not, after all, preferable to use the word capoeira and to provide a glossary entry than to insert "anglo leg wrestling, with many stylized feints requiring both agility and skill" within the body of the text. There are words that Amado leaves untranslated, though we can assume that feijoada is a type of food since we are told it is made of pork and beans. Although this does provide a context for the word, for a moment I have fallen into the fuzzy world of imprecision, of assumption. I am removed from the preciseness of the prose because there is information that is denied me, unless I have a Portuguese dictionary on hand, or a cookbook, but that would constitute an interruption of another kind.
Language and turns of phrase, after all, reveal much about the people (the characters) who speak it. Though words and passages in a foreign language might look impressive on the page, authentic even, and though there may even be some prosody in their sound, I do not believe that this is justification enough for using them within the body of an English text. Their use must be integral and not merely decorative.
The primary users (and abusers) of foreign language are English-language novelists who have set their story in a foreign locale and are trying to convey place by the scattering of common foreign words (the type a visitor might pick up during a short stay) throughout the text. Ann Michaels in Fugitive Pieces uses the Greek language precisely in this way, as a reminder to readers that her narrator (non-Greek, presumably like her readers) is elsewhere.
Michaels's novel is set on the island of Zakinthos during W.W.II. Michaels is intrigued enough by the acquisition of a foreign language to make several references to it in the text. Language is learned like "[taking] new words into our mouths like foreign foods; suspicious, acquired tastes." Her narrator longs for "[his] mouth to feel [his] own when speaking...beautiful and awkward Greek." It is clear that Michaels, too, has taken the Greek words she uses into her mouth and rolled them around for awhile before spitting them onto the page. But it is I who am left suspicious, not only of the purpose of the Greek words she has chosen, but of her or her publisher's refusal to italicize them, to set them apart. It is as if making the Greek words common by setting them in Roman script proves a facility and a fluidity between the English and the Greek which does not truly exist. For really, what are we given by Michaels of this "beautiful and awkward" language? A few common words, limonadha instead of lemonade, karpouzi when watermelon would have worked just fine. ("I ate karpouzi outside with Kostas, who showed me how to spit the melon seeds all the way to the bottom of the garden.") Then there are the minor slips in meaning: koumbaros is translated within the text as godfather, when, in context, nonos is the appropriate word. This minor error would be wholly forgivable had the novel not pretended to a kind of facility with the foreign language which removed the need for italics, and in many cases, translations. The characters, even the Greek characters, only have the fluency that the author herself has, which is minimal. The language, then, acts as a backdrop though an intimate knowledge is feigned. Fugitive Pieces is a work of fiction, and when reading fiction, I am not looking for the "real" but for the seamless, the perfectly contrived that fools me into believing that it is real. For this sur-real, seamless experience, I expect the language of the novel to be real and necessary; I expect Michaels to use the Greek words as deftly as she uses English. I want Michaels to imagine I might be in her audience.
So far the discussion has revolved around the occasional use of single words, phrases, or a few lines of dialogue in the second (or third) language. In some novels, however, there are instances where entire songs, poems or soliloquies appear untranslated. In Slavenka Drakulic's The Taste of a Man there is an entire song transcribed in Spanish. This song has been inserted in the story because it reminds the narrator, a Polish woman, of her Latin American beau whose fingertips she has eaten. Perhaps the song lyrics are appropriate and make reference to eating love or eating your (or someone else's) heart out. Perhaps the song is meant to convey the seductive foreign-ness of her lover, as she experienced it. Drakulic might very well be fluent in Spanish, or, like Michaels, might simply like the sound of the words. Perhaps if the reader could hear the song on the radio, she would grasp the sentiment without having to understand the words. But the reader of the novel has neither the advantage of the music nor the sentiment; all she has are the silent words on the stark page, and the passages, unless she is fluent in Spanish, will be lost to her. The experience that Drakulic wants to convey is non-transferable.
Closer to home, in Robert Majzels City of Forgetting, extended passages of dialogue appear in French and Spanish. The use of French may be justifiable since the novel is as much a map of Montreal as a story, and a visitor following a map of Montreal would definitely be confronted with the French language. In addition, as Canadians (and Quebeckers) there is the expectation that we understand both official languages. But even here I feel Majzels is taking his audience for granted, assuming that his readers can follow him down the streets of Montreal, when perhaps some of them may find themselves skipping over the French like puddles. Here, the use of the foreign languages seems like an intellectual game or a tease. There are footnotes to many of the foreign passages he has lifted from other historical and literary works, which cite their source, but do not translate their meaning. Again, the words become ends in themselves instead of a means.
When compared to the obviously foreign texts in translation, which rely on their story to convey place and culture, it seems as if the authors of novels in English which rely on the use of a second, and sometimes a third, language in order to create atmosphere or character are overcompensating. Through the foreign words they seek authentication for the setting they have chosen and the characters that inhabit it. Perhaps they are trying to present themselves as authorities on their chosen subject during a time when accusations of "cultural appropriation" are bandied about too easily. I am against such politically motivated limitations on the imagination. I believe the writer is free to explore any world he or she chooses, real or imaginary, and in the words of Milan Kundera, I believe "the novel form is almost boundless freedom." However, the failure to use foreign languages efficiently, with integrity within an English text, is abuse of this freedom; while adding nothing to the understanding of setting, character or culture, it mistreats the reader, whose aim is to derive meaning from the text. It might be argued that in the real world, we do not understand everything, that there are dozens of languages buzzing around us that we are not equipped to understand. But here we're dealing with fiction, not life, and anything that is not understood, that leaves a gap in the text, disconnects the reader from the story, pulls her out of the full-blown world that a novelist, if she's lucky, can create on paper.

Tess Fragoulis's most recent book is her novel Ariadne's Dream (Thistledown, 2001).

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