Jul 08 2010

What are the Costs and Benefits of Multilingual Characters?

Published by at 10:45 pm under Plotting

I was rereading through comments and found this one very sharp.

I’ve never understood the appeal of the power to speak all or several languages in works of fiction, I’ve seen it numerous times in fan fiction, but it never really made sense to me. The whole point of characters going to places where the language barrier is an issue is, well, primarily because the language barrier is going to be an issue, with a few exceptions in a few plots, and discounting fantasy works. Why send Captain Superior to China if the fact that he is an American-born superhero isn’t going to matter? Couldn’t he just stay home and skip a panel or two of flying? How is it exotic if he can just wander into any McDonald’s and order like it was any other Friday?

I agree that it’s important to cut out extraneous elements.  However, I think there are some situations where foreign languages would add something to the story even if the main character can speak them.

1.  Some plots would not be believable without multiple languages. It would probably strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief if every alien in a space opera just happened to speak flawless English. One easy solution is to give the characters universal translators.  (If you later decide that you’d like to use linguistic barriers as an obstacle, you can have the translators malfunction or introduce a language that has not yet been decoded).  If you’re writing a novel about a CIA assassin, he’s probably not working in an English-speaking country (unless U.S.-Canadian relations are far more interesting than they appear).  Because of his background, it’d make sense that he knew a local language.  If you’d like, you can work in linguistic barriers later by introducing characters that speak a language he doesn’t know.

2. Character development. At one point in Justice League (roughly 7:15-7:30 here), Batman tries interrogating a Kasnian terrorist.  The Kasnian says (in subtitled Kasnian) “You can’t understand what I’m saying and I wouldn’t tell you anything even if you did.”  Batman says, also in subtitled Kasnian, “I can… And you will.”  Besides being funny, this helps develop Batman as someone who is frightfully well-prepared for even the most unexpected scenarios.

In contrast, I find it more bothersome when a character randomly knows an obscure and/or difficult language even though it’s not consistent with his character.  For example, Chris Tucker’s character speaks Mandarin at the end of Rush Hour, which is strange because it doesn’t fit the character and he didn’t use Mandarin before, even though he had many opportunities to.  (The character is probably not cunning enough to explain this as feigning ignorance).

3. Some (but not all) of the main characters know the language.This would probably change the flow of conversations without making it extremely hard for the team to communicate in that language.  This could lead to interesting situations, particularly if they have to rely on a spectacularly undiplomatic character to speak for them.  (If you’d like to introduce linguistic barriers later, maybe the team has to split up at some point and one group has to work without a translator).

4. The language in question is not used in conversation. For example, if the character is an archaeologist who only uses his linguistic skills to read Babylonian tablets, you probably wouldn’t find yourself in an awkward situation where you have to repeatedly specify who is speaking which language, such as a conversation between two groups that are also conversing amongst themselves in their own languages.

“Before we build a factory in Kenya, we must have your assurance that your country can keep our employees safe,” said the American executive.
“Can we keep the losses below a hundred?” the mayor asked his police chief in Swahili.
“Low hundreds,” responded the chief in Swahili.
“Security will absolutely not be a problem!” said the mayor in English.
“Not our problem, in any case,” he said to the chief in Swahili.

What do you think?  What other costs and benefits are there for working many languages into stories?

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “What are the Costs and Benefits of Multilingual Characters?”

  1. Loysquaredon 09 Jul 2010 at 5:49 am

    A polyglot character [or hero] shouldn’t be that uncommon. Actually, it is an ordinary trait in countries all around the world (there are more English-speaking in China than in the USA!). It is a more plausible approach if the character speaks well-known languages, rather than some random area-specific dialects, for example: English, French, and Spanish, and maybe some Mandarin or Arabian speech (it would be cool if the hero knew sign language too!). He/she will be bound to find someone who speaks, at least, one of those.

  2. Contra Gloveon 09 Jul 2010 at 6:36 am

    I can think of some arguments for multilingual stories (recall that I once made a comment about how to elegantly represent the fact that my characters are “really” speaking Russian. I have since changed the language to Japanese, but the point still stands.)

    Multilingualism gives stories involving travel to far-off places some realism. Chances are, the locals don’t speak English, and to portray them speaking English makes no sense. Quick notes can specify the language being spoken — one need not resort to nonsense like “Hola. Hello” or putting entire sentences in a foreign language* to portray multilingualism. Also, you can use idioms and special turns of phrase to imply that a foreign language is being spoken.

    * The novel Julian Comstock does this; it’s an amazing book, but the occasional sentences of untranslated French or untranslated Dutch should not be there.

  3. B. Macon 09 Jul 2010 at 10:23 am

    “A polyglot character [or hero] shouldn’t be that uncommon. Actually, it is an ordinary trait in countries all around the world (there are more English-speaking in China than in the USA![*])” If it makes for a poorer story, I’d recommend disregarding realism. I think that inserting extra languages into a story mainly because there are a lot of polyglots in real-life would probably cost the story more than it’s worth. Similarly, there are a lot of rather dull people out there, but inserting one into the story to be faithful to reality is not necessarily worth the cost. (That said, depending on the plot, multiple languages may be largely unavoidable, as in the space opera and CIA assassin examples above).

    *PS: I’ve never been to China, but if my brief trip to Japan (a first-world country) is any indication, I doubt there are 10 million people in China fluent enough in English to read a newspaper. And Japan’s educational system is substantially better than China’s. If there really WERE 250-275 million people in China that could speak English with any degree of proficiency (roughly a fifth of the population), you’d probably be able to get by in China with just English.

  4. Trollon 09 Jul 2010 at 6:31 pm

    ^Well technically there are so many people IN China that maybe speak English as a second language. But it helps to know the actual language of the land; Chinese in China etc.

    As long as you show that they are trained in the language area and don’t give them Mary Sue level knowledge of every language people can think of…I’m good with polyglots.

  5. Loysquaredon 10 Jul 2010 at 12:19 am

    Also, some writers make a transition note, footnote, or make use of asterisks or other symbols, to warn readers of the language change (even when there’s no substitution at all). In Xtreme X-Men (at least, at the beggining), the mutants were staying in Spain and they conversed or used few words from the country’s official language into dialogues, easy enough for non Spanish-speaking readers to convey the meaning. I think it’s great to show diversity, and it’s definitely better than manifesting a character with a thick unintelligible accent.

  6. Contra Gloveon 10 Jul 2010 at 4:21 am

    @ Loysquared

    I don’t like the technique of throwing in a few words from a character’s native language because of the “Translation Convention”: the characters are actually speaking Spanish, but you’re representing their dialogue with English. What does the gratuitous Spanish represent?

    If you go to this published author’s website and scroll down to “Language,” you’ll see what I mean.

  7. Ashleyon 14 Jul 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I’ve only two characters who speaks several languages fluently. They were raised in a multilingual household, their mother Italian and their father Quebecois. So as a result they learned both, but also had to learn English for school purposes. It’s only the brother, though, that knows more. A few months in Russia and Germany and he picked those two up. (Doesn’t help that’s he’s a telepath) And then he learned Spanish on his own.

    Though I’m a bit concerned with the amount that he knows….

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