Thursday, December 22, 2016

A rose by any other name

Michael - Thursday

On Monday Annamaria wrote a piece Were the Medici Italian?—partly tongue in cheek—about a British TV series on the Medici that ‘modified’ the history, used a variety of (English) accents in a peculiar way, and generally left Italian speakers unimpressed. I haven’t seen any episodes of the series—and don’t intend to now!—so I can’t really comment on it. But there is quite a deep issue that underlies the matter. Most of the writers on MIE face this every time they write. We are all writing primarily for English speaking readers, and we have English as our first language, yet our books are set in quite foreign cultures often with different first languages. (Zoe is the exception; I leave it to Caro to decide whether she would include herself in this or not.) The dilemma is how to do two things: firstly bring across a feeling for the culture, and secondly deal with the fact that all the characters will be speaking another language between themselves and often thinking in that language also.

There are some tricks one can use to remind the reader. As an example, sometimes when Kubu is speaking to a foreigner, we will tag the dialog with ‘he said in English.’ The point is to remind the reader that most of the time that is not the case. Here’s another nice one from Jeff’s books. Greeks don’t shake their heads to indicate no, they nod upwards. He uses this from time to time. Right away we're reminded that we are in a different culture and, by implication, that the characters are speaking a different language.

Of course one can (and does) describe the setting and discuss local issues and politics, but the danger is that it may ring false to the reader because English people in this setting wouldn’t behave in that particular way.

I think scriptwriters and film directors face similar problems. Occasionally they get it wonderfully right. People in Botswana almost all speak English—it is the official language of the country—but they speak it in a unique way, partly it's accent, but partly it's intonation that has been inherited from Setswana, and partly it reflects the pace of the society. When I first saw The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency TV series, I was stunned by how well this accent was reproduced by all the characters. The effect was immediate and pervasive. We all knew that the culture was as different as the setting. The fact that the characters would largely have been speaking Setswana to each other was no longer an issue; they would speak English on occasion and this was just how they would speak it.

Jill Scott as Mma Remotswe
Later Stanley and I had an opportunity to visit the set in Gaborone while filming was taking place. On set was a speech coach who would go over every line with the main actors. (None of them was from Botswana by the way. Jill Scott is an American; if I hadn't known in advance I'd have asked her where in Botswana she was from!)

DiCaprio and Hounsou in Blood Diamond
Since the series was made for British and US audiences, the question arises as to whether any accent would have been fine provided it was consistent. I don’t think so. The actors absorbed a bit of the culture along with the Batswana way of speaking. This seems to have been one of the problems with the Medicis. Different English accents were used for different types of characters and it didn’t work. Even worse would have been to have them all speaking English with Italian accents, as if Italian isn’t a real language but just a dialect of English. (Fortunately this went out with old B grade movies.)

Leornado DiCapprio isn’t one of my favorite actors, but anyone who saw The Revenant knows that he’ll do whatever it takes. In Blood Diamond, he worked hard at a Rhodesian accent. Most of the time it wasn’t too bad, but it didn't work for me. I would rather he'd just spoken ordinary English. But for people not from this part of the world, it may have achieved a better understanding of the character to be constantly reminded of the otherness.

I guess the moral is that one has to work hard to get this right, and that the rightness or otherwise may depend on the eventual reader/viewer. As I said, most of us in MIE face these issues with our writing every day. I’d be fascinated to hear your take. 


  1. I loved the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency! I wanted to marry Jill Scott. I wonder if she'd have me?

  2. I was also a big fan of the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" TV show and was disappointed that it had such a short run. I think that was due to Anthony Minghella's death, as he was the guiding light behind the series. It was one of the best book-to-TV adaptations I've ever seen.

  3. One of the funniest series I remember from years ago was 'Allo, Allo', which spoofed an earlier series, 'Secret Army'. All the dialogue was in English, but with silly accents to indicate that the actors were speaking French, German, or English. And there was even a Brit spy, Crabtree, who posed as a French cop, and said things like "Good moaning," to indicate his appalling French. Horribly dated now, but very funny when it was first shown in the early 80s and 90s.

  4. And of course Zoe, 'Do you have a li sonce for the minkey?' ala Mr Clouseau!
    When I signed with Penguin, there was a lot of confusion in my head about how Scottish they wanted the book to be, a lot of my native chit chat had to be reined in. Then I got a letter saying 'You say you're a Glaswegian but you're not, otherwise you would have said...' ( followed by a long list!).. and the comment, 'sticking the word wee in every now and again does not make you a Scottish writer.
    That was me told.

  5. How great, Caro. They are telling YOU how to sound Scottish! OY!
    Actually, Michael I think this is a subject we should discuss every calendar quarter or so. Thank you so much for bringing it up. Susan, Sujata, and I have, not only to make the readers understand that we have taken them to a different culture, but also to a different epoch. Under any circumstances, I think we must respect the culture we are depicting. Even if we don't admire it. Otherwise, we may wind up doing what the English frequently do to the Italians and that others, no doubt, do to "strangers"--denigrate them. (See here: for a similar post about a different English production that does the same as Medici). Insensitivity seems to have no bounds these days. One of the MANY reason I so admire the MIE writers and count myself extraordinarily fortunate to be among them, is that they do not stoop to that sort of nonsense--not event to gain notoriety and thereby books sales. Hooray for that.

  6. Very interesting observations, Michael. Up until I was on tour last year I honestly didn't realize that what I was doing was risky, vis a vis how I'd be perceived by locals for my choice of protagonist. I say that because it always felt natural to me to be writing with a Greek protagonist, even though I'm not Greek. That seemed to me the natural way of revealing Greek life to non-Greeks. To achieve that, though I do not attempt to emulate Greek speech patterns or even Greek idioms but rather try to find the appropriate gestures and expressions in English that summons up an accurate representation of the Greek reaction or expression.

    For example, if I were translating English into Greek and literally said "like ducks on a pond" to a Greek, they would have no idea what I'm talking about. I do the same in reverse, as I think understanding the intention is more important than literal words.

    So, what happened a year ago? I was doing a joint event with Tim Hallinan and Marty Limon and they both said they wouldn't dare do what I do...write as a local in a foreign culture. I know others at MIE do that so it never struck me as risky...until Tim opened his mouth and frightened me so. :)

    1. Sometimes we try to catch the the spirit of a phrase. For example, I can't imagine Kubu talking about a 'nest of vipers' but 'a nest of snakes' might be okay.