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Christoph Waltz in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds

I’m working away on Book #3. It’s not just set in the usual Stoneybatter and Smithfield locations but in France – where some characters speak only French, and others don’t know much/any French.

Fortunately I’ve a fully paid-up Artistic Licence, so my novel will be able to convey this multilingual Babel of confusion in 100% English prose, right?

Or maybe not. Peut-être pas. Maybe it needs a few bits in French too. But how much French? Merde – I’m not sure.

Are there rules for this? If so, there isn’t any rulebook you can look up. Not one I can find on Amazon anyway. So here goes – these are my very rough notes of what I’ve deduced so far…

Rule #1: Make everyone speak English (mostly)

Let’s start with one extreme approach: the one used in those old black-and-white war movies where the English officers have stiff upper lips accents and are all called Ponsenby, and all the German characters speak English – even to each other.

The Germans also say “Vot is your name?” a lot, and “For you, Tommy, der Var is over,” and make you sound like a clock: “Vee haf ways of making you tock.”

Or take war action comics; some of us, even boys with Irish childhoods, grew up on a diet of theses very non-PC comics. The Germans in these storyboards did speak Geramn, but they had terribly restricted vocabularies, despite many years in Hauptschule.

Their dialogue mainly consisted of Schnell! Raus! Halt! Hände hoch! Nein! Verboten! Gott in Himmel! and Kommen sie bitte mit uns!!!

(A note in passing: just as all nouns in German take a capital letter, all German dialogue in these comics must end with at least one exclamation mark!!!)

If this all sounds very crude in retrospect, it’s because it was very crude. The comic authors treated us like Dummkopfs! As if all the Schweinehunds needed to do was sprinkle in a couple of Achtungs! Sieg Heils! and Ja, mein Führers! here and there, and we’d be totally convinced that these were three-dimensional German characters? Nein nein nein!!!

So the “100% English” approach of old war films is way too unrealistic, and the war comic version of a foreign language is a bit bizarre. Let’s start again…

Rule #1: Everyone speaks English

Rule #1: Characters use their own language

At the opposite end of the spectrum is linguistic verisimilitude. Where most characters stay in their own language most of the time.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a perfect example. SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa, the Nazi character played by brilliant Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, waltzes his way through the film in German, French, English and Italian. I also seem to recall several daft moments of wonderfully butchered Italian by the American GI characters.

As for a certain crucial tavern scene (no plot spoilers), it’s the one where both language and body language – the Americans’ ability to talk proper German and pass for Germans – are a matter of life or death. Literally.

The film is about language at several levels. As Tarantino himself puts it:

Oh, a case can be made that the entire film is about language. That’s not even a subtext, it’s one of the texts of the movie. Obviously I don’t like those contrivances where everyone is speaking English, or the Nazis are played by members of the RSC or Christopher Plummer or whatever. I don’t like that. Look, I don’t mind it in 1960s movies; it is a contrivance, and we accept it from back then. Actually, it’s one of the things that makes those movies, and any movies that use that technique now, look old-fashioned. Those are, like, your Dad’s World War II movies, and I actually don’t think someone of your generation buys that. It actually makes you take it less seriously. Can you imagine an Iraq war movie where the Iraqis are speaking English? You wouldn’t buy it for a second.

– Quentin Tarantino, interviewed in the BFI’s ‘Sight & Sound’ magazine

Rule #2: add subtitles?

In Tarantino’s film only about 30% of the dialogue is English, yet English-speaking viewers don’t need to know any German/French/Italian to get the drift. It’s all down to the subtitles.

Sorry. I’m assuming you don’t mind subtitles, that you don’t go sniffy at subtitled movies and Scandi-noir TV series, right?

When a film has a good translator/subtitler, the subtitles seem relatively seamless and the whole experience continues to be fairly immersive. Yet there’s one tiny hitch: the pages of a novel have no direct equivalent of movie subtitles. (Footnotes, for example, would be far more disruptive and harder to follow.)

So I’ll need to find alternative techniques…

Rule #2: add subtitles?

Rule #2: at least find the right balance

For an English-language novel, the general convention seems to be to stick to English for the vast bulk of the dialogue, and to turn up the French volume knob at certain times and places. When? Where? How often? What is the right balance?

For the sections of my story set in France let’s assume that:

  • Too little French will dilute the sense of Frenchiness and shatter suspension of disbelief
  • But too much français may come across as tokenistic, also undermining l’incrédulité and (unlike film subtitles) seriously disrupting the flow. Yes, mes amis, you must avoid presenting obstacles to readers with little or no French. While my English-language readers (aka “you lot”) are intelligent types, I can’t assume that all my readers have “sufficient” French

Perhaps I might be able to deduce the “right balance” if I flick through my English-language translations of Maigret and Poirot, as well as modern novels written for an English-speaking market but set in France.

Rule #3: stick to the French job titles

This next rule seems straightforward enough. My inclination is to go with French titles throughout, from Monsieur le Président Smith to Madame le (le?) juge Jones.

Yet French cops often seem to end up with English titles, do they not, CHIEF INSPECTOR Maigret? Blast. Or bof as they say in French.

Rule #4: the same goes for places and institutions

Here’s another dilemma: do you use the local spelling of a placename if it’s different to the English-language spelling?

Yeah, that kinda makes sense. Marseille rather than Marseilles, Köln (when in Germany) rather than Cologne.

But things can get messy when you’re dealing with the geography of a place like Paris. I don’t know Paris very well; most of my knowledge has been gleaned from watching the final stage of Le Tour de France each year on TV. Sad eh? Cities are big messy things. The natives are well able to handle this messiness and know far more about it than us mere Ryanair Weekenders.

For example, the locals will know what you mean if you write “She took me to her apartment in the sixteenth.” No need to explicitly mention an arrondissement, or explain that it’s shorthand for the 16e Arrondissement. The locals already have a mental map of how the city is laid out, what this particular district means in its social, economic, historical entirety.

Not me though. I know about as much about Paris arrondissements as a typical Parisian would know about northside Dublin postal codes (and the difference between Darndale and Donnybrook).

Fortunately my new book isn’t set anywhere near any Parisian arrondissement. Instead, I am sticking to the far more stripped down geographies of your typical town or village in the south of France: the usual mix of mairie, gendermerie, boulangerie, boulevard and brasserie, Préfecture, Palais de Justice, pétanque court et cetera.

Probably best to refer to all these places and institutions in French, n’est ce pas?

Rule #5: scatter good lingo clues here and there

Hold on. Suppose some readers still don’t have a clue what a boulangerie is?

The trick is to give them a clue, construct your sentences in such a way that they don’t depend on readers having to know what the French words mean to get the gist. On the contrary, let readers deduce the meaning of the French word(s) from the context of the sentence.

(Do you do cryptic crosswords? Well I think that’s what it should be like. I hate ‘simple’ crosswords – where you either know the word from its definition or you don’t. With cryptic crosswords, despite all their flashy wordplay, you usually get several bites at the cherry, and you’re not just competing with a dictionary.)

I’d prefer if this deductive process was a subtle one, though. It shouldn’t be about inserting crude hints in the surrounding text for my readers back in Ireland, along the lines of…

The boulangerie?  Ah yes, elementary my dear Watson, you mean the place where they sell that excellent range of boulange? It’s the best thing since sliced pan.

Instead, check out how Ian Fleming liberally sploshes French words and phrases around in Casino Royale. Bear in mind that his main target audience would be a male postwar readership, many of whom would have very little French.

The French words add a French flavour, yet they don’t leave poor readers lost or with tons of translation work to do. In fact, when the French vocab seems to be becoming too much, Fleming makes a sort of virtue of this. In this respect, some of his characters are like his readers: they have a similar lack of lingo.

In chapter two of Casino Royale, for example, M is reading a dossier written by the Head of section S. This memo uses a little too much French for M’s liking, such as the reference to the “Loi tendant a la Ferméture des Maisons de Tolerance et au Renforcement de la Lutte contre la Proxénétisme”.

Any guesses what la proxénétisme is? Me neither. So Fleming gets M to get S on the intercom:

Head of S.?”


“What the hell does this word mean?” He spelt it out.

“Pimping, sir.”

“This is not the Berlitz School of Languages, Head of S. If you want to show off your knowledge of foreign jaw-breakers, be good enough to provide a crib. Better still, write in English.

Nothing like a bit of S and M on the intercom, eh? So that leads me to the next rule…

Rule #6: allow some characters (but not all of them) to span the language gaps

This is a good secret weapon, un arme secrète: if some of your characters are polyglots and others monoglots, that mix of linguistic enablers and disabled will allow for mediation, translation, deliberate confusion, multilingual misinterpretation and so on. Perfect in a crime mystery, right?

And by “polyglots” I don’t mean characters who happen to think they know French because they learned loads of daft, obscure, useless French phrases in school, such as, er, “The mouse is underneath the table.” No, that doesn’t count. Cue Eddie Izzard…

Rule #7: mind your menus

My Moss Reid character has a bit of a goo (as we Irish say) or a goût (as the French say) for good grub. So – besides the occasional dead body or two – your typical “Moss Reid mystery” will have a good few restaurant kitchens, several digressions about recipes, and lots of meals and cooking.

I expect most of my readers, even those who don’t consider themselves to be good at French, will still be well able to handle fairly common words from the world of kitchens, because French is to some extent “The” international language of kitchens and cuisine: sous-chef, sommelier, sauté, flambé, apéritif…

Many French dishes, ingredients, culinary conventions and food brands travel well too. A chapter can afford to chuck in some foie gras here, a splash of Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Pouilly-Fumé there, a few hors d’œuvres (can I tempt you with an amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule?), a dash of Noilly Prat and a crème catalane for afters. Pas de problème.

But best not to get too blasé. Suppose English speakers are perfectly familiar with a foreign loanword for a dish or ingredient, such as sauerkraut, but the French don’t use such a loanword (sauerkraut is German – a French menu would use choucroute garnie)?

Then there is the temptation to use the French word(s) to “big up” a dish, much as some British/Irish restaurants refer to un jus, when the straightforward English equivalent (“watery, badly made gravy”) will do perfectly fine thank you very much. There’s enough real-life restaurant prose suffering from Unnecessary French Syndrome.

For a novel’s scenes set in France, though, I reckon we should be allowed a certain degree of latitude.  Who’d want plain old fish soup when you’ve the more, er, moreish sounding soup de poisson?

Rule #8: caulis and cabbages

Hercule Poirot is Belgian. He doesn’t speak English fluently. His use of the occasional French word or phrase is perfectly justified. But did he really go around saying “mon petit chou” all the time as a term of endearment?

Am I imagining that? But even if he did, was he really calling someone a little cabbage? Was he possibly – my latest theory anyway – referring to choux, as in the puffy pastry stuff?

If French characters are going to slip back into their native language while talking to English speakers, maybe best to stick with the most common real-life phrases. The kind of stuff that French chef Raymond Blanc still uses in his English, despite living in England for many decades. Sacre bleu? Mais oui! Absolument. Oh là là.

He’d never say “ooh la la” though (without any accents and with one too many “o’s”). That’s the watered down English version of it.

I’ll also need to check whether a French character of a particular age uses such-and-such a phrase. It’s a bit like how you’ll not hear young Aussies saying “strewth”, “flaming heck” or “Sheila” nowadays (unless referring to someone actually called Sheila).

Rule #9: What about all that tu vs vous stuff?

If you’re doing a novel in French and it’s being translated into English, obviously it’s up to the unsung translator person to deal with all the subtleties in the source language that have no direct equivalents in the target language, but which count as part of the story.

A prime example is tutoiement – whether to use tu or vous. They both mean “you” in English, but in French it’s not so simple. “Tu” and “vous” have clusters of meanings and connotations in terms of the relationships between people, reflecting polite/casual attitudes, status, deference, age differences and all that stuff.

Geroges Simenon sometimes makes this explicit in his Maigret novels, such as in Maigret et le tueur (Maigret and the Killer) or Maigret et l’homme tout seul (Maigret and the Loner). For an analysis of Maigret’s tutoiement with his regular sidekicks, check out Murielle Wenger’s essay on “Les quatre fidèles de Maigret” – there’s an English translation of it here.

Rule #10: Pretentious, moi?

The Maigret examples (unlike the Poirot ones) are translations. For crime novels written in English, though, a fairly frequent technique seems to be to bung a bit of French at the end of lines of dialogue. As if this little twist will make them essentially French my friends. Yes, mes amis

  • “We can often tell much about the killer by the way his does his evil deeds, n’est-ce pas?”
  • “A la prochaine fois, Mister Bond.”
  • “A ta santé, Mossie mate.”
  • “Absolument,” Erica said.Vous êtes magnifiques.”

I find this particular technique a bit laboured, a bit of a cliché. It’s nearly as bad as the comicbook Germans. But there may be more to it than that.

Up to the 1970s or thereabouts there was a certain trend in English literature in which authors would pepper their prose with French phrases, either to show off (what a learned author I am) or as a shorthand about their characters. “Knowing a bit of French” indicated an educated and possibly sophisticated character, rather than an arrogant pretentious upper-class twat.

Hence in many of the Poirot books – which are mainly set between the wars – the English characters use far more French than Hercule does. In a modern setting, though, I’m very wary of this way of “Frenchifying” the prose. It can be overdone – even in scenes set in an English-speaking country – and reminds me of Miss Piggy’s catchphrase, “Pretentious? Moi?”,

Above all, it bears little relation to how people actually switch back and forth between French and English in real life.

As Peter Rozovsky points out in his recent blog post about Hopscotch (1975) by Brian Garfield:

My only quibble is with Garfield’s use of French words at odd times in the book’s Paris section. Characters don’t get out of elevators on the third floor, but on the third étage. They drop jetons, rather than tokes, into public phones. Pour the hell quoi, Brian?

Spot on, Pierre.

Mind you, on this side of the Pond our characters don’t get out of elevators, but that’s another story.

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One of those old war comics where the Germans have limited vocab such as "Schnell! Schnell!"