Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ingredients of Good Multicultural Historical Fiction: Language

Language is a gold mine of possibilities, and multicultural literature often has the opportunity to explore two or more languages in the same story. Add the dimension of time and the work pushes to new levels of richness and complexity. That’s the good news. But how do you know if an author has pulled it off?

Characters from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds often bring foreign languages or dialects to narrative. One quick way to check an author’s use of language is to flip to the back for a glossary and pronunciation guide. This can indicate the quality of the work as well as familiarize you with the vocabulary. A guide is great for teachers and parents who plan to read a book aloud. Not only will the reading flow, but your correct pronunciation will show respect for other cultures. Your listeners will intuitively pick this up and hopefully model it.


Authors have a tricky job when using foreign words. They may have provided a glossary, but how do you know they have applied the words accurately? A good clue is if they are a native speaker, have lived in the country where the story is set, or acknowledge assistance from native speakers. If the story is contemporary enough, ask someone from that culture what they think of the book.

How Many and Which?

Sometimes an author inserts too many unknown words. A paragraph of untranslated Latin makes me tetchy at best and usually stops the story cold. Sentences and words in context solve much of this problem and are a good stretch for readers and listeners: “Did you like the play?” “¡Si, me gusto!” Familiar terms are the best foreign words to use in a story: mother, father, yes, no, please, and thank you. Words for hello are always winners because many people already know them: hola, bonjour, kon’nichiwa, etc. We’re collecting gold dust here.


It is important that a conversation spoken in one language but presented in another does not sound broken. They are speaking seamlessly in their own language. For example if a person says in Spanish “Tengo doce años,” “I am 12 years old,” it would not be translated in English as “I have 12 years.” (It is another matter if the character is speaking English and this is how they say it.) This is pretty straight forward. Or is it? It is a truism that something is lost in the translation. Connotation and eloquence are embedded in the syntax of language. Sometimes a direct translation captures this best.

"...language is not just words, but ideas and culture." --Byron Shorty

In addition, there can be no direct interpretation for certain words or concepts. The Navajo word hózhǫ́ is such a word. More a state of being than a thing to be defined, hózhǫ́ has to do with being in balance with the universe and carries notes of beauty, harmony, peace, happiness, and contentment, as well as goodness. In cases such as this, the author may choose to use the foreign word directly and have a character define it specifically or in dialogue.

Word play

If possible, an author can use language in such a way that the indigenous reader will pick up on double meaning. Here’s a spoiler: In a story I am writing, a Navajo girl runs away from boarding school to tell her family that her brother is sick. Her grandmother says, “you ran for your little brother.” In Navajo, the word for help literally means “to run for.” I have placed this in the text because I was lucky enough to stumble on the term, and I hope it will be a small nugget for Navajo readers to discover.

History comes alive and sparkles with good language use. Multicultural historical fiction can lead to a gold mine of new vocabulary and ideas, connecting readers to unknown cultures, past and present. Let me know if you have more to add to this conversation!

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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