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Other language used in 1st person narrative

sunkuwan

I am not a fan of overusing another language in a story and sometimes the narrative needs a conversation to be in another language but the Author doesn't know enough about it, or it is a fantasy/alien language.

So how do you get it across that the Characters are using another language without breaking the 4th wall in 1st person? (And a bit more elegant than "I talk(ed) with *xyz* in his native language.")

Replies:   StarFleet Carl
Michael Loucks

It depends on the context. Sometimes I use the other language and provide translation in () following the foreign text. Other times, something like "What do you think of him?" I asked in Swedish. and then later on "Let's go," I replied, switching back to English.

That said, there was one 'breaking the fourth wall'. I included an "Author's Note" to say that from a certain point forward, the MC and his Swedish friends should be assumed to be speaking Swedish.

Ernest Bywater

I've used both the methods mentioned by Michael, and they worked well. I do tend to save the method in the second paragraph for situations where the other language is often used for entire conversations, thus declaring the use of the other language or mixed used makes life easier.

Michael Loucks

- One last sci-fi note, if you're dealing with a fantasy language, base it on a real language. Try translating a passage into an uncommon foreign language and then reverse the letters so it's not easily recognizable. That way, the passage will still have the flavor and structure of an actual language, without looking like anything recognizable or looking like complete nonsense.


Maybe rot13? :-)

Geek of Ages

Or just, y'know, create a language. Or at least, enough to make interesting sentences, rather than gibberish.

Though to the original question, just have the narration indicate "they spoke a foreign language" and don't spend too much time on it. It's rarely worth it to include much from a foreign language.

Replies:   sunkuwan
sunkuwan

@Geek of Ages

Yes, but how to do it elegantly in first-person narrative.

Replies:   Geek of Ages
StarFleet Carl

@sunkuwan

it is a fantasy/alien language


If you as the actual writer are doing this and the language doesn't have to exist, then just make something up as the translation, where then your main character can tell someone else what was just said.

One of the ways you can do that as well is for the person who says something in the foreign language in the first place is to have them also do a little bit of translating on their own as well.

Another thing you could do would, after making sure it's right, is have the question asked in the foreign language and then give all the replies in English, just making sure that you've said that, and which also clarifies what actually was said in the first place.

"Vad tror du?" I answered him in the same Swedish he used, "What do I think? I'll tell you what I think!"

Geek of Ages

@sunkuwan

She turned to our guide and spoke a few words of French to him; he nodded, and with a quick phrase, pointed at a restaurant down the way.

"Merci," my wife said, then turned back to me. "He says that restaurant has fantastic fois de gras."

Replies:   Geek of Ages
Geek of Ages

@Geek of Ages

In other words, being in first person doesn't make it any different from third person in this regard.

Geek of Ages

Huh? Narrators in either first or third person (or even second person) can very well run the gamut in terms of how much they tell the reader. Person doesn't have much to do with that.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Geek of Ages

Narrators in either first or third person (or even second person) can very well run the gamut in terms of how much they tell the reader.


Technically, a 1st-person narrator can only tell the reader what he knows. So if that narrator doesn't speak the other language, the reader is left not knowing what it means.

Geek of Ages

@Switch Blayde

Sure. But depending on how tied to a particular character a third-person narrator is, you might have a similar restriction:

He listened to the two men speak for a while, in some blubbery language that didn't sound like it was from Earth. At one point one man pointed at him, shouting the same word emphatically over and over again; the other seemed unimpressed. Bob waited patiently—not like there was much else for him to do while tied up.

Geek of Ages

@Switch Blayde

On the other hand, I was mostly referring to reliability of narrators. A first-person narrator can also avoid telling the reader about that super important thing that happened to them a few years ago, even though it's crucial to understanding why they do certain things.

Yes, you are limited by what the narrator knows/experiences, but there's still a gamut in there in terms of what that character relates to the reader.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Geek of Ages

Yes, you are limited by what the narrator knows/experiences, but there's still a gamut in there in terms of what that character relates to the reader.


"The Green Mile" is written in 1st-person past tense. Stephen King cheated by writing something like: "I found out later after reading the report that..."

So at the time in the story, the 1st-person narrator didn't know something. But since he's telling what happened in the past, I guess that's acceptable.

Dominions Son

@Switch Blayde

Stephen King cheated by writing something like: "I found out later after reading the report that..."


I wouldn't call that cheating, if it's something the 1st person narrator could reasonable find out later.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

So at the time in the story, the 1st-person narrator didn't know something. But since he's telling what happened in the past, I guess that's acceptable.

Technically, that's a 1st person/3rd person omni, where the character is the omniscient narrator, recounting the events from the future. That's valid, the fallacy is never telling the reader the story is 3rd person omni until the very last page!

Authors who pull that, rarely get a second chance with me, even if it is Steven King.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

Technically, that's a 1st person/3rd person omni, where the character is the omniscient narrator,


No. An omniscient narrator is all-knowing. The 1st-person narrator only knows what he knows.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

No. An omniscient narrator is all-knowing. The 1st-person narrator only knows what he knows.

Except, in this instance, since he's speaking afterwards, once he's figured everything out and uncovered what was hidden before, he's much more Omni than limited. Think of it as a "Limited Omniscience".

That's similar to the technique that I use. Even if I don't identify my narrator, I figure out who they are and what they'd likely know, and then paint them with those brushes, so you get to feel who the narrator is. However, in the end, this is just another Deus ex machina, where the author pulled a happy conclusion he's previously stashed in his sleeve, just in case he got caught with his pants down at the story's conclusion. That's why readers feel cheated every time an author pulls this shit.

It's OK if you prepare the way with foreshadowing which reveals the character is recounting his experiences, but tossing it into the story at the last minute like a smoke grenade to make good his escape is pathetic. It reveals a lack of planning and an impatience with doing things properly. In essence, he just wanted to finish the story without going back and inserting the necessary foreshadowing, which gives the entire story a feeling of 'the story just ain't worth my time!'

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

he's much more Omni than limited.


That's why I said it's cheating. :)

Omniscient narrator has a specific definition in literature. To use it otherwise would be confusing to some.

Replies:   sunkuwan
sunkuwan

@Switch Blayde

Is it considered Omni, if the Author in 1st person narrative (over)uses the phrase/technique "Only later would he/she learn that [...]"

Crumbly Writer

@sunkuwan

Is it considered Omni, if the Author in 1st person narrative (over)uses the phrase/technique "Only later would he/she learn that [...]"

King and "The Green Mile" got a LOT of flak over this one issue, so it's NOT okay if you only use it a little. You're essentially pulling the rug out from under the reader. The author CHOSE to write in 1st-person, but in order to get themselves out of a bind, they suddenly switch to 3rd-person.

It IS a valid technique if you lay the proper groundwork to justify it's inclusion, but not when you spring it on readers as a last minute surprise.

That said, I've often done something similar in my 3rd person Omni stories where I detail what happens after the story ends in an epilogue, describing what happens to the various characters after the story's conclusion. But that's in 3rd person, not 1st!

Another technique, which isn't widely used, is to alternate between first and third person passages—say in alternating chapters. Although it's jarring for readers, it shows the main character in first, while presenting things he has no idea of occurring behind the scenes. However, this isn't widely recommended because it's hard to carry off efficiently. (My first story was like this, and I've always regretting doing it!).

Replies:   Switch Blayde  sunkuwan
Switch Blayde

@sunkuwan

Is it considered Omni, if the Author in 1st person narrative (over)uses the phrase/technique "Only later would he/she learn that [...]"


I don't think so. Omniscient means "all knowing." That means the omni narrator knows what every character is thinking, feeling, etc. The omni narrator even knows what no character in the story knows (hence, all-knowing).

The first person narrator is limited to what they know. They might learn something after the fact and tell the reader, as in "The Green Mile" example, but it's still only what the 1st-person narrator knows (and he doesn't know all).

1st-peron omni narrators are rare. "The Book Thief" has one because it's Death and Death is all-knowing (like God).

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

Another technique, which isn't widely used, is to alternate between first and third person passages—say in alternating chapters.


I remember reading a novel where each chapter began with an omni POV and then switched to the regular POV (don't remember if it was 1st or 3rd-limited).

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I don't think so. Omniscient means "all knowing." That means the omni narrator knows what every character is thinking, feeling, etc. The omni narrator even knows what no character in the story knows (hence, all-knowing).

There are variations in omniscient vision. In the early days, the Greeks had the Gods descend onto the stage, to deliver pronouncements (the ultimate author intrusion), but authors have expanded it over time.

Just as I create individual narrators who have a particular insight or perspective (and a distinct 'voice' they use when describing incidents), some 3rd person Omni narrators know more than others. Just as the Greeks went overboard with God's speaking for the scriptwriter onstage, many authors prefer decidedly less 'godlike' narrators, who sound informal and personal, rather than detached and overly formal.

Again, the issue isn't that King used the 'I later learned' technique, it's that it came entirely out of left field. If he'd set the stage for it properly, no one would have questioned his using it. Simply starting with the story with a couple paragraph: "Looking back at my life, I've decided that ..." passage sets the stage for whatever comes later, when they later reveal what they had no right to know at the time.

My issues isn't with King for using that technique, merely for his being too damn lazy to use it appropriately.

Again, to use it properly, you need to establish the main character as a 1st-person omni narrator, even if he doesn't fit into that role for the majority of the story. But you don't just switch from 1st-person limited to 3rd-person Omni at the drop of a hat and not expect some significant grief over it.

Despite writing almost entirely in 3rd-Omni, I've NEVER had a 'godlike' narrator. My last posted story has the aliens who created the dilemma the character faced telling the story, but even their perspective was limited. It was more knowing than the MC's, but it was flavored by their unique perspective in the story, which eventually showed itself in the end of the story, casting the entire story in an entirely new light at the conclusion (a nice technique for springing a surprise ending in the conclusion).

Basically, Switch, we've coming to the same conclusion from two different directions. You're saying that "1st person is 1st person" and "3rd person is always 3rd", while I'm saying there are gradations in both 1st and 3rd, but that you stick to one and don't Switch horses mid-race.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

If he'd set the stage for it properly,


It's been years since I read "The Green Mile," but I believe King did set the stage. You know right from the beginning that the 1st-person narrator (the supervisor of death row) is telling a story that happened many years before (the surprise at the end is how many years).

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

It's been years since I read "The Green Mile," but I believe King did set the stage. You know right from the beginning that the 1st-person narrator (the supervisor of death row) is telling a story that happened many years before (the surprise at the end is how many years).

Ah, in that case, I rescind my objections. It's been a long time, and I never actually read the story (which never prevented anyone from telling me every single detail of the movie).

I've always admired Steven King the authority on writing, I was just never into the types of horror stories he told.

Replies:   Geek of Ages
Geek of Ages

@Crumbly Writer

I never actually read the story


I follow a rule of thumb that has served rather well in my time: "Never critique the writing style of a story that you haven't read."

sunkuwan

@Crumbly Writer

Another technique, which isn't widely used, is to alternate between first and third person passages—say in alternating chapters. Although it's jarring for readers, it shows the main character in first, while presenting things he has no idea of occurring behind the scenes. However, this isn't widely recommended because it's hard to carry off efficiently. (My first story was like this, and I've always regretting doing it!).


I am actually writing one of my novels like this. :/
First person is the main heroine. And third person are the "guest" perspectives from other characters.
It actually starts with the guest perspective as a cold opening.
I thought about this for months. The story needs those other perspectives for world building and important story threads that the heroine can't be conveniently be placed into. I could also do them as first person but that would uplift those guest perspectives in importance that they really don't have, in the story.

In the end, I want to have a 80/20 to 90/10 ratio of the main story chapters in first person to guest chapters in third person. Depends on the later chapters.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@sunkuwan

The story needs those other perspectives for world building and important story threads that the heroine can't be conveniently be placed into


That's one of the main purposes for 3rd-limited multiple.

sunkuwan

Also, in one of my stories that I wrote 6-7 years ago, I used a kind of side-narration. The story was very future-militaristic and every 3 to 5 chapters I included an Omni narration chapter that included:
- technical specs for a specific vehicle or ship,
- news articles/shows or talk shows that talk about whats currently happening in the story
- information about the continent, city or planet
- excerpts from history books of that universe, that display what happened in the story at that time (even if it is not accurate or just plain wrong and the reader knows it)
- maps, even just a quick new political map that shows the changed frontlines in the war.

In book 2, after a 300-year time jump, I included a side-story that told the important occurrences from different characters in those years and what happened directly after the first book ended.
Sometimes it was just there to fill the knowledge gap, other times, it played an integral part in the current or future chapter.

robberhands

... the usual disclaimer

Ross at Plat

@Switch Blayde

I believe King did set the stage. You know right from the beginning that the 1st-person narrator (the supervisor of death row) is telling a story that happened many years before

He sure did set the stage of many years before within the first two pages.
The opening sentence was:

This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain.

Some excerpts from the next two pages:

I presided over seventy-eight executions during my time at Cold Mountain ... One was a woman, Beverly McCall ... The governor called the next day around three in the afternoon, commuting her sentence to life ... Thirty-five years or so later - had to be at least thirty-five - I saw that name on the obituary page of the page ... She'd spent the last ten years of her life a free woman ... and below that, in smaller type, almost as an afterthought: Served Over Two Decades in Prison for Murder.

I think King established his right at the beginning to include one 'I only read the report later' by identifying the events in the story happened a very long time ago, and that the narrator was sufficiently enmeshed in the prison system, presiding over seventy-eight executions, to have had access to reports at a later time.

The jealousy of his detractors over this one is undeniable,

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