Writing Q&A 13: Foreign language in fiction; literary agents
Published: January 3, 2007
|I am writing a story set in the 1700s about a colonist's child that comes to live with Native Americans. I want to show some of the problems the child has of learning the new language. What is the best way to bridge that problem? |
Communication is fundamental to the human experience, so this issue of language can make for an intriguing complexity in your story. When dealing with a foreign language in fiction you have the possibility for two circumstances: a character who is unfamiliar with the language and a character who is familiar. In both cases, it's often wise to assume the reader has little or no familiarity. Your story has a little bit of both, so let's take a look at the different techniques.
When a character is unfamiliar with the language, introduce it in the way he would experience it: What does this language sound like? Is it sharp? Musical? Flat? This can help build atmosphere, as well. A beautiful-sounding language, for example, might take on a haunting quality to a listener who is frightened and unable to understand what is happening. Much of communication is found in body language and facial expression; what words or phrases can he identify as a result of these nonverbal cues? Showing the character make these kinds of connections can also help the reader understand how he begins to learn the language.
When a character is familiar with the language, the author is faced with the additional complexity of how much of that language to include in the story. Too much can make the reader gloss over large sections and lose meaning or clarity. Too little and the reader doesn't get a real sense of the quality of language. One effective solution is to give the dialogue in English but describe which language is being used. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche does this in her novel Purple Hibiscus, where her Nigerian characters speak in both Igbo and English. She uses the choice of language to further characterize. Kambili's overbearing father, for example, uses English at home to help teach his children, but he often reverts to Igbo when around his sister. Kambili's grandfather does not speak English, and the choices the characters make about which language to use while around him can be quite revealing.
You can capture the flavor of the language by peppering in some words that can be gleaned through context. For example, Kambili's aunt says, "Kambili, I want you to help me do the orah leaves, so I can start the soup when I come back." The reader may not know much about orah leaves, but the context gives the necessary details. Other times, words are translated: "The women clapped and hooted when Jaja and I said, 'Nno nu.' Welcome." You might keep this limited to short and simple words or phrases, so as not to weigh down the prose.
With the right guidance, you can help the reader effortlessly experience the unique richness of the unfamiliar language.
|When should I start thinking about an agent? |
Literary agents are an important part of the process of publishing books. (With individual stories or articles, you should submit to magazines on your own.) Good agents have an extensive knowledge of publishing houses and individual editor's preferences, and they can help get your manuscript in front of editors who are likely to be interested in the kind of fiction you write. It is generally a good idea to have a finished, book-length manuscript when you start querying agents. This doesn't mean you should send that whole manuscript to each prospective agent, though. Make sure to read and follow each agent's submission guidelines. Many only want to see a sample of the written work along with a query letter. Should an agent request to see the whole manuscript, though, you want to have that ready to go.
It's worth noting, too, that short-story collections are quite difficult to sell. Agents know this and, as a result, they're often interested in seeing novels. That's not to say you can't land an agent with a strong short-story collection. You certainly can. But don't be surprised if interested parties inquire about your future writing plans. Some agents might sign you on but wait to submit the collection until you have more of the novel written. Others might simply want to know you have plans for a novel. If you don't have intentions of writing one, make sure to be up-front about that. Some agents might pass, but that's part of the process. You're not just looking for any agent; you're looking for the one who believes in your work and will promote you with her fullest enthusiasm.