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Our Words Are Not Your Spice Rack

Last Tuesday, the release of American Dirt, a book about the Mexican immigrant experience written by a white American woman, sparked major controversy. While the chief criticism seemed to be the white author’s inaccurate and ultimately irresponsible treatment of a subject and people which she knew of only secondhand, one of the many issues raised was the book’s handling of Spanish language words. The English speaking author apparently filled the book with Spanish words, italicizing them to help clue in the audience, presumably made up mostly of English language speakers, that what they were reading was in fact a foreign language. A parody hashtag #mylatinanovel even popped up, in which Latinx writers peppered their tweets with with Spanish words, sometimes hilariously spoofing the writer’s use of Spanish words. I found the discussion of foreign language words — whether to italicize them or not, whether to use them at all, or not, timely. I’d recently had a similar discussion with my critique partner, Bruce, in which I’d explained why, although most of my novels are set outside of the English speaking world, I avoid foreign language words in my writing.

I’m not monolingual. In fact, I speak five different languages, with varying degrees of ability, from entirely fluent (Mandarin Chinese) to advanced beginner (Swedish). You might think, with the many languages at my disposal, my writing would be positively full of non-English words. However, I’m actually a big advocate of the old “less is more” adage when it comes to foreign language words in English language works. In fact, my objection to foreign language words in English language works stems from the same reasoning that objects to the italicizing of foreign language words. The argument against italicization of non-English words holds that the practice is othering — that by italicizing the words, the writer centers English as the norm, and the foreign language words as something other than the norm.

While italicizing the words others the words themselves, the very use of the words, particularly by people who do not speak the language in question, is often nothing more than a form of orientalism, of othering in and of itself. The use of foreign language words is often meant as a flashing neon sign that this world is Not Like Ours. “They’re part of my worldbuilding,” a writer said to me recently. Without those words, the argument goes, how is the reader to know that this is a foreign land? I’ve heard the argument applied equally to fantasy, historical fiction, and contemporary, and my objection applies equally to all three. The writer that uses foreign language words as a signal, as a dash of “exotic” flavor, has failed in worldbuilding, but succeeded in centering the Anglophone world as the norm.

When foreign language words are used for easily translatable concepts, such as units of measure, or foods, universal concepts and yes, even familial relationships, the result is often the implicit message that this culture is so foreign, so different, so other, that their words impart a different meaning. An abuela is somehow different from a grandmother, a laoshi different from a teacher. It’s a signal to the reader that in this foreign place, the very words and concepts that we consider ordinary, are strange and different in this new place. When we think of the Japanese word “sensei” we conjure up a different image from the one we conjure when we think of the word “teacher,” even though a sensei is also a person who stands in front of a class and hands out tests and grades homework. And yet, the word has been used in such a way that most non-Japanese speakers certainly think that a sensei is something deeper than a teacher, something more profound. Are there certain sensei – student relationships that are more like a master to an apprentice, a deeper and more meaningful kind of partnership? Certainly. Just as there are teachers in the English speaking world who serve as mentors to their students. The only reason to use sensei instead of teacher is to signal that Japan is an exotic, foreign place, a place that transcends everyday concepts, a place that defies understanding. In Japan they don’t have teachers, they have senseis. These kinds of usage tell the readers that foreign places are inherently incomprehensible and untranslateable, forever other, forever just slightly out of reach.

There is an important distinction to be made, between legitimate code switching and throwing foreign language words in for a bit of spice. Code switching, or the process of switching back and forth between two different languages or dialects depending upon social context. If your characters code-switch in dialogue, this might indeed be a legitimate expression of their multilingualism, but still, writers need to be aware of what situations usually bring about code-switching. My two children call their father “baba,” but when they are speaking about him to other people, they refer to him as “dad.” In China, when I speak with in English with other English speaking people, there were some Chinese words we routinely used no matter what language the conversation itself used, like “kuaidi” for the courier services that delivered goods purchased online. If I were speaking with someone who did not speak Chinese, however, I wouldn’t use the word kuaidi because a non Chinese speaker wouldn’t understand it. Instead, I’d probably use the word “courier,” even though it isn’t a word commonly used in American English. Context matters, and ultimately, so does identity. If you speak a second or third language fluently you understand instinctively which situations might call for which language. If you are monolingual, your assumptions about when and why people code switch are likely to be incorrect. People who speak multiple languages fluently should feel free to use those languages however they like. Monolinguals, however, need to proceed with caution.

In my own writing,  I often (not always — there are some exceptions) choose translation over including non-English words. I translate words that do not exist in English, and ones that do. I want my reader to understand my world, not exoticize it. For instance, in one of my novels, I mention a food that is called, in Chinese, “chou doufu.” The words mean, literally, “stinky bean curd.” This concept doesn’t exist in the English speaking world, and I could have called this snack chou doufu in my novel, in order to add a slice of “authenticity,” but in fact, I wanted my readers to understand what chou doufu is, so I called it “stinky bean curd.”

If I want to worldbuild, I can do it through description and detail, rather than using words like spices, sprinkling them here and there to liven up a bland manuscript. Most importantly, my worldbuilding is not centered around the idea that my world is inherently foreign or other. After all, the world I often write in, although not the world I live in now, is the world that was my home for nearly two decades. It was never other to me, just as it isn’t other for the millions of people who live there. I do not need to emphasize for my readers that my world is foreign, on the contrary, I need to write it so that my reader understands that even though the setting is unfamiliar, it is not incomprehensible.

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