Bilingual Characters – 4 Common Mistakes

I’m fluently multilingual (English, Spanish, and Catalan). Even though I read almost exclusively in English, I’m a big fan of seeing other languages incorporated into a story through dialog and cultural immersion.

However, it’s frustrating to see foreign languages get butchered by native-English writers. So…I guess I’ll offer a few tips? Just a few, very broad brush strokes, at least. Definitely not trying to be pretentious. But I this is one of the few areas where I feel I have some small say in the matter.

I’ll be using Spanish to give made-up examples, since it’s one of my languages of fluency as well as a frequent victim of misuse. 


Try not to…

#1. Rely on stereotypical catch-phrases

“Well, amigos. It’s time for my siesta. Buenas noches!”

I don’t mean to be harsh, but this is lazy writing. Your seventh-grade Spanish class notes aren’t enough. 

#2. Insert translated phrases/vocab at random

“Say, that party at Jacob’s was muy divertido! Such a huge casa!”

Unless you’re writing Dora the Explorer fan-fiction, don’t. Bilinguals don’t talk like this. If we don’t know a certain word or phrase in our second language, we use a synonym. Or we find another way to say what we want to say, even if it means making mistakes. OR we just gesture wildly and say “the thing” until someone understands us.

Mixing languages is fine. Multilinguals do it all the time when we speak. But when we mix languages, we do so chaotically and messily. Not this neat, organized, one-word-per-sentence method of substitution.

#3. Use Google translate

Google translate (usually) works fine for single words or short phrases, though even then you can get some funky results. But for anything longer, don’t even bother. Besides, Google translate gives you a stale version of your text. Spoken language rarely mimics such results.

#4. Comment/highlight how difficult English is for the character

“Today I have to go to…how do you say? English is not my language. Oh, yes. The doctor!”

This comes across as really condescending. And again, we don’t talk like this.


Instead, try to…

#1. Be willing to learn

Invest the time and energy it takes to understand how bilinguals think and speak in their second language. What’s their level? How long have they been learning/speaking it? If they struggle with vocabulary/grammar/expression, how are they most likely to compensate?

If you have bilingual friends, ask them questions. Second-language speech is complex, and it rarely fits the mold your Spanish/French/German 101 textbook taught you.

#2. Treat foreign language dialog the same way you’d treat English dialog

When I speak Spanish or Catalan, it’s imperfect. It’s messy and full of idioms, incomplete thoughts, fragments, subtext, implications, etc, just like when I speak English. The same is true for anyone who speaks any language.

Yes, that probably makes it frustratingly hard to write foreign dialog (or mixed dialog), because it means you have to understand the language well enough to be able to break its formal rules naturally. 

But a lack of effort almost inevitably leads to The Things You Should Not Do, as laid out above.

#4. Understand cultural/regional influences

When your bilingual character DOES fall back on their native language, remember that language is heavily influenced by region, culture, social upbringing, etc.

For example, the Spanish I speak here in Barcelona differs (mildly) from the Spanish they speak in Madrid because of the strong Catalan (regional language) influence in Barcelona. Furthermore, there are vast differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in, for example, Chile.

Idioms, expressions, forms, and even basic vocabulary can all depend on where your character is from in a very specific sense of the word. 

And maybe Spanish is one of the more extreme examples, since it’s such a widespread language, but the principle still applies to bilingual characters of any native language.


Here’s an image I found on Pinterest that captures the essence of what I’m getting at. I took the liberty to black out some unsavory language, but honestly, these snippets are about as accurate as it gets.

bilingual


To sum things up, bilingual characters go through thought and speech processes far more complex than many writers realize. If you’re not fluently bilingual, get help from someone who is. We don’t mind imparting our knowledge! If you put in the time and effort, your readers will enjoy the authenticity of your diverse dialog.

It’s worth it for us and for you!

 

The 5 Big Mistakes I Made When Self-Publishing My First Book

A lot of people think Where the Woods Grow Wild was my debut novel. It’s actually not, but I’m totally okay treating it as such because my very first self-published novel was a bit (fine, a lot) of a fiasco in its inception. Some of you have read it: Little One, published just about two years ago and republished (with a lot of improvements) a few months later.

I’ve written about this in past posts and random tweets, but I decided to share the five biggest mistakes I made when first self-publishing Little One. Most of them were due to an utter lack of experience, so if you’re building towards your first release, maybe I can save you some trouble.

#1 Not asking for beta readers

News flash: beta readers are amazing. They should be an integral part of your self-pub journey. They’re the first eyes to see your work, and the feedback they provide is ESSENTIAL. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can get by without that feedback. I probably don’t have to explain why. Suffice to say that your view of what works and what doesn’t will ALWAYS be limited by your investment in your own manuscript. Solution: ask for beta readers. I didn’t when I self-published Little One, and my story suffered because of it.

(Note: my beta readers for Where the Woods Grow Wild were the best, and I’m still super grateful! I feel like that story is wildly [pun intended] more successful because of them.) 

#2 Relying on self-proofreading

Freelance editors across the globe are already pulling their hair out. So did I when I realized just how many typos I had missed. To be fair, I was a broke senior in college. I couldn’t afford a vanilla coke, much less a professional proofreader. Still, my mistake was thinking that one or two quick proofreads would be enough. No…no. Can you successfully proofread your own work? Possibly, if you give yourself enough time. Do I recommend it? Definitely not. It’s not worth the anxiety of finding another spelling error or wrong word choice post-publication when people have already purchased the book.

#3 Settling for an okay cover

Some of you may remember the original cover for Little One. It was okay, as far as very basic designs go. But it really fell flat when inserted into the hyper-competitive world of Amazon thumbnails. I feel bad saying this because I’d hired an artist friend for that design. She did everything I asked her to (and did it well!), so the mistake was mine for not realizing how much the cover art mattered. Later on, I acquired a new design from a professional (and experienced, importantly) cover artist, but I’ll never be able to make up for that sub-par first impression. Mea culpa. 

#4 Not investing in a physical proof copy

If you’re publishing a print edition through a program like CreateSpace, do yourself a favor and BUY THE PROOF COPY. The shipping expenses are worth it in the long run. When I first self-published, I thought the digital review option was enough. Plot twist: it wasn’t. Not even close. When my first print copies arrived, there were chapter titles on the wrong page, awkward paragraph splits, and other glaring print errors. Some of those copies were for friends, and I had some pretty embarrassing explaining to do. Printer’s fault? Nope. Mine, for not wanting to sacrifice $25 and a few days to revise the physical proof copy.

#5 Rushing everything

I tweeted about this yesterday. Don’t rush. Don’t ever rush. Please, for your own sake, DO THINGS SLOWLY.

I think this point includes (and is the cause of) all the other mistakes I made as well. When I first self-published Little One, I was in a huge hurry. For several reasons. One legit reason was that I needed the project completed for college credit (English major perks). I needed those credits to graduate, so I had a tight deadline. The other reason, however, was a truckload of impatience on my part. I wanted the world to get my first novel, and I wanted them to get it assoonashumanlypossiblerightnowplease. I cut corners. I skipped essential steps. And the result was a mediocre product. Please, don’t make that mistake. Take the time to do things right, even if it means pushing back your intended deadlines. I want your first self-publishing experience to be one you can remember with pride.


I hope this post is of some help for those of you intending on self-publishing (or even if you’ve already got some books under your belt). Now I can look back on the experience and view it as a growth opportunity. My new books are worlds better because of what I learned from those mistakes.

At the same time, I still cringe now and then.


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In the meantime, have a great day!