Daily Archives: January 5, 2015

Accents, Other Languages – When Your Characters Aren’t Native English Speakers

You go to the movies.  The setting?  Ancient Greece.  Yet, for some odd reason, none of the characters are speaking Ancient Greek.  They’re dressed like Ancient Greeks – togas and sandals all around.  The sets look Greek enough – plenty of stone pillars to spare.

So why are all these characters speaking English?  Whenever I watch a movie like this with a group of people, there’s always one goober who feels the need to be the smartest person in the room and say, “Oh, I didn’t know Ancient Greeks spoke English!!!”

Well, here’s the problem.  Do you speak Ancient Greek?  No?  Good.  Because neither do I, neither does the American audience the film is intended for, and neither do the actors or the people who made the film.  Nothing against the Ancient Greek language, but if I only have limited free time, I don’t really want to go to a movie where I have no idea what the people are saying.

Therefore, Hollywood basically does a little wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more trick.  (Bonus points if you know where that line is from).  The Hollywood suits behind the movie are basically saying, “Hey Audience, we made this movie Greek enough – we speak English, you speak English – so these Greek people are going to speak English so you can actually understand what’s happening in the movie.  Yes, they’re speaking English, but we count on you, the audience, to be smart enough to understand that the characters are Greek).

OK, time to make a point.  In my writing, sometimes a character will come in.  It could be a he or a she, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it is a he.  Maybe he’s from Russia.  Maybe he’s from Ireland.  Maybe he’s from Australia.  Heck, maybe he’s just an Italian guy from the Jersey Shore who says, “Fahgeddaboudit” a lot.

As authors, how do you account for this?  How do you get the point across to your readers that a character speaks differently from standard American English?  Maybe he’s an English speaker but has an Irish brogue.  Or, maybe he’s a Spaniard who doesn’t speak English at all, but since I don’t speak Spanish, and my audience, for the most part, doesn’t read Spanish, the Spaniard will have to miraculously speak English?

Should an author try to mimic a particular accent?  I have seen that in books.  Personally, I don’t agree with the practice.  I’ll tell you why after the following example.

Let’s carry on with our friends, Ann and John, who first appeared on my blog in  The Mystery of the Bay Area Strangler.  Let’s call this next installment: Bay Area Strangler 2:  Electric Boogaloo:

After skillfully solving the Bay Area Strangler Case, Ann and John decided to rekindle their long lost romance.

“I want to rekindle our long lost romance, Ann,”  John said.  “Let’s go to Mexico for a nice, long vacation.”

And so they went to Cancun, but alas, as soon as they stepped off the plane, they were greeted by Manuel Sanchez, Chief of the Cancun Police Department.

“Hola, Ann y John,”  Manuel said.  “I was hopeeng to catch you fine dee-tect-teeves before you left the aeropuerto.  There is a creemenal on the lose in Cancun and he’s been strangleeng a lot of senors y senoritas.  Can you be of any asseestance por favor?”

OK, so before you take off your shoe and throw it at me, in the hopes that it will pass through your monitor and come out of mine to wack me in the face, remember, before the above example, I did say that I don’t agree with this practice.  I suppose when authors try to mimic a character’s accent, they’re trying to add an air of realism but I don’t like it for a number of reasons: a) it’s difficult to read.  Who wants to wade through all the misspelled words to figure out what is being said  and b) I feel like it’s practically a hate crime, I mean, holy crap, the Chief, a duly designated Mexican law man, pretty much ends up sounding like Speedy Gonzalez.

If I were actually writing this novel, here’s how I’d write the above paragraph:

After skillfully  solving the Bay Area Strangler Case, Ann and John decided to rekindle their long lost romance.

“I want to rekindle our long lost romance, Ann,” John said. “Let’s go to Mexico for a nice, long vacation.”

And so they went to Cancun, but alas, as soon as they stepped off the plane, they were greeted by Manuel Sanchez, Chief of the Cancun Police Department.

“Hello, Ann and John,”  Manuel said.  “I was hoping to catch you fine detectives before you left the airport.  There is a criminal on the lose in Cancun and he has been strangling many of our citizens.  Can you provide us with assistance, please?”

And there you have it.  I’ve presented the reader with three characters.  Ann and John are Americans who speak English.  The third character, Chief Manuel Sanchez, is a Mexican citizen.  I leave it up to the reader.  Maybe Manuel studied in America and became a bilingual Spanish/English speaker.  Or, maybe, and most likely, I just made Manuel speak English, because, hey dummies, you don’t read Spanish, so please just go along with it.

Suppose I want to convey the fact that a character speaks English, but with a heavy accent.  Let’s go back to Ann and John.  Remember, this is an example that I don’t agree with:

“Great,”  Ann said.  “Just great.  We try to get away on a nice vacation and we can’t have five minutes before someone gets strangled.”

“I know,”  John said.  “And you were just starting to forgive me for sleeping with your sister behind your back on multiple occasions, including your birthday, our anniversary, and most major Federally recognized holidays.”

“Even Arbor Day?”  Ann asked.

“Twice on Arbor Day!”  John replied.

Shamus Rooney, who left his home in Dublin years ago to open up the restaurant that Ann and John were eating at, strolled over and introduced himself with his typical Irish brogue.

“Faith and Begorrah!”  Shamus said.  “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!  Lad and Lassie, me ears were burnin’ when I heard ye mention a strangler on the loose!  Why, it sounds like the modus operandi of me old IRA buddy Connor Houlihan, who moved here long ago.  To the best of me recollection, that lad was quite a strangler back in his day, and I’d bet me bag o’ gold that he’s down here strangling again!”

I mean, seriously?  I’m expected to keep this nonsense up for an entire novel?  I’m going to expect a reader to sift through that crap?  I have to make the man sound like he’s Lucky the Lucky Charms Leprechaun just to get across the point that he’s Irish?

Here is how I’d prefer to write such a scene:

“Great,” Ann said. “Just great. We try to get away on a nice vacation and we can’t have five minutes before someone gets strangled.”

“I know,” John said. “And you were just starting to forgive me for sleeping with your sister behind your back on multiple occasions, including your birthday, our anniversary, and most major Federally recognized holidays.”

“Even Arbor Day?” Ann asked.

“Twice on Arbor Day!” John replied.

Shamus Rooney, who left his home in Dublin years ago to open up the restaurant that Ann and John were eating at, strolled over and introduced himself with his typical Irish brogue.

“Hello and good morning!”  Shamus said.  “Sir and Madam, my ears were burning when I heard you mention that a strangler is on the loose.  Why, it sounds just like the modus operandi of my old IRA friend, Connor Houlihan.  He moved here long ago.  To the best of my recollection, that lad was quite a strangler back in his day, and I would bet that he’s here in Cancun and strangling again!”

So, what’s different?  First, you’ll notice I left this part in:

Shamus Rooney, who left his home in Dublin years ago to open up the restaurant that Ann and John were eating at, strolled over and introduced himself with his typical Irish brogue.

Right there, I’ve told the readers that Shamus speaks in an Irish brogue.  I’ve relayed the information to the readers that Shamus has an Irish accent.  Isn’t that enough?  I would submit that is enough.  I suppose authors can have different opinions, but me, personally, I feel after I have stated to the reader that Shamus has an Irish accent, I can, from thereon, have Shamus speak with perfect English, and leave it up to the reader to imagine Shamus saying these words with an Irish accent.  I do not have to offend the Irish people by making Shamus talk like a leprechaun throughout the entire novel.

Let’s try another example:

“We’ll need to pack some heat if we’re going to take down the Cancun strangler, who may or may not be Connor Houlihan, friend of the man who owns the restaurant we ate nachos at last night,”  Ann said.

“Indeed we will,”  John said.  “By the way, your sister and I used to pack heat all the time.”

“I hate you,”  Ann said.  “I want to marry you just so I can divorce you again.”

Ann and John walked down the street, when a man in a trench coat with a Russian accent said, “Psst, Americans, vhat you vant?  You vant guns?  You vant AK-47?  You vant Uzi?  Vhat you vant?  You tell Sergei vhat you vant and I get it for you.  Anythink you vant.  Anythink at all.”

Seriously, at this point, Sergei might as well say, “As long as you don’t work for pesky moose and squirrel!”  Here’s how I would write it:

“We’ll need to pack some heat if we’re going to take down the Cancun strangler, who may or may not be Connor Houlihan, friend of the man who owns the restaurant we ate nachos at last night,” Ann said.

“Indeed we will,” John said. “By the way, your sister and I used to pack heat all the time.”

“I hate you,” Ann said. “I want to marry you just so I can divorce you again.”

Ann and John were walking down the street, when a man in a trench coat with a Russian accent said, “Psst, Americans!  What do you want?  You want guns?  You want an AK-47?  You want an Uzi?  What do you want?  My name is Sergei.  You tell me what you want and I will get it for you.  Anything you want.  Anything at all.”

Again, I suppose this is a point where authors could have a difference of opinion.  And again, I feel that once I mention to the reader that Sergei has a Russian accent, my work is done when it comes to portraying that accent.  I’m not going to offend the Russians by making a character that sounds like Boris Badenov.  I’m not going to ask my readers to wade through poorly written English just to make the point that Sergei is Russian.  The readers know what a Russian sounds like.  They can imagine Sergei speaking the words I write for him with a Russian accent.

Am I right?  Am I wrong?  Authors, how do you handle characters who don’t speak English or who have accents in your writing?

P.S. – Shamus was the strangler.  He sent Ann and John after Connor to throw them off his trail.  Connor had become a priest at a Cancun church, and aided Ann and John in setting a trap for Shamus.  Chief Sanchez was overjoyed and nominated Ann and John for Mexican Medals of Honor.  John quickly pawned his and ran away to El Salvador with Ann’s attractive cousin.  Ann vowed revenge, which she will get in Bay Area Strangler III – The Quest for More Profits for the Author.

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