What do you do when neither your character nor you speak a language?

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

I’m working on my not-so-epic-yet WWII story.

I’ll divulge a small portion of it (as I haven’t done too much research/plotting yet).

My main character, Jim, is an RAF pilot who gets gunned down over Holland. He doesn’t speak Dutch.

Problem is, neither do I.

I want to convey the lack of understanding between he and his “captors.” My initial thought would be that they would speak in Dutch, and I wouldn’t provide a translation, so neither the reader nor Jim understands.


6 thoughts on “What do you do when neither your character nor you speak a language?

  1. I’ve been thinking about this problem too. The next story I’m likely to write (not my current story) will feature a character who, although she’s fluent in English, also speaks Spanish, and I was also thinking of giving her parents who speak primarily Spanish when she’s at home. However, I’m not fluent in Spanish and so I’m worried that if I start writing some of their dialogue in Spanish, it will just sound fake.

    In your case, I’ll bet there are sites online where you can find folks, maybe for a fee, who will translate text for you into Dutch (just don’t use Google Translator, haha!).

    I can understand how not giving your reader a translation can serve to heighten the sense of mystery or suspense, but I suppose you might have to walk a fine line. Doing it too much might just annoy the reader.


  2. Hrmm, it’s a dilly of a pickle, for sheeze. But here’s my perspective: Writing is about what you know, right? So if you don’t know, talk to someone who does, or don’t write it, right? Do you know anyone who speaks Dutch?

    Also, remember that you don’t have to actually write what the Dutch people are saying. Depending on the Point of View you’re using, you could just describe how your character hears the phonetics of the language. That can be quite beautiful, in my opinion.

    Hope this is useful! 🙂


  3. At the moment, I’m writing all of the dialogue in English…to possibly be translated later.
    I’m debating just not using any dialogue, for the first portion. Not the entire book; that would drive me mental!

    Thanks for all of your suggestions!


  4. Or… you could have your character be familiar with a few words in Dutch, (maybe he learned them from a Dutch pilot he trained with) which he could pick out from their speaking. Between that and hand signals and facial expressions, a lot can be understood. For instance:

    Her words came in a rush and she kept trying to turn me around. The only word I picked up from her prattle was “kast” meaning closet. Then it came to me she wanted me to hide in a closet. “Waar kast?” I stammered. She turned me around again and led up the stairs. “Darr,” she said, pointing to a large wardrobe at the end of the hall.

    The Dutch words all come from http://www.freedict.com/onldict/dut.html an English to Dutch dictionary. It makes for interesting reading. ‘Waar’ and ‘darr’ are easy enough to understand without knowing the language.

    I was in Holland for a weekend in 1970. My wife and I came to see the tulip festival. That Saturday night, we didn’t have anything scheduled and we wanted to meet the Dutch people in their own environment. So we went bowling at a nearby center.

    I was amazed to hear that they used English words mixed with Dutch in almost every one of their sentences. I asked one guy why that was. He said, “We learn them from watching English and American Television.” What a unique way to learn a language I thought.


  5. Great suggestion, Yarnspnr! I think I might give that a try.

    I read somewhere that Charlize Theron learned English through television. 🙂


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