Saturday 30 August 2014

Your Character Speaks Igbo But You Don’t

Signs of a problem: Igbo dictionary starting to look tatty.

The symptoms: frustration; eye-strain.

Despite writing for a British audience, having no contact with south-eastern Nigerians and not knowing a word of Igbo, you decide to create a chatty main character who only speaks Igbo and, in order to maintain realism, you decide to write all of his dialogue in Igbo.

This is a mistake. Do not write a character who only speaks a language that the vast majority of your readers cannot decipher. Yes, there is a place for bilingual books, but it’s not here.

Unless your character is in some way disadvantaged so that the only words of Igbo he ever speaks are, “Hello”, “My name is Madu”, “I am eighteen”, “Where is the swimming pool?”, readers are going to give up trying to understand what he’s saying and, more than likely, give up on your book.

Of course, you could translate Ada’s dialogue, but that would significantly slow the pace.

If you really are determined to write a main character’s dialogue in a foreign language, find somebody who is fluent in the language, instead of trying to work it out for yourself using a dictionary or, God forbid, online translation.

For example: take the typical English phrase, “I am a wizard with a fondness for tasty witch titties.”

Translated into Igbo and back to English using an automatic online translator, it becomes:

“I am a professional and I enjoy the sweet witch Levy.”

Such a translation disaster puts me in mind of a joke I once heard: a man, wanting to explain why he was leaving his Russian lover, typed the phrase, ‘You have a beautiful body but a mean spirit’ into an online translator. Instead, the girl received, ‘Meat’s lovely but I don’t like vodka’.

If none of your readers understand a word of Igbo, your translation mistakes will probably go unnoticed, but it’s always a good idea to aspire to writing a novel that’s not vulnerable to errors.

1 comment:

  1. I was not aware that “I am a wizard with a fondness for tasty witch titties” was a common English phrase, but I'd like to meet the people who do use it frequently. They sound like fun.