I would appreciate some comments/advice here. In my current WIP some of the scenes are taking place in France. For the French characters, should I write their conversations in English? It kind of feels strange to do so, but equally adding French text (with a translation) in a book written in English seems strange. I am cautious about trying to write their conversations in English but with a stereotypical French accent as well, I've seen that go disastrously wrong so many times in books when authors try to mimic an accent from another country. The part of the story that takes part in France is pretty crucial for the story line, I just didn't think about the problems with the language until I reached that part of the book!
I'd say that it depends on the context of the story. There are several ways it could be done like you said -you could always write several versions and judge afterwards what would be best. I suppose I'd rather read it all in English and I'd gloss over and skip the parts in french -that's what I do whenever I see song lyrics or poems in stories.
If it's french overheard by a character that speaks English and doesn't understand french, then you could write the french and note/describe the confusion of the English-speaking person's POV in hearing it -then if relevant, when switching to the french characters POV the dialogue would be written in English (since the reader would be 'looking in' and understanding the french as if it were English).
If it's a conversation between people that speak french, you could note that it's being spoken in french but write it translated to English -or expanding on that, note/describe at the start of the conversation in English what the french character is thinking of saying and write the short opening dialogue in french to give the reader a feel for the language but switch to English for the rest of the conversation for ease of reading for those that don't speak french.
If you want to keep the reader engaged you'll have to use English. You might flavor the dialog with bits of common french phrases that most people who have heard any french can figure out. But even then you might want to provide the translations of those phrases in the back of the book. I'd rely heavily on french mannerisms in their gestures perhaps which could be conveyed in a brief descriptive dialog tag. But not overly done.
I too would use italics when writing foreign language. But can I run this suggestion past you? Introduce another character into the story - maybe just a passer-by who is there one minute and gone the next - who acts as interpreter for the hero? He listens to the French, which you don't have to write, and speaks to the hero in English, which the reader can understand. Maybe the passer-by is an old friend of the hero who has a tiny walk-on part, so you don't have to explain too much about him/her.
Anyone who wants to see how this is done well can simply look at Tom Clancy's blockbuster hit, "The Hunt for Red October." We don't have thousands of lines of Russian in there to parse, or for which we need to look up translations. I mean, how would someone look up the translations? Like footnotes? Or would the translations be immediately beneath the French text? This seems laborious to me, as a reader.
I'm personally a harsh critic of "dialect." I dislike it in the books I've read, by and large. I have simply seen too many "I dinna ken ya, lassie," phrases, or worse, "southern" dialect (US southern) to abide it. ("ain'tcha," "gunna," etc.) I think it's fine when it's used in a first-second sentence, to establish a sound, a rhythm, but then I'd like the rest of the dialogue to not be bastardized. This doesn't apply to mannerisms or modes of speaking in which the arrangement of the words, or misuse, is critical, like the Yorkshire "us" for "me." That I see as different. But the main "dialects" that get used in English-language books, Scottish, "Southern" and French--I find it offputting. Some authors are able to use it quite well, but far too many aren't. When it comes to French, it makes me wince to think of "How is zee wine, ma cheri," kind of thing. I think that Christie created Poirot's Belgian (mistaken for French) accent quite well, through the use of phrases that were accessible and comprehensible to English-language native speakers, so you would hear Poirot's "French" accent in your head when reading.
Now, some readers like dialect, so...that's simply my opinion. However, with regard to putting large passages of dialogue or discussion in French, for an English-speaking audience, I think you could be making a mistake. I don't think that most people would like to either have to skip past it, and read the English-language translation beneath it, or click to see a translation at the back of the book like a footnotes, etc. I don't see a problem with the occasional sentence, but for big swaths...I would not recommend it. My $.02, for what it's worth.
We produce ebooks
Listed as an Amazon Professional Conversion Service: http://bit.ly/uFwMwb
An INScribe Preferred Conversion Partner http://www.booknook.biz/
Follow me on Twitter: @BookNookBiz
"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur."
If you want to see how a good author handles foreign languages, read Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford of Lymond series. (Read it even if you don't; it's a wonderful series.) The books include characters who are English, Scottish, Irish, French, Spanish, and a few other nationalities. They speak all kinds of languages and dialects of languages, but most of the dialogue appears in English. Dunnett isn't easy on you, though; she assumes people are either familiar with the basic vocabulary of various languages or can figure out what's being said by the surrounding context so some dialogue is not in English and poetry and songs and well-known quotations often stay in their original language.
I read a book last year where a character went to Germany and then France. The narrative was in English, but the dialogue was in English, German, and French depending on whom the protagonist was speaking. I could follow the German, but most of the French was lost on me. In order to understand what was happening, a reader had to be fluent in all three languages.
I stuck with the book because the English part, which was at least 90% of the book, was actually quite good. I got sick of Google Translate, though, and ended up losing a good deal of the French dialogue.
There are big national differences here. British publishers assume that their readers can read a "foreign" language, and certainly French. American publishers assume (correctly!) just the opposite.
Penguin published a new translation of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. When Proust quotes a French poet, the English edition puts the quotation in French and the translation in an endnote. The American edition puts the quotation in English with the FRENCH in an endnote.I find this rather amusing. If Penguin knows that I can't read Proust comfortably in the original, why in the world would it think I can read a poem by Mellarme?
But really, this is a question for your creative writing class, group, or personal circle of friends. Don't for gosh sake take the advice of author-publishers, which is what we are.
Thanks everyone, the reader scenarios raised are exactly what I want to avoid. I'm going to try different methods and let a few folks look and hopefully we will come up with what method works best for the book.
This is an interesting question, I have used all kinds of solutions.
In general, I would say that if you dont have a good reason use english (or the language in which the novel is written),
but then how would you go about a character who speaks in many languages or how would you describe a dialog that happens in two or more languages, this happens a lot with my Jews characters, they use different languages for different situations. I believe it is possible to convey a multilanguage credibility using short sentences in the languages foreign to the novel, sometimes maybe entering part of the sentence in one language and then changing and giving the reader some way to understand the foreign part from the context.
Yes, I hat footnotes but I have just finished a novel by an Israeli writer (the novel is Bengazi Bergen Belzen by Yossi Sukary) and there are a lot of dialogs in Italian and Arabic with footnotes translating them into Hebrew, and well, it works and conveys a multilanguage life in Libya during WW2. I wouldnt recommend that, I think it works because most of the dialogs are very short and not crucial to the narration, they just paint them more clearly.
Take a look at Boardwalk Empire and maybe it will give you some idea of how much to use a foreign language from the italian characters there.
This problem is especially complicated when dealing with societies of immigrants, and the second generations of immigrants.