Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Italics - yes or no?

This week I’m going over the final copy edit of my novel, Black Rock. The (terrific) copy editor, Jen, has put all the French in italics. So, the opening line of the book is:

Constable Eddie Dougherty climbed up the iron work of the Victoria Bridge onto the railway tracks and said to his partner standing by the radio car,Yeah, c’est une bombe”

This is the traditional approach.

When I wrote the first draft I didn’t put the French in italics. It’s mostly in dialogue, the main character, Dougherty, has an English father and a French mother and he moves easily between the two languages so I felt that the words on the page should also move easily between the two languages.

For Canadians, anyway, I don’t think there’s anything in the book that would be too hard to understand with at least high school French and for everyone else I think it’s evident from context. Or maybe it’ll be a little frustrating, just like it can be to live somewhere with more than one language being spoken – which is pretty much everywhere now, isn’t it?

There is also this kind of thing in the book:

“You know a taverne dans le Point, s’appelle Nap?” he said in his Franglish and Dougherty said, “Yeah, Nap’s — Napoleon’s. I know it.”

And Delisle said, in English, “Go down there and get Detective Carpentier.” Being in Westmount must have thrown him off.

One of the bomb squad guys standing nearby packing up equipment said, “Is he drunk again?”

Delisle said, “Bring him au dix.”

I guess without italics the line, “Bring him au dix,” would be strange.

Then I came across this quote from Junot Diaz:

"Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and White people think we’re taking over."

But he didn’t say anything about italics. So what do you think?


Ruthy said...

I like the italics. Otherwise, there's that split second where I think I forgot how to read.

Dana King said...

Ruthy summarized my comment well. I use them, if only because they're an accepted convention, like quotation marks. I've read books that didn't use quote marks (BLOOD MERIDIAN, COLD MOUNTAIN) and their absence took me out of the story a little, if only because I expected them.

Of course, I'm the guy who's been tempted to use British spellings in dialog spoken by a British, Irish, Canadian, or Australian, thinking the reader would remember he's speaking with an accent. (At least not an American accent.) It also occurs to me no one but me would get this, so I have refrained.

David Y.B. Kaufmann said...

Rule of thumb: if it's going to distract your reader, don't do it. That applies to word choice, sentence structure, description, grammar, punctuation - and now, to italics.

That rule comes with a caveat: it has to be a distraction to your reader, not someone else's. Some readers would be fine without the italics (just as some readers prefer Faulkner's style to Steinbeck's). If that's your audience, go for it.

It used to be that authors used foreign phrases all the time - perhaps it was assumed that readers also knew French (the most common phrase language, at least in the 19th and 20th centuries). Now with a translation app, it's easy to include a bit of color.

Thanks for the post.

John McFetridge said...

Thanks for your input, folks.

I think I have met (at least online) every person who has ever read one of my books but my publisher (optimists that they are) always think this one will be the book that breaks out.

Jed Hartman said...

Happened across your post while looking for something else. These days, I'm now in favor of not italicizing "foreign" words. For details, see this discussion: