I have a quandary. I have a scene in which two characters are speaking, both of whom are not English speakers, but of course, since it would be meaningless to have a page of dialogue the reader can't understand, it is written in English. In this story's case, it's a historical, the speakers are Apaches. Traditionally, historicals featuring a scene like this would write the dialogue in choppy, stilted English. But this doesn't make sense to me. The scene is in the POV of the Apache, and while I wasn't in that time period, I view it much the same as if you walked in on someone having a phone conversation with a friend in a rapid exchange of Spanish, French, German, what have you. They are not stumbling over their words.
On the other hand, I'm not sure if I should assume the reader "gets" that these two Apaches would be speaking in their own native tongue. And someone suggested to me to use the stilted English, which doesn't seem POV-true to me. How do I remain POV-true to the character yet provide the cultural clues the reader needs to not assume they are speaking English?
Camy here: I personally agree with you that the stilted English option wouldn’t be very true to character or to point of view. It also might be considered a bit non-politically correct to show the Apache language as stilted English when it’s nothing of the sort.
I have seen this in other books and it has worked quite well. You have two options, both them very similar:
1) Start the dialogue with a line in the language (in italics to show a foreign language), then switch to English, letting the reader know the conversation continues in the Apache language.
For example (since I don’t know Apache, I’m going to use Japanese):
”Genki desuka?” Eleanor asked.
Chikako tried to dry her eyes on her sleeve. Thank goodness Eleanor knew Japanese so Chikako didn’t have to struggle to communicate in English, not now with the way she was feeling. She continued in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks for asking. The doctor said I’ll get the results next week Monday.”
Eleanor smiled ruefully. “It’s hard waiting, isn’t it? I felt that way with my breast cancer a few years ago.”
2) Start the dialogue directly with an indication that it’s in the foreign language. The only problem with this is that some readers might miss the fact the dialogue is not supposed to be in English.
When Marta left them to go to the buffet table to load up, Chikako turned to Eleanor and asked in Japanese, “Who did the cooking for tonight?”
“Sylvia. She got her sisters to help her, though.”
I hope this helps!
If any of you guys have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!