Bad Language by Colin Cotterill

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“I don’t think the Lao talk like that,” she said.

“Of course they don’t,” I agreed. “They speak Lao.”

“So why don’t you make the conversations more reflective of the way they actually talk?”

“And how would you like me to go about that?”

She was a short, elderly lady with a salmon rinse but there was a fire extinguisher within easy reach and it wouldn’t have been that difficult for me to grab it and extinguish her. She’d stalked me to the bar after my modest public appearance in Washington and bolted herself into my personal space like an unwanted bathroom fitting. Like Tiger, I try to keep my private life private (but not, my dear wife, for the same reasons) and I was hoping for some time with old friends before my flight later that night. But salmon head continued to harangue.

The language question didn’t come up as often as I’d expected it to. But when it did it was invariably from people who’d never been to Laos, or Asia, or out of their towns. An email writer once suggested my characters all spoke like Brits in a pub. I think his intention was to wound me but I considered it something of an achievement. Let me take you back to my initial editorial meeting with myself before the first Siri book was published.

I had three possible linguistic roads to travel, four if you include throwing in a token white guy and having all my characters talk to him in English. But token white guys had been grossly overused and I didn’t want any in my books, thereby screwing up any chance of Keanu Reeves buying my movie rights. So I had Lao characters speaking together in Lao language. My options were, A. Translate word for word. B. Use an internationally acceptable Chinamanspeak, or, C. Apply colloquial English appropriate for the characters.

I did make attempts at A. Here’s what a conversation between Siri and Civilai would look like if it were translated directly from Lao.

Siri: Brother hungry for water, yes? Have alcohol rice be house.

Civilai: Wife of I not want have I eat alcohol.

Siri: So, not necessary must tell.

Civilai: Fun a lot.

Siri: Older brother must go room water before.

Civilai: Ha! Sack urine of brother not strong.

Siri: Thank heart.

Civilai: Not is a thing.

Hemmingway did something similar in For Whom the Bell Tolls (“How do they call thou, friend?” and “I obscenityin the milk.”) and got away with it. So it was an option and there might eventually have been a Nobel Prize on the end of it. But it was just too damned annoying.

So I looked at option B. There are, I discovered, one or two internationally accepted Asia-speaks. They all involve speech impediments of some kind. For example, you can’t go far wrong with the good old ‘r’ to ‘l’ juxtaposition as perfected by Cato in the Pink Panther movies, “I’m velly solly, Inspector Crouseau.”

Then there’s just plum grammatically wrong. “He good horse. No buck.” (Hop Sing, Bonanza). But all that sloppy syntax and pronunciation can be forgiven if you know when to throw in a handful of inscrutability. “Hasty conclusion like toy balloon – easy blow up, easy pop.” (Charlie Chan). All I needed to do was have Dr. Siri throw out lines such as, “Ah so. Autopsy rike communist party – rots of guts and heart but no bleathing.” But my problem was Siri and Civilai didn’t speak incorrectly. They were educated men and had mastered their own language with a certain amount of aplomb. They discussed politics and told jokes. And funny stories are notoriously unfunny in translation. (Case in point. Joke I just heard on the Thai radio: “I bought medicine yesterday. It cost 30,000 baht.” “What medicine costs 30,000 baht?” “Yamaha.”) Pause for laughter.

So, what could I do? I resorted to option C. At my intimate editorial meeting I decided that I wanted to show the relationships between the characters, and the best way to do that was through a medium that my readers could relate to. I wanted them to imagine sitting with these old men in a pub in Sussex or a bar in Queens bemoaning the state of the government. And to be honest, we aren’t worlds apart. Every unwashed, rantingly annoying street bum in London has counterparts in Moscow, Los Angeles, Bujumbura… and Vientiane. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a small elderly woman with a salmon rinse haranguing some poor minor celebrity right this second somewhere along the banks of the Mekhong.

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