Around writing circles we always hear the same question when writing bilingual and multicultural characters: when and how do people slip from their mother tongue to their second language?
A variety of authors have spoken about it and as someone with Spanish as their first language and involved in a deeply multicultural border city in Mexico I can assure you that the answer to that question can be almost anything. We will touch on that subject a bit later, but the real question here (and one that is not always asked) is how do writers slip from one language to another when they are telling a story? Do the stories come to them in their first language? In their second? All of them at once?
I was born and raised in Mexico just five minutes away from the border with California. Spanish has always been my primary language and I’ve always lived in a household were it was the only thing we spoke, wrote, and read. Thankfully, living in a frontier city, I had many opportunities to learn English and since then I have been practicing it online. This part is crucial… many of us writers who have English as our secondary language have learned it through online interactions, media like TV and movies, and reading in English.
There comes a point in the life of a bilingual person where -despite what some will say- you start to think in both languages. Fragments of your thoughts come in different codes and it becomes a real struggle to decide how a feeling or image is best portrayed in words. Spanglish is a real thing, and sometimes you change languages mid-sentence sólo porque como que así suena mejor. See?
The first big issue multicultural and bilingual writers have to face is what language should they write a story in. Many factors play into this, and the first of all is the audience you will be writing for.
Perhaps if your story is deeply rooted in your cultural background and you will be working with characters who would normally speak in your native tongue, you might be inclined to write in that language. Is your story more universal? Do you plan on using slang from other parts of the world? Maybe the intention is to show your cultural background to readers from another language, and it is in that case that the author must find a way (which is completely different for every language and culture) to translate the uniqueness of their lyrical and spoken customs into a different “code”.
Even then, sometimes the story comes to you in different languages. For example, a scene can be perfectly portrayed in Spanish but wouldn’t work that well in English. As writers, we need to reach a compromise and settle for the language we chose for the story, it is through hard work that one can translate a multicultural story in one single language that is already its own story. Writing in a second language also demands knowledge of the different nations and cultures that speak it, not understanding the ways a language moves can potentially lead to disaster, misinterpretations, mistranslations, and sometimes unwanted hilarity. Expressions, slang, different uses of the same word in different countries… they all come into play when putting a story down into paper. You cannot imagine the world of pain when you realize the innocent thing you tried to say is actually a very dirty slang in another language. Or maybe you can imagine it because you have been there.
Writing is a way of living, it is a journey and an experience, and in so it is different for everyone.
But as multicultural writers trying to communicate our interior world to the rest of the world in the English word, we have an especially interesting battle ahead of us. A battle against untranslatable images and words, against the dominion of the written practices, of the literary construction, of the thought process and the cultural differences… even the political struggles when jotting down dialogue and creating characters. But even so, there is an upper hand; experience. Who better than someone with that constant inner struggle of cultures and languages can portray complicated multicultural characters? Who better to answer that original question of WHEN should a character naturally slip into their first tongue?
With that said, let’s talk a little of how people talk; bilingual dialogue.
Writing dialogue for bilingual (trilingual or more) characters is a delicate work and the key piece of advice here is doing research on the place the character was raised in and how many years did they spend only talking in their mother tongue. To give an example let me put forward my own country, Mexico. People from the North of the country, specifically from frontier states, will be more prone to dropping words in their second language (usually English) or use phrases. The more close to the border you move, the more people will use American slang in their daily lives and their online experiences. Spanish is one of those languages that have a particularly interesting relationship with English, and so –for example- Mexicans living in California will usually speak a mixture of both (Spanglish) and translate phrases from one to another with no clear path.
Let’s go to some generalizations about how bilingual people talk and in what circumstances they might change from their mother tongue to a second language.
-Stressing and confusing situations, when they are needed to convey ideas in a fast way. The characters might trip over their words, forget phrases, and slip into their first language when trying to clarify something.
-Having two conversations at the same time in two different languages. When on the phone, texting, or in person, they might accidentally switch languages when they switch from one person to the other.
-Talking with someone that speaks their first language they might feel more comfortable dropping words in that language.
-If the character swears a lot in their first language, it is more likely that they will slip into that one when extremely angry. Swearing is an interesting phenomenon and people will have different relationships with swear words when talking in their first, second, or third language. For example, someone might never use swear words in their first language but drop an “f bomb” every three words when talking in another.
-When talking to someone that speaks their first language, people will usually go to that one in public for a variety of reasons. One tends to be to talk about others without being understood; sometimes it is for practicality, other times it is simply to freak people out. Yes, that is a thing.
-A curious phenomenon is inventing words. When someone is fluent in more than one language sometimes they will accidentally mix words and translate them into words that do not exist. For example, I was about to write “practicity” instead of “practicality” since the Spanish word is “practicidad”. There are certain words that share roots and might temporarily confuse a person when trying to write or speak quickly, a phenomenon that is not usually talked about.
It is important to note that most of the time the things that are said in the first language tend to be slang or “untranslatable” expressions, words, and nouns referring to cultural-specific things. Likewise, a character speaking in their first language in the right setting will drop slang and phrases in their second language even if they are not certain the other party speaks it. Because we are evil like that.
It bears repeating, doing research on your character is vital to understand how they would talk. Some questions to ask yourself about them are:
-How long have they been speaking this language?
-How fluent are they in it? Do they speak it on a regular basis?
-Where are they usually from?
-Where are they when the dialogue is being spoken?
So, whether English is your second, third, fourth or ninth language, keep these things in mind when starting a new story:
-Decide what your story is about and who will be its primary audience.
-Is English the best language to portray the characters and send across your message?
-What is the cultural background of the story and how does it play into the linguistics?
-Are there any aspects that are impossible to translate from one language to another? If so, how are you going to go around it?
Whether you are a multicultural writer, someone who speaks many languages and wants to write in English, or just a writer who wants to know how the struggle is real, simply remember that it doesn’t matter where you are from… there will always be a way for you to jump over the language barriers and show us your world as seen through your eyes. Appropriate the language, make it yours, and make it work. Have fun.
And try to have an editor who has that language as their mother tongue.
Mack Robles is a writer and visual artist from the sunny land of Tijuana, Mexico. He has published several stories in anthologies like Adynaton III, Cuaderno Amarillo, Cuaderno Azul, and Seasons. He writes both in Spanish and English, mostly transgressive fiction and horror. Find more from him here: https://mackrobles.wordpress.com/