Using Google Translate and other techniques to improve the dialogue of your characters

The Roman aqueduct of Segovia with the Cathedral de Santa Maria in the background

English is my first language but the majority of my writing is historical fiction and so often the original dialogue of my characters would have been spoken in another language. Rather than over use colloquial sayings or try to invent phonetic version of words to give them a German, Spanish, or even an Australian accent I decided to research the peculiarities of the source language.

My current work is set in Segovia around the time of the Spanish Armada, and so most dialogue would have been spoken originally in Spanish.

First of all I listened carefully whenever I encountered a native Spanish speaker who spoke in English. A Spanish barista, when handing my coffee at his busy café smiled and said:

Thank you for the waiting.”

When in actual fact he meant: “I’m sorry you had to wait,” or “Thank you for your patience.”

I also looked to on-line language education tools, discovering the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order etc. Rather than saying:

I am hungry.”  or “It’s a beautiful day.”

A Spanish person will express themselves:

Yo tengo hambre.”  (“I have thirst.”), or “The day is beautiful.”

My dialogue improved dramatically but still lacked the verisimilitude that I am striving for. When a link to Google Translate appeared on the side of my browser it sparked another idea:

What if I translated my English dialogue into Spanish and then translated the result back to English?

I worked my way through the first chapter of my manuscript, cutting and pasting phrases between tabs. The result in many cases was nonsensical, in others rendered almost no difference. But when it was altered it was as though the words exploded from the mouths of my characters themselves.

The most enlightening peculiarity of Spanish I discovered was that they never use an apostrophe and an “s” to convey possession as they are in English. For example:

This is Consuelo’s father.”    or    “The cat’s fur is brown.”

Would be phrased:

This is the father of Consuelo.”    and    “The fur of the cat is brown.”

My current work is written in first person present tense and so I immediately commenced a search and destroy mission to find all occurrences of the damned “apostrophe s”. What resulted was a complete disaster; an unreadable cacophony of words that was as painful to read as it had been to write.

Pairing this back I decided to restrict these rules to dialogue and the result was immediately effective. The contrast of the phrasing of dialogue to that of the narrative highlighted these subtle differences and delivered the result I hoped it would.

My research also highlighted another peculiarity of the Spanish language; they do not capitalise titles or days of the week e.g. “commander” or “tuesday”.

I’d love to hear if you have any other ideas along these lines too in the comments section below.

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How can a westerner come to understand Seppuku?

If there is one part of Japanese culture that alludes most westerners it is ritual suicide by disembowelment known as seppuku, or “Hara-kiri” as it is better known outside Japan.

Seppuku became an integral part of Bushido (The way of the Warrior) and was used in several ways:

  • Capital punishment for disgraced samurai rather than be executed (this was not an option for other classes)
  • To avoid falling into enemy hands, and possible torture and revealing military secrets
  • To follow your Lord into the next world
  • In protest of a lord’s decision

Seppuku is poorly understood and is often used to support an argument that the Japanese people hold human life in little regard, when in actual fact it is more truly a proof of the opposite.

The act of seppuku is common in historical literature and drama, the most famous in my experience is the story of Forty-seven Rōnin.

The Forty-seven Rōnin also know as the Genroku Akō incident (元禄赤穂事件) occurred at the start of the 18th century and is the story of group of samurai who are forced to become rōnin(masterless warriors) when their daimyo (feudal lord),  Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, is ordered to commit seppuku after being tricked into insulting a court official.

These rōnin plotted for over two years to avenge Asano’s honour.

Even early in my martial arts training I was exposed to mentions of these”Forty-seven Rōnin” but it wasn’t until I read the novel The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson that I learned more than that these rōnin were the epitome of bushido.

It was while reading this novel that I had a satori moment where I feel I came understand seppuku.

St. Clair Robson’s novel tells the fictional account of Lord Asano’s daughter who, also vows to avenge her father’s honour, and travels The Tōkaidō Road disguised as a high-ranking courtesan to reach Oishi, the leader of these Forty-seven Rōnin.  From her point of view he and the other rōnin have done nothing to avenge their Lord for two years.

Spoiler Alert

In the end the story matches the historical facts and the Forty-seven Rōnin succeed in killing the court official who betrayed their lord and then surrender to the will of the Shogun. The shogun deliberates; will they be executed, forced to commit seppuku, or set free?

As a typical westerner I read an appreciated the story of revenge and truly expected them to be rewarded for the honour of this act and be set free. This story, and history, had a different ending and it appears that the happy ending eventuated but was not the one I expected; The Forty-seven Rōnin, were granted “the right” to commit seppuku, thus returning the honour of both their Lord Asano and their own families.

I had a double take and read this again, while my mind raced and was forever changed.

Does Rabinovich live here?

I found this little beauty while researching satire:

A KGB Officer goes twice to a man’s door asking if Rabinovich  lives there. Each time the man tells him NO;

A postcard of the Russian Revolutions of 1917

The third time, the KGB Officer arrives with a photo, which he holds up, saying, “This is Rabinovich  and it is a picture of you; why did you tell me you didn’t live here?”

To which Rabinovich replies, “This, you call living?”

“J” is for Joke

…a long bow I know but I wanted something lighter today.

I found it in a footnote from “Humor, hostility and the psycho-dynamics of satire” by Susan Isabel Stein. Literature and Psychology 2000. Vol.46, Issue 4, while researching for the post Satire it just isn’t funny

Blogging from A to Z…it’s coming…April 2012

What to expect in April:

Profiles of people who inspire me or I admire

Reviews of books, films, music,…blogs (leave a comment if you would like to feature!)

…and opinion pieces based on a eclectic selection of topics that I find engrossing or alarming

See you on Sunday the first of April

A Fettered Mind

Only describe the extraordinary

Image

Over the New Year I read a paragraph of Haruki Murakami‘s new novel 1Q84 (pg. 189 HB) and found a wonderful insight to improve my descriptive writing.

An older editor, Komatsu, gave a younger writer some advice on a piece of fiction he was we-writing:

“When you introduce things that readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

There is nothing more sure to stop a person reading than if you describe an ordinary scene in a clinical manner. If it is just a room, call it that; a room, and leave the reader to fill in the blanks. But if the room is imperative to the story then describe it through the eyes and tilted perception of the mind of your narrator or character.

I’d love to read a literal translation of Marakami’s original dialogue for his character Kamatsu. Please comment if you find it?

The small minds of revolutionaries

Revolutionaries see only the end state. Their minds are rarely big enough to see how the people they hope to save cannot reach this place alone. They have to be carried. It’s like a parable my father once told me about how Jesus carried a man through his most difficult times. We have to be the people’s Jesus if we want them to make it safely from where they have been to where we want them to be.

– The reaction from one of my characters when he sees the devastation inflicted upon the Russian people in the 1920’s.