The Book Clubber. This person can’t stop talking about The Kite Runner, The Devil in the White City, The Help, and Gone Girl. Airport bookstores meet all her needs. You suspect that books not containing discussion guides terrify her.
The Fast Reader. He likes books that you can read quickly, and he reads them quickly. He goes through a dozen different mystery series a year, and dips into science fiction when he has to. He has lots of positive things to say about books, but only in the most general terms.
The Hyper-Relevant Reader. If it’s on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, it’s on her nightstand. Whenever you mention an author, she asks what you think about the author’s newest book. She never thinks it’s as good as the author’s previous book.
The Used Bookstore Guy. This guy is notable for his questionable personal hygiene and his outrageously esoteric, strangely random tastes. He’ll be in line in front of you at Half-Price Used Books, carrying a Bruce Chatwin first edition, a Joyce Carol Oates paperback you’ve never heard of, a field guide to South American insects, and an analysis of the 1988 Presidential election. You wonder whether he’s read every other book in existence and these are all he has left.
The Book Hoarder. She only reads books in hard copy, and she keeps every one of them in her one-bedroom apartment. She can speak intelligently and passionately about her books, but it’s impossible to concentrate on the conversation because you’re constantly afraid that you’ll step on a long-forgotten cat, a bookshelf will fall and crush you, or a spark from the oven will hit the cookbook shelf and send the whole place up in flames.
The PBS Person. Every episode of Scientific American Frontiers, Ken Burns American Stories, Masterpiece, or Mystery! sends him running to Barnes & Noble for a stack of books he’ll never read. If you ask him about any book he owns, he can talk with vast enthusiasm for exactly 30 seconds.
The YA Freak. She thinks books for young adults are the best, and she raves about all the books your 12-year-old cousin complains about having to read for school. She loves to talk about how complex teenagers are and how fascinating their lives really are, according to 43-year-olds who write books about them.
The Incongruous Philosopher. You only discover this bro is a book person when, in the middle of a conversation about college football, he mentions his alma mater and then starts going on about the history teacher who introduced him to Spinoza. Have you read A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being? No? Well, you should. It’s fucking awesome.
The Lit Scenester. She’s typically found smoking American Spirits outside all the hottest readings by local authors and by national authors whose pants she thinks she can get into. Ask her about any of their books and she’ll blow smoke out of the side of her mouth, then say, “It’s all right.”
The Writer. When you compliment his newest book he nods and politely thanks you, then takes a cigarette from the lit scenester and asks her what she’s doing later.
When I was a child, my French-Canadian mother called me her little chou (pronounced “shoe”). In the summers, when we visited our French-speaking family in Quebec, my cousins were called chou or chou-chou by their mothers, as well. One summer evening, though, my aunt used the word chou as she was enticing us with the menu for that evening’s dinner. I understood that haricots verts were green beans and pommes de terre were potatoes, but chou? Which food was her darling? I turned to my mother, who smiled wryly. “The cabbage,” she replied. “Chou means ‘cabbage.’” All that time, I had been my mother’s little cabbage.
This episode comes back to me whenever I set out to infuse my writing with a taste of the foreign. When our fiction is set in another country or our characters speak other languages, we have the opportunity to use foreign words and phrases to enhance our writing, to establish a real sense of place, to create an atmosphere that is distinctly not American. But how much do we include? How much do we translate? And what do we do with expressions like “my little cabbage” that are authentic in another language, but sound awfully strange in English? We want our readers to know that a foreign language is being spoken; we want to impart the flavor and rhythms of the foreign tongue. But we need to be understood, as well. We don’t want readers to lose anything or to become irritated with a story because they’re stumped by our use of foreign words.
Let’s say you’ve set your story in Italy. Your fictional heroine, Jennifer, is an American sculptor who’s been living in Rome for the past ten years. She speaks Italian in her everyday life. When you write her dialogue, when you capture her neighbors chatting over the fence or the baker selling her bread, how do you remind your readers that these characters are speaking Italian? Here are six ways to do it:
1. Write some key words and phrases in the foreign language, but offer the English translation.
Here’s the scenario: Jennifer’s favorite baker finds something sticking out of the fresh loaf of bread that he’s about to hand her. You can capture the atmosphere of the scene by having him utter a short phrase in Italian. Then translate it for those readers who won’t understand it.
“C’é una chiave!” Sergio cried out in disbelief. It’s a key! He held it up to the light.
This approach offers the best of both worlds: authenticity and clarity. We get the real thing with the Italian, but if we can’t understand what it means, we need only to read on a little further to find it translated for us. The reader gets to have the experience of the Italian language without feeling inadequate or frustrated.