Most English speakers probably just care about You, Mom, Dad, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents and Ancestors, Children, Grandchildren, etc. That's great... as long as you are writing about a monolingual English-speaking family, living in a Anglophone environment or a society that uses the same kind of kinship terms as English does.

Suppose a child is the middle child of five children in a Chinese family. This child has one older brother, one older sister, one younger brother, and one younger sister. The children live with Mom and Dad most of the time. During the holidays, they may visit relatives in the countryside. In the countryside, that's where most of the family is and has been for generations, and there are Grandma and Grandpa (on Dad's side), Dad's brothers and sisters and their spouses and children. In another rural village, there are Grandpa and Grandma (on the Mom's side), Mom's brothers and sisters and their spouses and children. Aside from formal names of each family member, there are also familiar names or terms of address for each family member. The term of address for a particular family member depends on generation level, father's side or mother's side, gender of the person, age of the person relative to the speaker, and age of the person relative to the father or mother (which may include birth order). Realistically, a person will address the target family member by relationship, not by name. So, "Aunt ..." doesn't seem to work here. The translation should be "My father's third younger sister", but the words "father" and "sister" are never used, because in the original language, there is already word that encompasses all of that, and also including the relationship between the target person and the speaker.

Another family is ethnic Korean. This Korean family also has separate addresses for everyone, but in Korean, it takes into account of the gender of the person. If the speaker is male, then his older brother is 형. If the speaker is female, then her older brother is 오빠. "Hiya, older-brother-as-a-female-speaker!" doesn't sound good in English.

How should the writer have the protagonist address all the family members solely by relationship in dialogue and exposition? If it just can't be done, then does it mean one has to anglicize the relationships? For example, in the exposition, the narrator will write everyone's full name, and in dialogue, the narrator calls everyone by name and maybe an English title. So, instead of 姑妈 (for father's older sister), the character just says, "Aunt __________."

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    These distinctions simply do not exist in English, therefore you must find a balance between accuracy and understandability. In English translations of Chinese texts, I sometimes see "third uncle" etc. which seems like an okay attempt, that way you can at least keep birth order. Patriarchal third uncle might work. You could also try finding synonyms and use them depending on which side of the family, with some disclaimer at the beginning, eg. a distinction between grandmother and greatmother - but this might not work for all types of relation, e.g. uncle or aunt don't have good alternatives. – Syzygy Jul 11 at 13:47
up vote 13 down vote accepted

I have experience of a similar situation - not Chinese or Korean, but Indian. I married into a family that has Indian ancestry but now live in the Caribbean and in addition I have a large number of Indian (Guajarati) friends in Bradford, where I lived for a year or two.

There are words in Hindi for the different relations, just as you described for Chinese and Korean. Generally, these terms are used to denote relationship and sometimes said as a mark of respect (like calling older male people 'Uncle').

Some examples I'm familiar with, because I've heard them often, are Ajji (grandmother (mother of father)), Nanni (grandmother (mother of mother)), Mamma (Uncle) and Didi (elder sister), but there are dozens more. Have a look at this page: 55 Family Relationship Names in Hindi and English if you want to know more.

Point is, there are words for everyone that are independent of the actual names of people, and those words are used routinely instead of names. Of course, it depends on how close you are to the person you are talking to and, to some extent I'm sure, on the protocol that's been handed down from generation to generation.

If I were wanting to address family members solely by relationship in dialogue in this situation, then I would use the words I've just been describing. For you, it would be the English phonetic equivalents of the words used by the families you are referring to.

It might be confusing for the reader at first to be presented by these new (and seemingly made-up) words, but if you reinforce the message by making it clear who is talking to who at important parts of the story then it'll become easy for the reader to remember the various words. Plus, you'll expand their knowledge at the same time. I love me a book that I can learn new stuff from.

Good luck with your dialogue.

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    The first time the Korean male addresses his elder brother as 형, show it for the Hangul-challenged as "hyung¹", with a footnote like "¹ Korean term for elder brother of a male speaker" and when the sister addresses the same person as 오빠 have her say "oppa²" with the footnote "² elder brother of a female speaker" and thereafter just "hyung" and "oppa". You've taken the opportunity to briefly explain why there are different names these two people call the same person, without a massive infodump that breaks up the flow of the story. – Monty Harder Jul 11 at 14:29

You don't try to be accurate, you anglicize it. If you are writing in English about a Korean family, the reader expects you to translate dialogue into understandable English that is not awkward.

If the speaker is male, then his older brother is 형. If the speaker is female, then her older brother is 오빠.

But doesn't a Korean boy/girl do this automatically without thinking about it? If so, why should the English reader be forced to think about it? As you say, it sounds weird, and just like a real translator would do, you translate into what an English reader would be comfortable with: "Hi brother", with none of the nuance indicated by language that makes no difference to the story.

If it does matter to the story, show it, don't tell it. Find a scene to indicate it separately. Say this girl is a young homosexual and speaks as a male, her brother can kick back:

"Do not speak in the male accent. You are going to get yourself beaten bloody someday."
Ha-yoon said, intentionally using the male accent, "By you, brother?"
"No, I would protect you, as I do now, little flower. I am not the only person with ears."

Accuracy is not the goal of fiction. Fictional dialogue looks and sounds nothing like real-life dialogue when it is transcribed from tape verbatim, with all its non-word verbalizations and weird pauses and self-interruptions.

What you write must serve the story, nothing else, and you leave out "accuracy" that does nothing to advance the story. Certain aspects of Korean culture will undoubtedly influence the plot, but it seems unlikely these relationship tags do that very often. If they do, then devise a scene (like above) in which the English speaker is made aware of (what is to them) a strange cultural quirk that matters.

As someone has said in another answer, accuracy is less important in fiction than story itself. What matters is to convey sufficient meaning to move your story forward, and to do so in a way that will be understood by your readers.

On this basis, I think you have several options:

  1. If using the correct terms doesn't serve the story, consider ignoring them. The purpose of dialogue is to serve the story, whether that's expressing character, relationships, describing setting or whatever. If something doesn't serve the story, omit it.

  2. At the other extreme, use the correct terms from the original language. Explain them the first time they're used, or use them in a context where their meaning becomes apparent to the reader. Transliterate rather than using the non-Latin alphabet.

  3. Use roughly equivalent English. "Hiya, older-brother-as-a-female-speaker!" doesn't good in English, but "Hi, Big Brother" sounds fine.

  4. Invent a convention. For example, female siblings could always call their youngest sibling "Sis", but call older siblings, "Sister". An older female relative could be "Aunt", a younger "Aunty".

  5. Research the way that people from (say) Korea actually handle this problem when they are referring to family members when they speak English, and simply follow suit.

  6. If you need to, explain the relationship when new characters are introduced, and explain the associated obligations to the reader. Of course, this wouldn't be required if the reader is from the culture that you intend to depict, because they're introduced to the rules a child. But, if your intended audience is from another culture, you need to help them out. After all, your first duty is to your readers, not to your subject matter.

  7. If the reason you want to use the titles is for one character to show respect to another, find another way to convey that respect. For example, a younger family member may offer their seat to someone older, or offer to carry something for them.

It may be appropriate to mix and match these strategies, but each character needs to be consistent in the way s/he expresses herself. Too much variation could be confusing, so mix sparingly.

It is all about the introduction and the interpretation of the character who speaks and is spoken to.

There is probably no proper way of addressing those family members using the English speech.

However you can make clear in what relation this character is to another character by a way of introduction or explanation.

For example:

When I entered the room Aunt Alice was sitting on the couch glaring at the television. She was the older sister on my father's side.

And another example:

"Hello, aunt Alice." I said making sure I addressed her with her proper title, she was the older sister on my father's side after all.

This way you can use the English words to address the people English readers are used to. But still explain what title they deserve whether it is Korean or Chinese or any other culture.

Mind that you don't have to keep reminding the reader of this special title after you have described their title within the family as readers will (hopefully) remember.

  • The first example feels so weird. In English, it make sense. But when translated back into Chinese, the second sentence is pretty redundant. The second example implies that the speaker has the intention of addressing someone by the proper title. When translated back into Chinese, it starts feeling a little weird. There is no deliberate intention; everything is automatic. The parents may assume the child's perspective to get the child use the right title. – Double U Jul 11 at 12:22
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    Yeah the problem is that direct translation does not help the speaker or the one being spoken to. But it helps the reader understand the relation between the two people. If you want English readers to understand the importance of family titles of other cultures they need a description that is otherwise not required by Chinese readers. The examples feel weird if you are a Chinese reader reading it in Chinese because they have fixed descriptions built into their words for a certain family member which English has not – Totumus Maximus Jul 11 at 12:30
  • @DoubleU Why does the sentence's meaning when being translated back into Chinese matter? – noɥʇʎԀʎzɐɹƆ Jul 13 at 0:01

If you are writing the story, you face a choice between making the dialogue more natural, or emphasising foreignness. @Amadeus explains the first option in detail, so I will not reiterate. However, it is possible that you don't want the dialogue to be that natural: your POV character might be, for some reason or other, a foreigner to this environment, or telling to a foreigner, etc. In such a case, you can use the original foreign-language terms (transcribed in English), or you can use their meaning. For example, in Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, the MC has to adapt to a society with very detailed titles for every relative, and so you have:

“Oldest Son’s Wife, have all my senior daughters attend me.”
“Yes, Husband’s Mother.” She curtsied and left. (Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy, chapter 7)

or

“As for you, Cross-Cousin-in-Law by Marriage, I’ll remind you—just once— that my Adopted Younger Brother is senior to you. And I’ll see you in my bunkie after dinner.” (Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy, chapter 8)

The question becomes more difficult if, instead, you are translating a story from a language that has words for all those relationships to English, which lacks them. The translation should feel natural, as natural as it is to people reading the story in the original language. At the same time, the information about how each character is related to the others might be important to the story. In such a case, you would have to find a way to weave it in. That's the case where I'd go for the style @Totumus Maximus suggests. It might be redundant when you back-translate it, but you wouldn't back-translate it. In English, it would maintain both the natural manner and the information of the original.

I would suggest including transliterations of the actual terms and including a glossary explaining them.

This is done a lot in English translations of manga where Japanese honorifics are kept in an English-readable format. Some of the most common examples are -san, equivalent to 'mr' or 'mrs'; -sama, often said to be equivalent to 'lord' or 'lady'; -senpai/-sempai, which is quite complicated; -chan, which is a cutesy honorific equivalent to the western -y (e.g. jane -> janey, susan -> suzy); et cetera. This is one of the reasons why so many self-proclaimed otakus know so many honorifics - they learn them as part of reading manga.

Your readers may struggle at first, but they should hopefully get used to the terms (and learn a bit of Chinese/Korean culture along the way). The key is to introduce the most important ones early and spread out the more complex terms if at all possible. I.e. start by just introducing mother and father, then move to the siblings, don't mention the grandparents until a few pages later and don't mention aunts, uncles or cousins until the next chapter.

  • I would argue that honorifics aren't quite the same. They encode abstract information about the speaker's perception of their relationship with the individual being addressed, which is usually relevant to character development or personality, and, rather importantly, can't easily be translated. In contrast the forms of address being discussed by the OP encode static factual information that is not usually relevant to the story, and more importantly, is trivial (if not concise) to translate. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 13 at 0:25
  • @AustinHemmelgarn The familial relationship between the two characters is important, especially in the cultures being discussed. The familial relation means a character's opinion and behaviour towards the other character is different to what it would be if they were not related. E.g. "I don't like them, but I can't be rude to them because they're my cousin" tells you that the character treats the person differently because they're related and that they believe that familial relation is important. – Pharap Jul 13 at 12:57
  • The true familial relation is generally only important in that it sets expectations for the social relationship between the individuals. What those expectations are vary by culture, so it's almost never a good idea to rely on them for defining a character's personality, but to instead show those behaviors and relations through other means. Being family doesn't even necessarily mean that there is a social relationship between two people. Note also that I'm not trying to say honorifics can't be a good example, just that what you gave does not seem like a good example to me. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 13 at 17:58

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