Language Roundtable – Part Two

Did you miss yesterday? Read part one here.

Welcome to part two of our language roundtable! After learning about our authors’ backgrounds, I wanted to know their thoughts on how non-English languages work (or don’t) in books. I have my own pet peeves and desires, and I wanted to know theirs. Read on!

What language do you write your books in? Do you translate yourself?

Bhathena: I wrote my book in English. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I don’t have a good enough command of either Hindi or Gujarati to be able to write effectively in them.

Elsie Chapman
Elsie Chapman

Alsaid: I almost exclusively write in English. There’s been a short story or two here or there in Spanish, but I feel I’m a stronger English-language writer. For whatever reason, it’s the language I feel most at home in, even if I learned it last chronologically. LET’S GET LOST is out in Spanish, but I didn’t even think to offer myself to translate it. I don’t think I’d be capable of doing myself justice, and am in awe of people who can capture the spirit and the details of an entire book in two languages.

Chapman: I wrote all my books in English, and continue to write only in English, as I’m not fluent in any other written language. I never learned to read or write in Chinese.

Córdova: I can’t write in Spanish without making terrible grammar and spelling mistakes. I can’t even remember where the accent marks go most of the time. When I was in college I accidentally took a Spanish literature class IN Spanish. I say accidentally because I thought it was going to be translated. I’m glad I did take it in Spanish. My grades were lower because my paper had terrible grammar mistakes. All of my books have been written in English.

Do you read books in languages other than English? I keep meaning to, but it’s daunting and feels time-consuming, even though I know it would also be a good mental exercise and eventually I would get better at it.

Alsaid: Not as often as I should, but I do occasionally read in Spanish, especially if it’s the original language.

Jae-Jones: I do read poetry in other languages as much as possible, because the character of the language comes across best in poetry. Unfortunately, I stopped attending Korean school when I was eight, so have the reading comprehension of a third-grader in my milk tongue.

S. Jae-Jones
S. Jae-Jones

Bhathena: While I have not read an entire book in a language other than English, recently, I managed to read a short story by a prolific Hindi writer, Premchand. It was difficult as I’d last read and studied Hindi for my board exams in grade 10, but immensely fulfilling as there are many nuances in a language that get lost when translated in English.

I find this especially with poetry where the rhyme scheme lends the poem half its beauty and is sometimes impossible to translate effectively.

What are your thoughts on italicizing non-English words in books? Or doing the awkward insta-translate thing of, for example

“Que pasó, mija?” my mom said. “What happened, sweetie?”

Jae-Jones: I actually don’t mind that…within reason. I italicize German words as well as French in Wintersong. (I realize italicizing German in Wintersong is silly, as the book is set in late 18th century Bavaria and the characters are speaking German and Bavarian.) However, there is a fine line between italicizing non-English words, and making every other word italicized to emphasize a character’s Otherness.

Tanaz BhathenaI believe awkward insta-translate is sheer laziness. If you’ve done your job as a writer correctly, the reader should be able to understand the non-English within context.

Bhathena: I love books where non-English words are not italicized. Italics place unneeded emphasis on the word and feels like an interruption in the normal flow of reading. (See how annoying that is?)

When it comes to insta-translating a foreign word into English — I’m admittedly guilty of doing this. To me, it’s the trade off between having to repeat myself and being understood by someone who does not speak that language — and more often than not, I pick clarity.

Córdova: I think italicizing is fine, depending on the character. If the character is part of the culture and speaks it fluently, then italicizing “others” the language. Especially in first person. But if the character is an outsider, it should be italicized. The insta-translate thing can be awkward, and can come across as lazy. But it depends on the tone that you want to carry across to the reader. I don’t reject either. I do insta-translate some words in Labyrinth Lost, but the Spanish I use is kind of “fake Spanish” and used for the purposes of a magical language.

Adi Alsaid
Adi Alsaid

Chapman: Italicising non-English is still the standard, I think. But Junot Diaz once said something about it in an interview that really questioned WHY we do it and whether it actually helped or hurt. Because who is our audience for our books and why do we feel the need to to explain what they should already know? Who, ultimately, are we writing for, and who do we want to make comfortable with our words? Anyway, that really struck something in me and I hope we eventually stop making italics the standard.

Have you come across any other children’s or YA books that you think do a good job portraying multi-language speakers authentically?

Bhathena: I think Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper does an excellent job of this, beautifully transitioning between English and Spanish. The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan and If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan also portray multi-language speakers authentically.

Zoraida Cordova
Zoraida Córdova

Alsaid: Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy is a pretty great example. It is definitely something I’d love to see more of in YA, though.

Chapman: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe comes to mind.

Córdova: I don’t think I do a good job at this, though I hope to one day. I love Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass [by Meg Medina].

Thank you, all! Let’s continue the discussion on Twitter sometime.

Adi Alsaid is the author of LET’S GET LOST and NEVER ALWAYS SOMETIMES. He was born and raised in Mexico City, where he now writes and coaches basketball. He’s always wanted a witty and clever bio, but clearly can’t come up with one. His next book, NORTH OF HAPPY, will be out in 2017.

Tanaz Bhathena was born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada. Her short stories have appeared in various journals including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. Her debut novel, QALA ACADEMY, will be published by FSG Books for Young Readers / Macmillan in the fall of 2017. She can be reached on the web: tanazbhathena.com or Twitter: @bhathenatanaz.

Elsie Chapman is a YA author. Her newest, ALONG THE INDIGO, will be coming from Abrams/Amulet in Fall of 2017. Chinese-Canadian and originally from Prince George, BC, Canada, she moved to Vancouver as a teenager to attend UBC, where she earned a BA in English Literature. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and two kids. Repped by the awesome Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of THE VICIOUS DEEP trilogy, the ON THE VERGE series, and LABYRINTH LOST. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro

Sarah Hannah Gómez is a WNDB member, writer, fitness instructor, and former librarian. Visit her on Twitter @shgmclicious or read her writing at shgmclicious.com.

S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the author of WINTERSONG (Thomas Dunne, September 2016). Before moving to grits country, she was a YA fiction editor in New York City. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina, and many other places on the internet, including Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and her blog.