Sunday, July 14, 2013


When there's a character in your book that is from a different culture, say for example your protagonist travels to Egypt or China or any place that is culturally different, he/she might come across local characters. To make them believable, you'll need to have them think and talk from within their culture, translating their thoughts into English, but still maintaining the originality.

An Egyptian person is usually very polite and extremely docile in his/her speech with strangers or foreigners, for example. Even if the character gets angry, the kind of curses or reactions is different than let's say an American or a European character.

A Chinese person would refer to local sayings and ancient stories a lot in their speech. Many cannot be translated right, losing their essence, so it's best to have your protagonist try to figure out the meaning without providing the literal translation. Let the reader help him/her get to the point of that reference. It gives a sense of accomplishment rather than disappointment by the reader for not understanding the real meaning. 

If you're trying to translate the entire book to another language, then word choice becomes the issue. For example, if the character is poor, hungry and tired, and you want to translate that to one of the Indian languages, say Urdu or Hindi, then the expression you use should indicate extreme hunger or starvation to go along with the cultural setting. If your character is deliriously happy, and you want to translate that into Arabic for example, you would want to use words that indicate intoxication to convey the message. 

It is never literal translation. Learning about a certain culture in terms of history and geography is always a good start. But I would recommend watching movies with subtitles if you can, and notice body language with certain expressions. Those are clear indications on how people convey speech, even if you don't know the words. Reaching out to people in the academic fields of those cultures also helps. You'd be surprised how much people would be happy to talk about their cultures and backgrounds. 

Lilas Taha is a novelist, winner of the 2017 International Book Awards  and is the author of Shadows of Damascus and Bitter Almonds.