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My characters’ voices — in a foreign language

I’ve found it a little tricky to be writing a book set in Tanzania, writing in English with main characters who don’t speak English in their everyday lives —but who occasionally interact with English speaking foreigners.

The two main characters in Season of the Jacaranda are Tanzanian women. Saidi is well educated and her English is fluent. Joy never got a chance to study English in school and only picked up bits along the way, which she needs to use at some jobs. In their “real” lives, dealing with Tanzanians, both women speak Swahili. But, of course, the book’s in English. So how do I write in their voices, regardless of which language they’d be using in the story?

It wasn’t difficult for Saidi. Her English is fluent so I could use “good English” for her dialogue no matter what language she might be speaking in a scene. Writing dialogue for Joy needed more thought. When she’s talking to Tanzanians she’d be speaking fluent Swahili so I used grammatically correct English in those scenes. But what about when she’s talking to an English speaker and forced to use English? Should I include the grammatical errors she’d make? It was disruptive to have her speak fluently in some scenes and brokenly in others.

She doesn’t use English a lot in the book so I settled for having her use fluent English in all her dialogue, relying on other aspects of character voice (e.g., word choice and content) to show her character and differentiate her from Saidi. On the few occasions when she had to write something, though, I put it the way she’d have done it. English spelling is often arbitrary and difficult and this was a chance to show the problems it caused her.

There are also little quirks that some fluent-in-English Swahili speakers manifest when speaking English, such as using the word “somehow” where an American would say “sort of” or “kind of.” Other “quirks” to an American ear are just British usage, e.g., going to hospital instead of the hospital or getting a salary rise vs. a raise. When I used these in Saidi’s dialogue some of my beta readers balked, so I took most of them out. That was somehow cowardly I guess but I decided I had to consider the likely audience.

Bulamba Village, Tanzania. Photo by Ellen Crystal


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