Next week, Solarpunk Winters hits the newsstands, and with it, my story “Glâcehouse.” As I said before, “Glâcehouse” is the story of two Canadian girls (one French, one English) trying to bring winter back from under the glass and out into a Republique du Québec where it’s muggy and rainy in Montréal in December. It’s about ecology, and how the seasons form culture and identity.
But most of all, it’s about language.
Mackenzie and Marie-Pier speak in a canadien patois that ebbs and flows between English and French on the turn of a syllable. Mackenzie’s shaky French creates a barrier between herself and the people around her in the heart of la Republique. Marie-Pier’s French shifts between “carefully international” and politic and the near-incomprehensible Sanguenayan drawl. When and who and how a character uses French says a lot about who they are, in this ‘verse.
And I had to write it entirely in English, because that’s what Solarpunk Winters is published in.
This isn’t the first time I’ve played with multilinguals, but I feel it’s my most successful. Looking back over my work, it’s rare that I wrote a monolingual anytime in the last decade, and only a handful of times I wrote a monolingual Anglophone. And I don’t gloss over it, I do everything I can to write multilingually…
Here’s how I do it.
Handling individual words and phrases, anything less than a sentence, is advice you’ll find in any decent How To Write SF/F guide.
“Si on veut indiquer le sens…” He said. If you want to indicate the meaning…
“Then you can use italics.” She replied.
You can alternately use tried-and-true Poirot Speak, with certainly has a, ‘ow you say, je ne sais quoi. It only asks un poco words and phrases to salt through the dialogue or narration. But yes, do not be ashamed of it, I had Gooch speaking fluent Poirot back in No Time.
But what, I kept having to ask over and over this last decade, do you write a character’s thoughts, a whole conversation, even a whole foreign point-of-view …in English?
Let’s ask Mackenzie and Marie-Pier:
“There’s a story” Marie-Pier said, “brought from la Finis-terre to la Fin du Monde on the other coast of the Atlantic. It tells a little like this:
There was a time before Paris, when a splendid city carved itself into the Atlantic, past the rocks of Brittany. They called it the City of Ys, Ker-Ys in the Breton tongue, and the Celtish king Gradlon ruled it. He inspired you English your King Arthur, isn’t that so.”
“Pardon me, I’m not English, I am Albertan.”
“You cried at Queen-Mother Meghan’s funeral, you’re English.” Marie-Pier smiled. She switched back: “She was a beautiful, shining city, her land reclaimed from the white waters of the Channel, the sea kept out by great locks which only Gradlon could open, with the key around his neck. For a time, she was good, but soon her glory rotted to debauchery, and one night, someone took the key and opened the locks, flooding the city beneath the Atlantic waves. Some people, they tell it was Gradlon, which is unjust to me. Some tell of his daughter Dahut, the fallen woman, who Gradlon threw her from his horse into the hungry waters as he fled. Some tell it was the Devil himself, because he is everywhere in these stories.”
She switched to the English: “But always there is a king, a key, a city, and the sea.”
“The history of Atlantis.” Mackenzie replied. “The Deluge. A history in every culture.”
“Goddamn on Atlantis!” Marie-Pier said, with unusual force. “They do not tell this story in English, or Polish or Chinese. They only tell it in French.”
“Yes, and Breton.” Marie-Pier smiled at being corrected, her usual savoir faire falling back into place.
There were certainly some places where I italicized, because la Finis-terre (“World’s End” in Bretagne) and la Fin du Monde (“World’s End” in Québec, also a very good beer) is a pun that doesn’t work without the original terms. But instead of mass-translating and doubling everything up, I rendered it into English…a very French English.
“She was a beautiful, shining city” rather than “It was.” “Some people, they tell” instead of “Some say.” “Which is unjust to me” instead of “which seems unjust.” All of those reflect the grammar of a French speaker without imitating it. It’s proper English (mostly) but, as my mother’s professors always told her, “only you would ever phrase it that way!”
Judicious use of French-Canadian turns of phrase help, too: Marie-Pier refers to the evening meal as “supper” with other Francophones but “dinner” to Mackenzie. Mackenzie “alights” Marie-Pier’s Prius. They “do snow-shoeing” and Marie-Pier makes a bilingual comment about having “a Devil of a time” sneaking around at night.
Mackenzie’s dialogue in crooked French, especially her long technical description on the way to the river, is replete with perfectly rendered technical terminology like “refraction index” and “albedo,” but she struggles with basic terms and says things like “very much worse in the here.” Because, as a speaker of four living and three classical languages, that is exactly how it works, especially when you’re trying to speak a second language close to your own which shares much of the technical language, like French and English do.
In the example above, I tagged when the code-switching happened, but later on dispensed with it. All my readers so far have been able to detect the switch when Mackenzie says “This sweater’s too darn thin! Thank you much for the coat of you.” In other stories, my Spanish speakers use the plainspeech (a trick I stole from Hemingway, who had similar problems to solve in A Farewell to Arms), Mandarin-speakers drop superfluous pronouns, Cantonese-speakers shake hands and ask ‘eaten today?’, and speakers of perfectly intelligible Indo-Nigerian English stare with bemused wonder at a Yankee’s incomprehensible, archaic dialect.
Before “Glâcehouse,” I think my favorite multilingual performance was a story I wrote where the POV character thinks (and narrates) in Mandarin, and when she speaks English to the Anglophone antagonist, it comes out stiff and formal but perfectly good, but when he speaks Mandarin…it’s You No Take Candle. The fact that he was a pompous (and subtly racist) ass definitely helped.
When I was seventeen, learning French, one of the greatest gifts my langue paternelle gave me was another set of glasses. In English, the world is colored red, mais en français, c’est bleu. Mandarin has an Imperial yellow lens, Cantonese is qing. And when I switched glasses, and switched back and forth, I learned I had been wearing lenses my whole life…and the world had so much more color in it than I ever knew.
These are some of the ways I’ve been able to convey multilingualism, and convey something of that color of life in many tongues, using only one language. Especially when it comes to non-European languages, you have to be aware of how you sound to others, but drawing down the grammar, the underlying logic, of the tongue your character speaks with and letting it infuse the English you’re writing in…that’s the only way I know to really live and breathe in that world without living there.
PS: There’s still three days left to sign up for my Patreon early! In addition to the other lovely lagniappe my patrons get, if you sign up before the 6th, you can also get a postcard from the likes of Gooch, Mackenzie, or Marie-Pier. Help support my fiction today!