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In a first person perspective story I'm working on the main character has a language barrier with most of the other people she meets. To such an extent that other characters have confused a phrase of the main character's language to be the name of the main character. The main character has not corrected them as she is afraid of them but they're going to be interacting a bunch for several scenes.

So far for the characters speaking the other language I'm writing their dialogue in their native language (which is not English but a con-lang I've made) and the main character's dialogue is written in English (as the story is written in English).

How should I include the other characters saying what they believe the main character's name is (a phrase that has been represented in english when the main character has said it). I've tried just hyphenating the phrase (i.e. "don't-hurt-me-please") but I am worried that putting that in over and over might be a bit too much readable noise to put into their dialogue.

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    Capitalising it as Don't-Hurt-Me-Please (and treating it as a sort of nickname) would be more usual. Whether you consider that too long to read (or type) wold depend how often it's used.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 23 at 17:21

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Does the phrase "don't hurt me, please" sound like any string of words in the con-lang? Because if it does, then it would make sense for the characters to hear that, and use that instead of phonetically parroting what is to them a non-sense phrase.

Another consideration that could result in the phrase being slightly mangled, is if the phonology and syllable structure or other elements of the language are quite different from English.

For example, suppose your con-lang were similar to Japanese and doesn't have a distinct "r" and "l" sound, and syllables are generally consonant+vowel (except when ending in "n"). Then the closest they can come to parroting that phrase would be something like "doontu-hurutu-mii-pureesu".

"Don't-hurt-me-please" is also a fairly long "name". So I image they would soon get tired of saying the whole thing and would try abbreviating it. And if the main character doesn't want to object that "don't-hurt-me-please" isn't their name, why would they object to "Doont" (or whatever makes sense to speakers of the con-lang)?

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Do I correctly understand that most (or at least several) of the key characters other than the MC have their dialog given entirely in a conLang of your own invention, with no translations provided? If so, I strongly urge you to rethink this plan.

Even Tolkien, who delighted in the linguistic aspects of his tales, gave his readers only a very few short passages of untranslated Elvish over the three volumes of LotR. (Galadrial's song in Lorien, The song og Gildor & co in the Woody End {a quatrain of which is repeated with variation by Sam in the Tower of Cirth Ungul}, Gandalf's one-line spell for fire in the snowy pass, a few words of orc-speech. The Writing on the Gates of Moria is translated for us, as is other elvish and dwarven). None of these are vital to the plot.

Having any significant amount of dialog that is simply meaningless words to the reader will, I suspect, be quite off-putting to many. Once you decide how to handle that, the choice will probably affect how to handle what others think the MC's name is.

This reminds me a bit of The Flying Sorceress by Larry Niven and David Gerald. In that SF novel, A major character is a space traveler, and his translation program renders his name as "As a color, shade of Purple-grey". The natives soon convert this to "The purple magician" or just "Purple". At the end it is revealed that this was a syllable-by-syllable translation, the original being:

As a mauve - Asimov

As a one-time joke this works, particularly since many of the character names are jokes, see the Wikipedia article. But it would be easy to overdo.


As an exercise, try reading the early Dorothy Sayers story "The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question". In this story, there are several paragraphs of untranslated French dialog. French is of course not a conlang, and many people know it. But many modern English-speakers do not.

It turns out that the key clue is buried in this untranslated dialog.

A supposedly female character uses a masculine form, thereby proving that "she" is rally a man in disguise, and is the criminal. A one-letter and one-phoneme difference!

I have always felt this showed that Sayers expected most of her readers to know French well enough to have thought this a "fair" mystery, and that most current English-speakers will find it simply frustrating and pointless. It isn't that long a story, try it and see how you react, and then consider how an entire novel full of untranslated dialog might seem. The story is available here

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  • This is a good point and I'll need to address this definitely. Apr 22 at 17:09
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    @Joelle Boulet See the example I just anded to my answer. Apr 22 at 17:46

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