Posted by: kimberlysullivan | July 4, 2014

Two countries separated by a common language

Pen writing…or so says the famous line attributed to George Bernard Shaw (except, of course, it seems it may never have been written by the great playwright.)

Nevertheless, it’s still a killer line, and one that often springs to mind when I create a non-American fictional character and need to be careful about dialogue.

I thought of this recently as I was reading an Irish novel, which I truly enjoyed, that is partially set in America. Although I loved the novel, I was a bit surprised to realize that all the American characters all sounded “a wee bit” Irish.

Did it ruin the book for me? Not at all.  I loved it. But it did get me thinking about the difficulties we face in ensuring that dialogue rings true when we choose to create characters from a  country different from our own (even if the language is the same…) * Sigh*

I have one time travel novel where the American protagonist studies in Bath alongside British colleagues, so I had to be careful on dialogue and was lucky enough to have critique partners from the UK who could point out to me when I slipped. Things got more complicated when my character goes back to the 19th century, and I had to think carefully about speech patterns and expressions of the time.

Luckily, it’s not just English. A Spanish writer is bound to get mixed up if he adds in an Argentinian character. And a Parisian may have to do her research if she wants to write French dialogue for a character coming from Sierra Leone, or another country in French-speaking western Africa.

So, writers, what have your experiences been trying to guarantee authenticity for your dialogue when your characters are ‘separated by a common language’? Do you find it odd to read books with characters from your own country where the dialogue sounds off? Would love to hear your views on this!


  1. Interesting post, Kim. When writing Chasing Athens I definitely had this in mind. I didn’t want my native Greek characters to have too perfect English. I kept lots of mental notes on how Greeks spoke English (even the best English speakers) and I believed I weaved it in realistically. I hope. lol. It would be difficult if I didn’t live here. I also think language is about body movements and common expressions so those count too, I believe, to appear genuine.

    • Marissa – this is such a good point, too, about non-native English speakers. We have to take into account what kinds of mistakes they will make, how they will make them, when they will make them. And sometimes this depends upon what the speaker’s native language is, too.

  2. In one of my novels, I have a character who has one parent from Nicaragua and another from Mexico. It might have been to help me with covering my bases when I mix up her phrases, haha. Her counterpart’s mother is from Spain, though, and I definitely had to do some asking around to make sure I was getting some language pieces right. I’ve read some interesting posts about authors just trying to get jargon right for language in their own countries, too. Sprinkles or jimmies? Bubbler or water fountain? Soda or pop? Couch or sofa?

    I think I’m with you in that it doesn’t bother me too much if language gets a little off when the story is still strong. On the other hand, I really like it when authors get it right (or try to get it right), too. When we care about our stories enough to get those details right, we are respecting our readers.

    I can’t imagine also dipping back in time, like you are, too. Difficult!

    • Fabulous comments Janet and Marissa. True about both foreign and regional accents/word choices. But part of the fun of our work, right? : )

  3. Hey Kimberly!

    As you know, in ‘Traveler: Hemlock’, I have one MC who’s a C21 British woman, the other is a medieval chap. I don’t really have a problem with nipping in an out of their heads now because they way they speak is so distinctive.

    What I used to find challenging (when I was new to the characters) was writing like a man on the occasions I switched to Vadim’s PoV. I was terrified of ‘putting him in a dress’.🙂 Thankfully, I have two die-hard male critters who kept my man ‘real’.

    But I know what you mean, m’dear. As a reader, it’s jarring to come across a word that simple doesn’t belong. For instance, I once read a book about medieval France, and the MC the word, ‘okay’. Say what now?!* I swear, it was like getting a whack over the head with a piece of 2 x 4!🙂

    Good post!

    • This is a great point, too, Nicola – writing the opposite gender. I’ve read male characters written by female authors and women written by male authors where I’m just rolling my eyes because it rings so false. That said, it’s not easy! The other thing I find hard to do is write (authentically) in a child’s voice. When I see it done well, I’m always impressed.

  4. […] KimberlySullivan – Kimberly is based in Rome but travels a lot and writes amazing short stories and she goes to the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival every year!! One day I’m going to meet her there! She is total inspiration and gets out there and achieves her dreams and reads and blogs and juggles kid stuff. […]

    • Thanks! Way to nice, Claire. And, yes! I’m waiting for you in Matera! Dying to have a long-overdue face-to-face chat in the beautiful sassi of that magical city…

  5. Interesting post, Kimberly. Of course, I love this kind of discussion. My life is spent in between two languages and whether I write in English or French, I bump into challenges. When I wrote Trapped in Paris, I needed Cameron to know enough French so it wouldn’t be too much of a problem for him to communicate with Framboise. I made her trilingual (although she never speaks Italian in the novel) so through her I passed the necessary information that Cameron wouldn’t have understood. I have occasionnally read novels set in France where the dialogues sounded awkward. In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt is doing a fabulous job with one character who is from Ukraine. He knows enough English to go by but still makes some grammatical mistakes to sound real. Really a good post with great responses too.

  6. […] time in Savannah reminds me of an interesting post Kimberly wrote recently about writing authentic-sounding dialogues for characters who may speak the […]

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