Friday, August 11, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Hocking Deutsch

This week on Ask Mr. Writing Person, we talk to Bart Wensleydale from Embarrass, Wisconsin about flatulent German dialogue and niños de enchiladas con carne. [Ed: Enchilada children with meat, huh?] Bart has a burning question about a scene he's writing with some foreign-language dialogue:

Q. I have a scene with Germans, and I want to make it authentic by having them speak German, but I don't know German. I've heard I can get away without it, but I'd rather not.

A. Burt, they don't need to speak German for it to be authentic.

Q. They don't?

A. No. They only need to speak in something that sufficiently resembles German. Tell me, what percentage of your readers do you think can actually speak or even understand German?

Q. Probably very few. Less than one percent.

A. Exactly. If we can sneak a reasonable facsimile by them, they'll never know the difference.

Q. Isn't that lying?

A. No, it's an ecumenical façade, which is Latin for "a lie endorsed by the Church."

Q. Okay, sure. Um, what's that little thing under the "c" in "façade"?

A. Most biologists believe it's a flagellum.

Q. Fascinating.

A. Now, I do know German; however, I will pretend for the moment that I do not in order to illustrate how you might go about writing in it. Do you have an outline of the dialogue for this scene?

Q. Yeah. This is three teenagers, Hansel, Helmut, and Monika, getting together to plot someone's premature death. They've just met in their secret hideout:
Hansel greeted everyone coldly. As he sat, Helmut reported that he had had to lie to his father in order to get away from the house. Hansel asked if any of them had been followed. Monika said she wasn't sure. Helmut told Monika that she should be more careful, that she should always know whether she was followed. Monika pouted and said nothing.

A. Great. Now young Philistine, if you want to create something that resembles German, it helps to know a few common German words. For example, Ich means "I," nich means "not," Sie is "you," Wer is "who," bitte means "please," der is "the," bein is a "to be" verb, and ja means "yes." Also, make sure you capitalize nouns, and make a lot of words end in -en. And they have to say "schnell." It's not really German without "schnell." Got it?

Q. Yeah.

A. It also helps to know some German phonetics, which we won't go into today. Other than that, though, anything goes.

Q. Really?

A. Of course. Now, your readers aren't going to know what these Germans are saying, so we'll have to include most of your outline. Here's your dialogue after I apply my beastly creative mind to it:
"Wer cutten der Cheesen?" said Hansel, greeting everyone coldly.

"Ich knowen nich," said Helmut, reporting that he had had to lie to his father in order to get away from the house. "Asken Monika, bitte. Schnell!"

"Monika, cutten Sie der Cheesen?" asked Hansel, asking if any of them had been followed.

"Ich maken nich foulen Winden," said Monika, stating that she wasn't sure. "Ich bein Offendeden."

Helmut spoke up. "Ich knowen Sie cutten der Cheesen, Monika," he said, explaining that Monika should be more careful, and that she should always know whether she had been followed.

"Ja, ja, Ich cutten der Cheesen," said Monika, pouting and saying nothing. "Ich aten Beansen fuer Brekfasten. Schnell!"

Q. Wow. I'd never know that wasn't German. But shouldn't the lengths of the German sentences and the explanations from the outline kind of, you know, match up?

A. Nobody will notice, grasshopper. They'll be too busy admiring the fact that you know German.

Q. I don't know German.

A. They don't know that.

Q. Oh, right.

A. Next, even though you didn't ask about it specifically, we should try our hands at Spanish. It turns out that you probably already know quite a few Spanish words.

Q. I do?

A. You do. They're everywhere in popular American culture. I'll show you an example of dialogue that sufficiently resembles Spanish, and you'll be able to spot them straightaway. First, though, we'll need new names for your characters. Instead of Hansel, Helmut, and Monika, we'll use José, Jesús, and Olga.

Q. Olga's not a Spanish--

A. I thought you didn't know Spanish.

Q. I don't.

A. Right. So José, Jesús, and Olga are having the same conversation:
"¡Yo quero del taco!" said José, greeting everyone coldly.

"Mi enchilada hombre," said Jesús, reporting that he had had to lie to his father in order to get away from the house. "Burrito vámonos."

"¿Vámonos?" asked José, asking if any of them had been followed. "Burrito hombre si si."

"Chalupas chulas, amigos," said Olga, stating that she wasn't sure. "Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria."

Jesús spoke up. "¡Si! ¡Niños de enchiladas con carne!" he said, explaining that Olga should be more careful, and that she should always know whether she had been followed.

"¡Felíz Navidad!" said Olga, pouting and saying nothing. "Cinco de Mayo, amigos con carne fuer Brekfasten. ¡Schnell!"

Q. I understood every word they said! I didn't know I already knew so much Spanish!

A. It's amazing what you find when you plumb your hidden depths, isn't it?

Q. Oh, yeah. I feel plumbed!

A. That, dear Philistine, is something you should definitely keep to yourself. Notice that I have used the famed Spanish upside-down punctuation, which will serve as a signal to the reader that he is not supposed to understand what follows.

Q. Right. Um, I have another question.

A. Please continue, if you must.

Q. How would I do French?

A. Just have your characters hock and spit and grunt a lot.

Q. What's "hock?"

A. A wild vibration of the glottis, which often produces a wad of phlegm. Hocking is a standard French phoneme.

Q. Okay, that sounds easy. Hey, I just thought of something. From popular American culture, I already know plenty of German words as well as Spanish words! I could use, like, "glockenspiel," "bratwurst" and "bork bork bork!"

A. Never use "bork bork bork."

Q. Never?

A. Never. Ever. In German, it means something so sick and perverse that it should never be brought up even in the coarsest company. People have died for less than using that phrase.

Q. But the Swedish Chef...

A. Oh, Swedish! Good gracious, grasshoppper, you nearly gave me the vapors. Go ahead and use it in a Swedish context.

Q. What does it mean in Swedish?

A. My Swedish is a little rusty, but I believe it means, "Who cut the cheese?"

Q. Does it really?

A. Who cares?

Q. Oh, right.

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