How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction

Introducing the concept of foreignising in fiction

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a Basque man asks an American on a bus, ‘Where you go now? While the effect of foreignness is clear, how many readers would wonder how or why Hemingway achieved the effect? Very few, I think.

Except people like me. As a fiction author who happens to be an academic linguist, I’m interested in the techniques used to create foreign characters, foreign cultural milieux, locations, and mindsets. In this article I try to tease out the principles behind what I’ll call foreignising in fiction. In a subsequent article I’ll explore my own writing practice by analysing the foreignising techniques in my Siranoush Trilogy.

The article is organised around four questions:

  • What theories or principles of foreignising in fiction are available?
  • What is the purpose of foreignising in fiction?
  • What foreignising techniques do authors use?
  • What advice does my analysis suggest to authors?

Theories or principles of foreignising in fiction—or a lack thereof

My academic instincts told me to check out what others had written on the topic, for example in the field of literary stylistics, but I drew a blank. I did turn up references in the literature of translation studies, where a debate about foreignising versus domestication has bubbled on for decades with scholars wandering over a vast literary landscape to argue for and against a translation reading like a translation or an original text.

So with little help from my academic literature searches, I fell back on a few mentions on authors’ blogs on the lines of ‘try using a sprinkling of foreign words’, and ‘don’t confuse the reader’. An exception was Louise Harnby’s article on the problem of representing foreign accents. Jennifer Sommer’s well referenced piece on incorporating dialect into fiction is on the periphery of foreignising, but offers some good insights on reader acceptability.

It was time to shake out a set of propositions. I drew on a random selection of authors from Agatha Christie to Australia’s Michael Mohammed Ahmad to find out more about foreignising in fiction.

The purpose of foreignising in fiction

One approach to understanding foreignising is through the concept of voice—that complex bundle of stylistic features that make a piece of writing distinct. Voice is often specified as that of narrator, author or character, and I’ve tried to use these as lenses through which to examine foreignising. Each lens, as it turns out, reveals a range of different purposes for foreignising.

Foreignising through character

Perhaps the most famous example of a foreignised character in English literature is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose voice is embellished not just with words and phrases like mon ami and n’est ce pas, but also with an elaborate formality: For example, Poirot comprehends rather than understands. Christie’s purpose is evidently to construct an exotic and instantly recognisable character—brand recognition if you will. But what about the man on Hemingway’s bus? His faulty grammar marks him as a foreignised character, but he appears only once. I suspect he contributes to the setting along with the rocky hills of the Spanish landscape. This tiny sample shows the contribution of vocabulary and grammar to what I’ll call foreigner talk. But what about a foreign accent? Neither Christie nor Hemingway seem to attempt representing a French or Spanish accent through spelling, and my suspicion is that foreign accents tend to be rare in contemporary fiction (unlike in film; see Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for a virtuoso effort). 

Foreignising through narrator

I chose Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe as an example of foreignising through narrator. As autobiographical fiction, the novel offers observations into the everyday lives of a chaotic, sprawling immigrant family in a Sydney suburb with a large Muslim population. The main foreignising technique is for the narrator to insert Arabic expressions into dialogue and exposition, along with English translations. The Tribe is an invitation: Join the family and get a sense of being one of us.

Foreignising through author

Philip Kerr’s March Violets works quite differently. We aren’t invited in; we’re already immersed from the first words. Bernie Gunther is a streetwise, smart-talking Berlin private detective operating in 1936 under the cloud of the Nazi regime. The first-person English text presents Bernie and all his interlocutors as monolingual German-speaking. We observe all Bernie’s external observations and internal thoughts through a magic Germanising lens. The effect is to persuade the reader that they are (almost) experiencing a German text.

Cormac McCarthy’s foreignising approach in The Crossing is quite different from Kerr’s. In pre-war America, Billy Parham journeys into a squalid and violent Mexico. Billy speaks English and Spanish, and McCarthy saturates the text with Spanish words and dialogue, largely untranslated. The experience of reading The Crossing is akin to a language immersion class; skip over what you don’t understand, keep going, absorb what you can. McCarthy’s approach is uncompromising with its sparse punctuation and absent quotation marks: This is Billy Parham’s bilingual consciousness—don’t expect the experience to be easy. How different from Kerr: Let’s make things as easy as possible for us to pretend this is Bernie’s monolingual German consciousness.

Foreignising techniques

Kerr creates a Germanised backdrop by peppering the text with a limited set of untranslated terms like MurattisBerliner MorgenpostThe Alex, Kriminalinspektor, Sipo, and Kripo. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts them as understood; the meanings eventually become clear from the context. This is in sharp contrast to McCarthy’s many untranslated Spanish words—güeritomenudocaídas, etc.—and entire chunks of untranslated dialogue, which cannot always be understood from context. I’ve tried reading McCarthy with a dictionary to hand—a pointless approach; far better to cruise the text, experiencing it on multiple levels of comprehension.

Authors exploit definitions in a range of ways. Kerr uses explicit definitions sparingly, eg. D-Zug is explained as ‘the express train’, and KZ as a ‘concentration camp’. McCarthy gives us an occasional helping hand by having Billy paraphrase in English a piece of Spanish dialogue in an internal reflection or a response to a speaker. I call this an implied definition.

Ahmad’s The Tribe is heavy with explicit definitions, in line with the book’s purpose to invite us into an alien world; unlike McCarthy, Ahmad doesn’t want us to misunderstand anything. A basic technique is to define an Arabic word at its first occurrence and then offer it untranslated on the assumption we’ll have learned the meaning. Sometimes a word is left untranslated, e.g. aa-jeen, which is easily understood from context as ‘dough’. Words like yulla and inshallah are presumably familiar to Ahmad’s readership.

Tips for authors

Here are a few tips based on the framework developed here:

  • Decide why you want to foreignise, e.g. to create a memorable character, to enhance a setting, to bring the reader into a foreign consciousness.
  • Determine the appropriate voice to foreignise, e.g. character, narrator, author.
  • Think about the amount of foreignising you expect your readership to tolerate.
  • Choose the techniques will you use, e.g. foreigner talk, untranslated foreign words and phrases, foreign words and phrases with definitions.

If you’ve found this article useful, please let me know. I’d be delighted to receive comments on foreignising in fiction from other authors and linguists.

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Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell

Stuart Campbell was born in London but has lived most of his adult life in Sydney, Australia. He was formerly a Professor of Linguistics, but has been writing fiction since 2011. His latest novel is The True History of Jude. Find out about his books here.

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