I read (and liked!) Daniel Mason’s debut novel The Piano Tuner several years after he was interviewed in the late, lamented short story magazine Glimmer Train, and only now rediscovered what he’d said about it.
The Piano Tuner takes place in Myanmar, and Mason faced a dilemma that all of us who write stories set in other countries and cultures face: how much do you express in English, and how much in the language of the people speaking?
The interviewer pointed out that Mason used a lot of Burmese words and phrases in his book, and Mason explained why. He said he usually kept the Burmese word when there was no English equivalent, or at least not a good one. Some of the words he could have explained, but then the novel becomes a dictionary, so he didn’t. Following that decision-rule, he used the word thanaka, rather than “the women whose faces were painted with sandalwood paste.” Good call.
In my upcoming novel set in Rome, the main character is American, but speaks Italian, and except when she’s talking with her brother, all the conversation is in Italian. I make the point about her language skills early (it’s even a plot point), and then drop in an Italian word, here or there to remind the reader that it’s not English being spoken. Certo (sure), Bene (fine), Cara (dear—oddly, a word I’d never use in English, unless the speakers were elderly!) are all words I use as reminder words. I also make sure to use the Italian name of the hospital where my character is taken: Ospidale Fatebenefratelli (Isn’t that great!?) Word order and speech rhythms can serve as reminders readers are in foreign territory too.
I especially admire the way Cormac McCarthy handled Spanish in The Crossing, set in Mexico. There was a lot of Spanish conversation, but he managed to reiterate the thought, not verbatim, but sufficiently, so that I always understood what he meant.
Mason said he used Burmese words for specific jobs, to avoid English connotations that don’t fit the Myanmar context, and, sometimes, just because of the way the word sounds. For example, the Portuguese word caatinga refers to scrubby brush-land, but to Mason simply sounds much more evocative and he used it in another book.
Just in case readers are uncomfortable encountering such an unfamiliar word, Mason put little instructions on how to say it in front of the word—just once, I hope. I don’t remember this, so it must not have been intrusive (and I don’t find any examples of this using Amazon’s “look inside” function). I suppose if an author used a great many foreign words, the pronunciation advice might become tiresome, but there might be other ways to handle it too—for example, including a glossary, correcting a “newbie” to the country, or having a character take language lessons. Readers figure out their own pronunciations for names of characters, for example, and go right on reading, so it isn’t a huge dilemma. But the occasional culture-specific reminder through language helps maintain a sense of the exotic.
Mason’s first collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthwas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Glimmer Train interview, he said he had a lot of ideas that weren’t 300-page ideas, but might make good short stories. “I’d love to try to do that again,” he said. He did. And was right.