Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How do characters talk?

A distinctive feature of Ian Sansom's The Case of the Missing Books for this North American reader was its characters' use of the word just. They often place the word at the end of a sentence, as against North American English's tendency to place it before the word or phrase it governs. Thus, in Sansom:

"So what is it you'll have?

"A mineral water just?"
where we in Canada or the U.S. would reply "Just a mineral water."

I don't know if this quirk of speech is Irish, Northern Irish, English, characteristic of one or another social class, or just a favorite of Ian Sansom's. (On second thought, I may have seen it in other Irish writing.) I do know it punctuates the novel and lends it a suggestion of authenticity or, God help me, texture.

Certain varieties of Indian speech use the word only in similar fashion. I first noticed this tendency in H.R.F. Keating's stories, where characters say things like "I am a simple policeman only." It was easy for me to condescend to Keating, to feel just slightly uneasy with this white Englishman's imitation of Indian speech.

Then I found that Vikram Chandra has several of his characters use the same speech pattern in Sacred Games. More recently, as I have read blogs from India, I find that the tendency to end sentences with only appears to be a living feature of Indian English, at least around Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai (Bombay). This was a rich education for me, not least because it made me repent my own ignorance in having felt morally superior to H.R.F. Keating.

But this is a crime-fiction blog and not a confessional. I'll close with some questions: What role does speech play in creating setting? How far is too far when it comes to trying to capture the flavor of "ethnic" speech? How do authors strike a balance between maintaining an illusion of everyday speech on the one hand and creating memorable dialogue on the other? What happens when authors give up the effort at maintaining a balance? Who are your favorite writers of dialogue, and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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40 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

For me, authentic speech is one more thing that pulls me in and keeps me reading a story. I can't say the actual dialogue is essential as I think one can approach the same level of authenticity with sentences like, "Animatedly, in Italian, he gave me directions to the church." However, when a writer known for a good ear doesn't try as hard to deliver the nuances of speech, I can tell.

I think dialogue is one of the best ways to move a story and one of the most natural ways to reveal character. I think it's going too far when the dialogue as written looks too different from readers' concept of normal. A writer's goal is often to make readers comfortable with local speech. The more that speech resembles what the reader is familiar with (i.e. standard English), the easier the job is. I need just a few sprinkles to get the feel of a different speech pattern. For example:

The first thing he said to me was, "What you want?" It sounded more like, "Chew on."

After this bit of explanation, I have enough of an idea how the character sounds to take me through the rest of the story.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Dialog is the primary, and most effecient, way to define a character. Rhythm of speech, what the character htinks deserves comment, favorite words and phrases, dialects, sometimes even pronunciations, all can give a reader a clearer picture of the zharacter than pages of description and exposition.

Who's best? Hard to say, but there's no one better than Elmore Leonard. Declan Hughes is also very good in this regard. John Connolly (especially in the exchanges among Bird, Louis, and Angel) and earlier Robert B. Parker are also good examples. We learn much more about their characters by what they say and do than by what the author tells us.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

Good dialogue is critical to any story line. How a character speaks in the story delineates that characters educational level, his regional up bringing, and in general sets the outline of how that character will play his part. Its very difficult for a writeer to write dialogue and convey the idioms of accents consistantly, if he himself or herself are not fully familiar to them. One flashes on the broadway show "My Fair Lady" to better illustrate the part speech plays in our ears and how we unconsciously mentally "judge" people.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, perhaps a passage such as

"`Aye,' said Brownie, ashamed. `Just occasionally me and George have a wee swally, you know.'

"`A whatty?'

"`A wee dram just.'"


works in several ways at once. It's amusing; it may help a reader indentify with the bewildered protagonist, who has trouble understanding the local speech; and it reinforces the impression of authenticity. I say the impression because I have no idea if rural people in Northern Ireland speaks the way Sansom has some of them speak in his book. But he makes their speech convincing, which is what matters. I believe they speak that way even if I don't know that they do.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for weighing in, Dana. Done well, dialogue can also be an aspect of setting. This is less often discussed than its contribution to character.

I know that Leonard will sometime build an entire scene out of dialogue and pull it off, a rare and impressive feat.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Dialect written badly will turn me off in a NY minute. An author who attempts to write American "Southern" without really knowing it will cause me to throw the book across the room.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gjg, I have read that Ian Sansom lives in Northern Ireland. If so, I suspect he keeps his ears open. At any rate, he convinces me that he does.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, we've all read bad dialect, I suspect. I sometimes wriggle uncomfortably at older American books' rendering of black characters who always slur their words or give out with exaggerated shrieks. Even if the sounds were accurate transcriptions of how such people might have talked in real life, the authors did not have the ear to turn them into convincing dialogue and may not have been interested in doing so.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just found this from Ian Sansom on a British Arts Council Web site:

"I didn’t have the foresight actually to be born in Northern Ireland, but I have had the good sense to come and live here."

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Glenn Harper said...

Two comments: one of my favorite "dialect" writers is John Brady, whose ability to suggest the varying accents of native Irish speakers is subtle and musical, and one of the great charms of his crime fiction. The other comment is that there is nothing worse in translated fiction than an attempt to reproduce regional dialects by using an "equivalent" American or English dialect, in terms of social class, etc. I don't know the answer to that one, but: translators--PLEASE don't (for example) make a Sicilian sound like a redneck or a Cockney...
Thanks for the topic--
Glenn

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Regarding translations, it is tricky to get dialect across. I agree that equivalence as a tactic can have a very odd effect, even when it makes sense as an idea - just because one local dialect uses a lot of coal-mining slang doesn't mean it works to have the characters sound like they're from Yorkshire, for example.

However, though I don't know the answer, I do think there sometimes needs to be something fractionally more than 'he said in his thick Glaswegian accent.' For example, I know that in Mankell's "After the Frost' there's several references to Lindemann's seriously hick-from-the-sticks peculiar accent as a contrast to both the locals and Stockholm. But since his dialogue is written in the same way as all the other characters, you don't get much sense of a different background. (I did feel a bit more satisfied there after I'd read the stand-alone 'Return of the Dancing Master' in which Lindemann features, but surely one shouldn't need to read an entirely different book to give some depth to a minor character?)

More on the topic, my favourite authors tend to be more sparing with dialogue - some of the later Reginald Hill novels, for example, do start to grate on the ear. (The title escapes me, but I got fed up with the book whose plot revolves around Mahler's Kindertoetenlieder.) However, the number of characters who sound like Peter Wimsey without the background to justify it is ridiculous. Or who have an education but still sound like idiots. A lot of writers seem to confuse 'dialect' with 'character don't have no grammar'. (I have any number of problems with Anne Perry as an author, but at least she gives her main characters a reason for their out-of-class accents.)

Concrete examples, though...I'm not all that observant really, when I'm reading for fun, so I can only make some general points. Craig Russell's novels work for me (and I'm seriously critically of English books about Germany) because I can believe in the foreign setting despite the language. Partly that's the judicious use of really long authentic police titles, but I think it's also the use of a slightly more formal metre in dialogue than an average cop - or criminal - might use. Since it's only slightly jarring, it gives a good sense of foreignness rather than fakery (unlike, say, Elizabeth George, who goes into overkill in this department and whose titled hero is completely unbelievable, at least in the early books.) I think Donna Leon does this nicely as well.

Incidentally, the dialogue tic I miss most in reading crime novels translated into English is the use of English for exclamations, slang, and various markers of dopiness or status. It's always fun to see which expressions get picked up, and to what end they're deployed. I read Stieg Larsson in German, and he did this really well with Lisbeth (since her internet habit makes such a language mix very plausible.)

Oh, and since I've finished that series thanks to Teutonic efficiency, I'll say it's well worth waiting for the next two translations!

June 11, 2008  
Anonymous Karen C said...

Speech pattern and accurate regional reflection really are vital for me - I sort of read "aloud" in my head and if the flow of the dialogue doesn't work then that nearly drives me as bats as spelling does :)

I particularly crave a pattern that matches the local language, and I really want a smattering of phrases, terminology or slang from that local area to give the thing some feeling of place. Learning the new words / phrases (or even just figuring out the general gist from the context) is part of the joy of entering the other world.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Joanna D'Angelo said...

I love dialogue that is organic to a character but sometimes authors go overboard - such as depicting a character's accent phonetically. I find that breaks my connection with a book's narrative flow.

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

First, thanks for the heads-up on John Brady. Second, translators and at least some readers are aware of that very problem. Mike Mitchell, who lives in Scotland, talks about resisting the temptation to use Scottish dialect to render Swiss dialects in his translations of Friedrich Glauser. I also appear to have sparked a similar discussion about how German translators might copy with writing rich in Anglicisms, but my German is too weak to let me follow the thread.

I'm not crazy about how Stephen Sartarelli handles the character of Catarella in his translations of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels. On the other, I'm not sure how else he might have captures the character's malapropisms as well as the difference between his Sicilian dialect and standard Tuscan Italian.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren: Speaking of Teutonic efficienty and translation of dialect and idiom, have you seen this discussion? Using slightly more formal metre or diction as a way to convey "foreignness" can be a good strategy if the author has a sufficiently good ear.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen, would you say Australian readers are especially attuned to linguistic regionalism? I ask, of course, because Australian English seems especially rich with expressions not found elsewhere, to the point where some publishers include glossaries when bringing out Australian novels elsewhere in the English-speaking world, including such a backwater as America.

With respect to new words and phrases being part of the joy of a new world, everyone talks about dialogue helping to create character, but fewer people mention dialogue and setting in the same sentence. This is surprising since the connection seems so obvious and so implicit in discussions of dialect, for example.

And, since you are from a land whose English is so bracingly colorful to many of us on the outside, what non-Australian authors and varieties of English capture your imagination?

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joanna, one standard piece of advice on writing dialect or any exceptional form of speech is to establish the oddity at the start, say, with enough dialect or odd pronunciation or syntax to create a context, and then to ease up. This has always made sense to me, maybe one day I'll read a book or at least a chapter with this in mind to see how a skilled writer of dialogue puts this into practice. The goal behind such advice, of course, is to create a memorable setting or character without hitting the reader over the head.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Peter, thanks for the link to the other discussion - I hadn't seen it. (BTW, can I admit I quitel ike Boell?) Anyway, I'm amused to discover it makes the same point about the logical use of English in, say, an IT field, and that sticking to German in such a case would actually be silly. I suspect it's similar in other languages.

As to how to translate now dated slang, which is the other point raised...a tricky one. If the setting's vividly period enough, I think I'd expect the language of the time. ('Greed is good' 80s etc.) But (and a hat-tip here to the Mitchell interview, which was very interesting), if the the setting is a generic 'present at time of publishing', I think I'd give it a miss. With Glauser, I've alwaysthought the point was the insights about human nature, Switzerland etc, rather than the era in depth.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Oh, and I know the Australian question wasn't directed at me, but as an Aussie myself, I thought I'd could probably reply too!

The thing I've always found with Australian crime novels is that the colourful regionalisms are the sort of expressions I know the meaning of but wouldn't really use myself. (I remember almost falling out of my chair once when a teacher at school said 'Fair dinkum', because I'd never heard anyone say that in real life before!) Admittedly, I'm an urban creature from a migrant family (and from Sydney, which is not the whole country, no matter what others think!) so may have a very different perspective, but I often find the really vivid 'ockerisms' are used automatically by characters/authors when I and people I know would really only use them when a tinge of irony was intended. (May be why I like Shane Maloney, since I think such language works with him.)

So I'd be reluctant to generalise about 'Australian' settings and indeed regionalisms without things like class and background coming into it too, even if that's not something often linked to Oz. Temple's The Broken Shore was fascinating for me on that level - it felt very authentic (yes, I know the word's iffy), and the language highlighted setting, class, race etc beautifully (the racist language I found uncomfortably raw, which may have been the point). But my experiences would have a very different, and much more bland vocabulary, even in identical settings. (I know Melbourne pretty well, for example, and yet felt like I was reading parts of Broken Shore through Alice's looking glass.)

Apologies for the length!

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, to my pleasant surprise, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of that German discussion. Yes, you can admit that you like Böll -- you and Woody Allen, or at least Woody Allen's character in Manhattan. You may recall a scene in which the characters played by Diane Keaton Michael Murphy sneeringly lists their "academy of the overrated," home to "such luminaries" as Böll, Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman and others. Allen's character responds that the only thing those people have in common is that they're all terrific.

The question of dated slang explains why classics and other worthwhile works are worth retranslating every few years or decades.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, it sounds as if Australian crime novelists may be having a bit of fun by deliberately playing up the stock of colorful expression their language offers. Fair dinkum!

Some of Garry Disher's Wyatt novels are heavy on slang, too -- criminal slang, perhaps, since that's Wyatt's world. And I have never failed to love an Australian author's extensive use of Australianisms, even, and maybe especially, when I had to guess at the precise meanings.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Abbey said...

Not to overly simplify, but in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind", her dialect of the "darkies" and the Southerners was masterful, in my view. After one is able to get with the dance (rhythm), it is delightful reading. I am a very visual person anyway, and I envision all characters when I read, from physical description to voice to dialect. Once a character's background is revealed, say German, I can hear the character speak with a German accent when I am reading. However, all do not visualize in the same fashion. It is interesting, therefore, to read the comments thus far.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Once a character's background is revealed, say German, I can hear the character speak with a German accent when I am reading."

I wonder if Margaret Mitchell adopted the often-mentioned tactic that I cited earlier: emphasizing a character's peculiarities of speech heavily at the start, then easing up and letting the reader's imagination do the work, and supply the peculiarities, later.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

I'm pop my five cents worth in from a New Zealand perspective. I'd like to think New Zealand fiction wouldn't require a glossary of terms in the back, but we do have distinct kiwisms that are fun to use in moderation. A number of them are shared with our Australian neighbours, although, we are supposed to pronounce them with more of a nasal twang. (Fush and chups) I'd hate to try and put that on a page, so don't and stick to Queens English.

There is a danger in trying to reproduce ethnic sounds of coming across as stereotypical or condescending, especially when it comes from an author with no personal background or experience. I wouldn't, for a local example, attempt to convey in dialogue the accent some Maori have as it would never feel or sound authentic (that word again) I'd find other ways to make it clear. This post's been most useful for that - great discussion.

June 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Welcome, and thanks for the comment and the kind words. You may be this blog’s first visitor from New Zealand. And you were too modest to come right out and say that you comment not just from a New Zealand perspective, but from a New Zealand author’s perspective. Have you ever had to make decisions in matters of dialect, odd pronunciation or speech impediments in your own writing?

I’d like to think that no Australian or New Zealand fiction would require a glossary, though the occasional explanation of a particularly puzzling word or expression might not be out of place. I like figuring out the meaning of such terms myself, though. It very much adds to my enjoyment.

The few times I have heard New Zealand English, I have noticed differences from Australian. The pronunciation of one of the vowels was distinctive, though I can’t remember which one. Of course, there are probably several or even many Australian and New Zealand accents, so I’ll refrain from generalizations for now.

The first time I ever saw the spelling fush was in a comic sketch by Steven Leacock that poked fun at exaggerated Highland Scots English.

June 12, 2008  
OpenID krimileser said...

The other comment is that there is nothing worse in translated fiction than an attempt to reproduce regional dialects by using an "equivalent" American or English dialect, in terms of social class, etc.

If you follow that rule, where does it leave you ?

I like to think that this rule is the reason why (for example) Brookmyre has not been translated into German, you would kill some of his dialogs.

One of the best German crime fiction writer is Pieke Biermann, her books contained (she is not writing anymore) dialogs full of Berlin dialect - even for Germans difficult so understand. One of her books was translated into English (? Violetta). As fas as I know they had really difficulties to make a good translation.

Biermann is a translator herself. She translated some of Walter Mosley's books and used for the Watts slang Berlin dialect. A decision that found many critics.

And I agree, a similar point is how to translate older books. If you read "the catcher in the rye" you get a 50s book, if you read the German translation you get either a 50s book (translated by Böll) or a modernized version translated in 2000 with "different" dialogs and in 20/30 years they will make again a translation. Makes you wonder.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With respect to substituting dialect for dialect when translating, I can sympathize with Mike Mitchell's position. He said he avoided using Scots dialect in translation because of all the additional and unintended associations it could conjure up. As a conciliator by temperament, I have considerable sympathy with and respect for his mixed practice: sometimes leaving words untranslated, sometimes adding parenthetical remarks, along the lines of "switching momentarily to his Bernese dialect."

I wonder, too, how certain Australian writers might fare in translation, particularly those heavier on the slang. I expect they might come across rather well, because their colorful language often seems to punctuate the story rather than be part of its essence. Again, Mitchell might be appreciate this, since the shifts between different dialects of German are so thoroughly a part of the work of Friedrich Glauser, which Mitchell translated into English.

I have heard that Walter Mosley is supposed to make an appearance here in Philadelphia sometime soon. Perhaps I could ask him what he thought of Pieke Biermann's translation strategy. Pieke Biermann is the person I'd really like to ask about the decision, though.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

I made a conscious choice to write a New Zealand book, so have included plenty, but not too much, I hope, colloquial language. I didn't attempt to put in regional accent, although in Mataura where Overkill is set, there is a distinct roll to the r's, so much so that you can tell a Southlander from the moment they open their mouths, things are purrrrrple, especially if they live in Gorrre. It would look silly on a page though.

It will be interesting to see how well the German translation copes with the distinctly New Zealand terms. I'll have to trust my European pals to tell me if it captures the local flavour.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

I think authentic speech adds to the fictional world as well as the character using it. As far as I can see, authentic speech only goes too far when I cannot understand what's being communicated. Also, the presence of the accent has to work dynamically in the world surrounding that character (do others have it? What do people that don't have it think of it? etc.)

Chuck Palahniuk tried to imitate Southern speech in his last book "Rant", but it came out terrible. Still a good book though.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, do your European pals know New Zealand well enough to judge whether it captures the local flavor?

You made an interesting point that transcriptions of the rolled r's would look silly on a page. I think that most of us, plunked down in area of strange accents, would adjust rapidly and soon be able to understand the speech. Weird transcriptions in a page, with the permanence that print brings, are much harder to get used to, to I think, which is why transcribing accents is a contentious issue.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CS, one yardstick for me would be whether the accent is obtrusive, which is related to your standard. And thanks for the Palahniuk heads-up.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Hi Pete

Late to the table, but thought I'd throw my tuppence in.

In my opinion, as a Norn Irelander, Sansom completely nailed the North Antrim pattern of speech in his dialogue without overdoing it. I was hugely impressed by the authenticity of The Case of the Missing Books.

Fantastic prose too, don't you think? very effortless but top class.

gb

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for chucking in your tuppence. Your opinion may be worth a bit more than that. I'm impressed that you're impressed by the authenticity of the book's speech and also that Ian Sansom is not a Northern Irish native. Perhaps he was sensitive to nuances that natives might miss because they've been hearing them all their lives.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I agree with you about the novel's apparent effortlessness. I'll look for more books in the series.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

My Luxembourg friends have lived in New Zealand, so know the lingo.

Another interesting question is how many foreign language words can you drop into your text or dialogue before it gets cumbersome or confusing for a reader. I have read books where I enjoy the odd, for example, Gaelic word thrown in by a writer as it adds to the character's voice. But when it gets to the point you feel like you're being forced to learn a new language, it's a turn off.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I enjoy when context and syntax will let me figure out a word's meaning, as with maderchod in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. I decline, however, to reveal the word's meaning in mixed company.

June 13, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

I took an entire semester class on reading and writing dialect in college (University of Michigan). It was a fabulous class and the best writing we read did not attempt to transcribe any particular dialect word for word or sound for sound. Rather, the great writers were able to capture the feel of the speech with a few perfectly chosen words or phrases or spellings that led the reader's own mind to adopt the rhythm and patterns of each character. As in most writing, less is more.

June 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What good examples came up in the class and what not-so-good ones? What make the good ones good and the bad ones bad?

June 14, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

You certainly would not be trying to make me fess up to how long ago I was an undergraduate by making me recall the specifics, would you? What I remember most is the brilliance of Mark Twain's dialogue, how with subtle changes in his representation of dialect you knew exactly who was speaking — Injun Joe or Huck or Aunt Sally or Jim. And though the world has changed and the way some of Twain's characters were portrayed is appalling by today's standards, in his dialogue each character was represented truthfully and with dignity.

I'll try to remember a bad example and get back to you.

June 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I were trying to guess your age from the course, I'd have to put an upper limit on the number. I'd guess that courses on reading and writing dialect were not offered when my mother was an undergraduate, for example.

Yes, Mark Twain must be the supreme example. Among the many reasons his use of dialect worked is probably that he made peculiarities of speech a vital part of every character. I think what makes readers today uneasy about dialect is the possibility of its being used for just one character or class or ethnic group. In American crime fiction, that has usually been African American or Asian characters, and it's not hard to understand from some of those portrayals why dialect and phonetic speech make some people uncomfortable. I say let them read Mark Twain.

June 14, 2008  

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