Thursday, November 24, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Language Issues, Part II

As with everything else, dealing with language usage in Creating Esther was much more challenging than it was in Desert Jewels. Except for an aunt and uncle who don’t appear very often, everyone in Desert Jewels is fluent in English, and it’s the only language my protagonist knows. In an attempt to get the aunt and uncle right, I based their customs and speech on real characters described in memoirs. Desert Jewels also used a few Japanese words, which I included in a glossary. Overall, however, language was a minor consideration.

Creating Esther is very different. At the beginning of the book, Ishkode understands some English but speaks and thinks in Ojibwe. Once she reaches the boarding school, she still thinks in Ojibwe but is forbidden to speak it. So how do I distinguish between the different languages without confusing my readers?

A second issue is how to write the dialogue and text when Ishkode and her friends speak or write English. At a conference I attended last year, a speaker said that broken English and grammar errors tell the reader that the character is unintelligent, even when that is neither the reality (to the extent fiction reflects reality) nor the message the author intended to convey. The speaker said the better option is to keep the character’s English sentence structure and vocabulary simple at first and to make them more complicated as the character learns the language. Good advice, and something I may not have thought of on my own.

I bought a number of books to help me bridge these language barriers, including two scholarly studies on how students acquired English language skills in the boarding schools, two basic books on Native American sign language (which I ended up not using), and two Ojibwe dictionaries. But although they gave me some help, I had to figure it out myself.

So what did I do?

I made Ishkode a quick learner who had been attending the reservation day school for several years, which allowed me to start her with a decent command of English. But her vocabulary and word patterns would still be simpler than in her native language? Since I concluded that all of Ishkode’s narrative thoughts were in Ojibwe, they could be more complex than if they were in English. I didn’t have to simplify them at all.

I still needed to signal which language my characters were speaking when there was dialogue. I solved that problem by specifically stating when people are speaking English in Part I (on the reservation) and Part II (travelling to the boarding school), which tells the reader that the rest of the dialogue was spoken in Ojibwe. I reversed the process for Part III (at the boarding school), which mentions when people are speaking Ojibwe. And yes, Ishkode and her friends do defy the ban on speaking Ojibwe.

As far as I can tell, I have succeeded in distinguishing between the languages without confusing my readers. My beta readers all followed the story, and none of them mentioned any problems with how I handled the language issues.

But it wasn’t an easy puzzle to solve.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at

1 comment:

  1. Probably hard to write and think in different languages? How did you handle it? Have you enjoyed using a third-party service like this MyEssayGeek?