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How to convey that the POV character *does not understand* what's said in dialogue?

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The general advice is often to focus on the content of what's said in dialogue and just write it in the reader's language, largely whether the characters would use that language or not in-universe. See for example the answers to this recent question or for that matter universal translators.

However, what if you really want to show that the point-of-view character does not understand what the other characters say? As he or she sees it, they are speaking to each other, but the words are gibberish.

In the particular case I have in mind it's a made up language, but it could just as easily be a real human language.

Obviously one shouldn't overdo it (there's a reason why the general advice is for the author to translate, and I mostly agree with it), but for something like a few lines, is it acceptable to make up some such dialogue or should I just stick with something like "she looked at him and spoke in [their native tongue]; I had no idea what she said, but [the result was ...]"?

Put another way, in what situations might it be a good idea to actually write down the actual words, rather than a translation into the reader's language?

Why should this post be closed?

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5 answers

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I don't like reading made up languages, I'm going to skip over them anyway.

So I seldom write more than a word. My approach is to keep the POV character thinking and analyzing what she can, which I find more realistic. For example,

Carol spoke at length to David in a language I didn't understand, softly and calmly, but David seemed increasingly unhappy. He responded several times with a word that sounded like "Chee", I presumed it was an agreement. I thought it was rude to exclude me.

Finally, they turned to me, David with a polite little smile, Carol more serious.

She said, "David will be delighted to accompany you, I will return to the village for supplies. Wait for me at the ferry."

"Thank you both," I said. He looked more resigned than delighted, but I understood the language shift. She was letting David save face, she didn't want to coerce him in front of me.

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There is one very specific situation in which it is a good idea to write down the words spoken in the language that is not understood by the point-of-view character, and it occurs when you want the reader to experience vicariously, as closely simulated as possible, whatever the POV character is experiencing when he or she hears the language being spoken.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/8947. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I would refine the advice thus: Translate the viewpoint character's experience into the language of the reader.

That is, if the viewpoint character hears gibberish, you translate the experience of hearing gibberish into the reader's language.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/8904. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Depends on a few factors:

1) Is the narrative's point of view from the person who doesn't understand, the person who does, or omniscient?

CJ Cherryh writes books where the humans are the outsiders in non-human societies. Until the human catches up with the non-human language, the human sounds like Cookie Monster. "Me want food! Me went store, but no has coinage for to pay!" So that's the POV of the person who does understand the language, because the non-speaker is obviously not speaking correctly.

If the POV is from the non-speaker, then it depends on whether the person can pick out words or whether it's gibberish. See Dale's excellent answer for suggestions there.

If it's omniscient, you can switch or combine depending on who is the focus of a given scene.

2) Is the language one which the reader understands (or could understand) or not?

If your narrative is omniscient or you're writing from the POV of a speaker, you can choose to reproduce the actual words.

If your language is a human one, then just put it in. A reader who understands French (etc.) will follow the dialogue.

If your language is non-human, then you can use the non-human words, but you will need the translation, because the reader isn't going to follow either.

Regardless of your decision, if the words are important to the plot, then the reader eventually needs a translation. If they are not important, the translation is up to you.

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Another technique used by CJ Cherryh to indicate that her viewpoint character only understands the odd word is to indicate the incomprehensible parts by the hash character. For example,

"# # ship," the translator rendered the transmission from the newcomer. "# # ship # # you."

Cherryh uses this format specifically to mean the output of an automatic translating machine which is only partly programmed for the foreign (i.e. human) language but it could be used in other contexts.

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/16954. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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