Thursday, March 25, 2010

How do you say it?

For any writer working in with a second language in their books one problem almost always comes up front pretty early… pronunciation. So many languages have silent letters, or letters that aren’t pronounced the same way. As a writer you want to get that across, but you want your dialogue and your narration to still sound natural and not forced. You don’t just want your narrator to come in and just tell the reader “It’s pronounced this way,” but you don’t want your characters to go through an awkward scene of explaining how it’s spelled or pronounced (especially not how it’s spelled, because the reader can see how it’s spelled).

I’ve seen writers do it different ways, having a non-that-language-speaker (that’s an elegant phrase :P) mispronounce it. But then you run into the difficulty of how do you spell the mispronunciation, and how do you show how to accurately pronounce it, etc.

I’ve seen writers ignore it. Look at the names in many Star Wars books and you’ll see names that look as though the writer banged the keys a time or two and then did copy – paste every time they needed to use the name. The writer gets used to seeing a name, not knowing how to pronounce it, but knowing that that clump of letters is associated with that character. I think this works best with science fiction and fantasy. And I’m going to stop heading down this track because my geek is showing.

Some writers pick new names. I think this is especially the case when almost all of your speaking characters are speaking this other language and the opportunity for mispronunciation is not really there.

You can provide a pronunciation guide at the beginning or end of the book. This can be especially helpful if you include a lot of little words in the other language in the book. Strangely enough, I think I’ve seen this done the most with Hawaiian terms.

However, last weekend I read what I think is the slickest insertion of how to pronounce a name I’ve ever read. It was in Tracie Peterson’s Dawn’s Prelude and the character’s name is Kjell (it’s Swedish).

To set the scene. Lydia has just arrived in Alaska via boat (this is set in the early 1870s) and she’s been sea sick most of the way and she passes out, right into Kjell’s arms:

“Hello,” he said, softly. “I believe you fainted.”

“I suppose I did.” [Lydia] put her hand to her head. “I don’t travel well on the water.”

Kjell gave a chuckle. “You aren’t alone. Many folks have a hard time.” He thought she might ask him to put her down, but when she didn’t he started walking toward his carriage. “My name is Kjell. Kjell Lindquist.”

Chell? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s Swedish. Doesn’t look a thing like it sounds.” (70)

Later in the book another character, a bad guy, calls him Chill all the time. I love it. It gives the pronunciation, without it seeming awkward. It’s practically perfect.

Peterson, Tracie. Dawn’s Prelude. Minneapolis: Baker House, 2009.

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