Why I’m spending today swapping out the dialect in my novel

My project today is replacing all the dialogue spoken by Antiguan characters in Of Noble Family with dialogue rewritten by Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne Hillhouse.

Let me explain why I’m doing this.

I grew up in the American South — specifically the Piedmont of North Carolina and East Tennessee. The reason I’m being specific about this is that I grew up in a part of the US that has very clear regional differences. People talk about “the Southern accent” as if it’s a homogeneous thing, but it’s really, really not. Accent goes far beyond how the words are pronounced, or the cadences used, and very much into the word choices and sentence structures. Language reflects the culture of the people using it, precisely because we use it to express ourselves.

There are also very distinct class differences in the way English is spoken — this is true everywhere, but the American South is one of the places where it’s really clear. A Southerner will often try to scrub the “country” out of their voice to arrive at the “genteel” Southern accent so that people won’t think they’re uneducated. And then moving away, where that distinction isn’t recognized, requires scrubbing all trace of the South out in order to not be perceived as a “hick.”

Yet– when I go home, I’ll slide back into one when I’m in a store so I don’t seem like an outsider. It’s code-switching at it’s most basic.

So, when I decided to set a book with a lot of action in Antigua, I knew that I wanted to represent the Antiguan Creole English. I also knew, from having watched people mangle the Southern American English, that understanding the nuances was going to be really, really important and really, really hard.

Harder than making my books sound like Jane Austen?

Yes.

Why? Because Jane Austen has been researched, and studied, and analyzed so there’s no shortage of material available. It’s taught in school in the US. I could grab a representative text and use that as my base. Even there, when I had characters who were speaking with an East London dialect, I asked a friend to “translate” it for me. But the primary text? No shortage of material and it’s material that I had been exposed to since a very young age.

Trying to find a representative text of Antiguan Creole English written by a native speaker in 1818? Welcome to colonialism.

The next best choice was to read a lot of work written by contemporary writers. (I recommend the works of Jamaica Kincaid, Joanne Hillhouse, and Marie-Elena John.) It was very clear to me that I could come up with something that a reader unfamiliar with the Caribbean would accept. And it was also clear that I would completely screw up the nuances.

So — I hired Joanne Hillhouse to translate the dialogue.

I’m swapping the dialogue out right now, and there are places that I’m also rewriting sections of the scenes because she’s also made suggestions about places where the communication would be through non-verbal dialog. Language is complex and not simply what is said, but also what is unsaid.

Dialect, likewise, isn’t just people talking funny. It’s a reflection of culture.

Edited to add: Joanne has blogged about the experience.

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16 Responses

  1. Peter Hentges

    This reminded me of Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” essay. I think her theme was a bit broader than your concerns, but that they come from a similar desire.

  2. Michelle S

    This is one of the (many) reasons I love reading your books – you give great attention to getting things right, and it makes the book that much more immersive and wonderful!

  3. Miriam

    This is so cool – thanks for sharing insights into your writing process, including when that involves asking for help.

  4. Kansu

    Thanks a bunch for the extra time, money, effort on this. It will be a great read, I’m sure.

    Minor typo here: ” It’s code-switching at it’s most basic.”

  5. seanjnewton

    That’s a neat idea, and I look forward to reading it. Out of curiosity, at what point does it become a collaboration between the two authors?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I think the dialogue in this case is very much a collaboration, because we’ve gone back and forth on a couple of the lines trying to make sure that it’s capturing the right sense. Since I’m also dealing with a culture that’s not my own, there are cultural cues that I’m missing.

      Other times I’ve done similar things, it’s much more of a straightforward translation.

  6. Dr. Phil

    This is why I write about the 29th century instead of the 19th. I have no patience to do that type of research, but I love the concept. So I pick a setting where no one can call me on it. (grin) They do anyway. (double-grin)

    Dr. Phil

  7. MesArkban

    Is she going to help you with the audio book too? I will be interested to hear how it sounds

  8. London

    This is brilliant.

    How did you go about the process of figuring out who to hire (or was that axiomatic after reading Hillhouse?) and then doing it?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I posted a job notice and took resumes. I also asked for recommendations. Joanne applied and was recommended, and then I started reading her book. After that, we did a phone interview to make certain that we were compatible.

      I sent her a chapter from the book as a test case — and paid her to do that — to make certain that the process was going to work.

  9. Damien Warman

    Alas, the indiebound links for Joanne Hillhouse and Marie-Elena John are slightly broken.

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