I have a problem with some novels. They don’t belong to any specific genre. I seem to encounter them on average, one a month. Some of them are written brilliantly and some are not and some would make rather good stabilisers for a wonky table. The only thing they share is a view of language. Other people’s language.
The authors just don’t seem to understand how languages other than English operate. Or how using those languages to represent speakers of those languages can be done without artificiality. Some don’t understand that French is not a matter of adding ‘Oui’ or Italian ‘Si’ at an almost-appropriate moment of their story – that it doesn’t actually give the flavour of a language if one spatters the text with perfectly translatable words. That there are other ways of indicating that every single person is speaking in French besides having someone nod sagely and say “Ah, oui, that will solve the crise. Let’s get down to it.”
That’s my first problem: that it would be rather nice if I weren’t dragged out of reading by trying to work out why someone is translating their own common speech into a foreign language. For if everyone is speaking French, then that ‘oui’ represents a foreign language. Proper names and terms that are uncommon and don’t have a solid English equivalent are quite different. Playing with syntax is fine (as long as it doesn’t go the “'Allo 'Allo" route), but every time a writer shoves in an everyday word or phrase, I’m shoved right out of the reading. That’s why I here, now, and not finishing my current book, in fact.
Then there is the problem of food. When is bread ‘pain’? Or rather, when is bread painful? When the word 'bread' would do just as well as the word 'pain' and yet the word 'pain' is used. When a foodstuff is quite specific to the time and place of the tale, that's a different matter. If the story is set in Paris (a place chosen at random largely because I miss it) then talking about the long artisanal bread baked by Mme Curie (with its lovely, crunchy radioactive coating) might be cause for a word in French ('pain lumineux'). If the bread is, however, baked by M. Paul Curie, Mme Curie's third cousin twice removed, the side of the family that came to France 4 generations ago, then 'bread' is less distracting. And yes, the Curie family in this paragraph serves the same function as pain in a novel - it distracts and has not much to do with anything and has the added bonus of being mostly invention. This is the precise effect that using 'pain' where 'bread' would suffice has on me. There are other ways of describing a long loaf with a polished outside that has to be ripped open with one’s teeth to get at the silk-fine white interior, and most of them are less annoying.
Then there is the problem of proof-reading and copy editing. The more exotic words and phrases that are written into a novel, the more likely there are to be typos. I collect these, so all my writing friends ought to be worried. I have a personal trophy chest. The phrase currently on display there is ‘magrat du canard’ which I have encountered in two different novels and ‘margrat’ in a third: none of these novels are by Terry Pratchett (hence the dedication). I think the moral of the story is to try not to use words and phrases we can’t actually error-check for ourselves.
One writer told me (when I was editing them) “No-one notices.” This is just to warn other writers with a similar view that some of us do notice. Not only do we notice, but we take note. Not only do we take note, but sometimes we wave the novel at students saying “Look!”
To avoid the trophy chest and the book-waving, all writers have to do is think about what languages they use and how, and to be very, very careful to avoid errors. That’s all. So why is it so difficult?
PS Please don’t tell me you use Google Translate for your languages-other-than-English and don’t check with a native speaker (or even a non-native speaker with advanced skills). I pasted my first paragraph into Google Translate and took it to Spanish, then Arabic then back to English, just to show how automated translation gets some things, but not others. This is the result:
TENGO United Nations problema con novelas algunas. Pertenecen género NINGUN. Algunos de ellos están escritos con brillantez YY OTROS algunos estabilizadores haría bastante bueno para una Mesa wonky. If UNICO QUE ES UNA comparten vision del lenguaje. Lenguaje de otras personas.
Then I fiddled with the translation route until it gave me something actually in English:
United Nations HAVE some problem with novels. ANY genre belong. Some of them are written brilliantly OTHER YY stabilizers do some pretty good for a wonky table. If ONLY THING THAT IS A shared vision of language. Language others.
PPS Now I want to use automatic translators for my whole text, just to see if I can produce Great Literature. Which becomes ‘Gran Literature’ using the same route on Google Translate that I used for my paragraph. Is there a genre that’s literature for grandmothers? There ought to be.