Monday, June 21, 2010

When your characters speak Spanish

I'm facing a conundrum in my WIP. It's an adventure thriller set in South America and suburban Chicago. It involves primarily Americans, although the antagonist is Colombian.

My problem is this: When writing about Juan Pablo Marquez (the antagonist), do I have him speak Spanish or English? Obviously, he and his companions would speak Spanish in real life, but how about in my novel?

I've considered doing what Tom Clancey does when writing about Russians. He has them speak English, but in a sort of stilted way. He also peppers his dialogue with Russian phrases and names so the reader knows he's reading about Russians. It can be a little cheesy at times, but I think overall it's effective.

I've not encountered this issue in any of the writing books I've read. What would you do?

As a side note, we just had the most spectacular thunderstorm go through. It was one of those majestic storms filled with sound and fury. Some of the thunderclaps were so loud they literally shook the foundation of the house and rattled the walls. It was quite impressive. And the best part is, we didn't lose power.

At this writing, we are waiting to see if Brennan's baseball game is a go tonight. After a long and very hot weekend that featured five games in three days, I'm kind of rooting for a postponement. But we shall see.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts on my language problem. Hope your Monday is going as well as mine is!


  1. One thing I've noticed about all my Hispanic friends is that they speak Spenglish. Always. So I would say that because your antagonist is Colombian, though he may be speaking English, in real life, he'd be throwing some Spanish in there, too. And a good point to remember is that each country in S. America has their own little brand of Spanish. They're about as similar to each other as American English is to British English.

    Not that I think you should make it too, difficult, of course. But let me relate a short story. A Hispanic friend of mine was telling me that a certain car company named one of their cars something (I can't remember the spanish name or the country that took offense), but in one of the countries in S. America, that particular spanish word was a derogatory term for a mastibator. Obviously, this is a humorous story, but the car company lost a lot of business in that country. In other countries, the word was harmless.

    I'm sure that if you did a little research into Colombian Spanish, you could find a nice way to blend your character's dialects without making it cheesy.

    And thunderstorms are amazing! I'm so jealous. We haven't had a good one in weeks.

  2. I would say that they should speak in English. Let the reader assume that they are speaking in spanish to each other. It's like in a movie, subtitles only work for most audiences if they are done very briefly. Otherwise it gets annoying and the reader starts paying more attention to the way they're speaking to each other and not what's being said.

    I would say, the only time to actually write it in spanish, is if the spanish characters are specifically trying to keep the protagonist in the dark about their conversation. That's my $.02

  3. Voto por inglés, también confundiendo de otra manera.

  4. Hmm... I say write whichever way makes the characters sound more authentic.

  5. Let's see, if my Spanish isn't TOO rusty, I believe Marty is voting for English because it would be confusing the other way. Correct, senor?

  6. ¡Usted está correcto, Senor! ¡Hiyo!