Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Will Say the Only Words I Know That You'll Understand*

Many people in the world speak more than one language. In fact, millions of people speak several different languages. Multilingualism has been an important social reality for thousands of years and with the relative ease of modern travel and technology, it's arguably even more important now. So it's not surprising that we'd find a lot of multilingualism in crime fiction, too. It can be very helpful to a sleuth to be multilingual; not only is it useful when it comes to talking to witnesses and suspects, but also, it's helpful in terms of understanding how members of other cultures think and communicate. It also adds a real layer of interest to a sleuth's character if she or he is multilingual.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, for instance, speaks several languages, including his native Belgian French and English. He finds that multilingualism useful in more than one way. In some cases, for instance, he's best able to communicate with witnesses and suspects in French. For example, in
Death in The Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot works with Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp and the French authorities to solve the poisoning murder of well-known Parisian moneylender Marie Marisot, also known as Madame Giselle. One of the characters who provides Poirot with useful information is Madame Giselle's maid Elise Grandier. She doesn't speak English, so Poirot conducts his conversations with her in French, as he does with several other Parisian characters involved in that novel. There are several other novels, too, in which Poirot conducts conversations and interviews in French.

Many of Poirot's cases, though, take place in England and in those cases Poirot uses English. In fact, as he himself says, he can speak

"…the exact, the idiomatic English."

But sometimes, Poirot finds that it serves his purposes better to give the impression that his English is very limited. In
After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), for instance, Poirot investigates the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie and the murder of Abernethie's youngest sister Cora Lansquenet. The two deaths seem to be connected, since Cora is murdered the day after she claims that her brother's death was not natural. So Poirot visits the Abernethie family home Enderby Hall during a week-end when all of the relatives (i.e. suspects) are there to choose family possessions they would like to keep before the property is sold. Poirot pretends to be a representative for a fictitious United Nations organisation looking for a property to convert to a home for aged war refugees. Since he apparently speaks very little English, everyone promptly forgets about him and assumes he can't understand anything they're saying. This is exactly what Poirot wants, since it gives him an opportunity to observe the family without drawing attention to himself. His strategy's successful, too; he hears more than one bit of useful information, including a very important clue that the murderer lets drop.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Stockholm detective Martin Beck is also blilingual. Besides his native Swedish, he also speaks some English. This proves to be useful in
Roseanna, where Beck and his team solve the murder of Roseanna McGraw, an American who was taking a cruise tour of Sweden when she was raped and killed. When the team finally establishes Roseanna's identity, they communicate with Lincoln, Nebraska detective Elmer Kafka, who's been searching for the victim since she was reported missing. The international telephone connection isn't clear, and Beck and Kafka have some miscommunication which at first hampers the investigation. Soon enough, though, they are able to work together and in the end, Beck's bilingualism proves useful as he gathers information about Roseanna McGraw's background.

Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee speaks his native Navajo as well as English, and he finds his multilingualism very useful as he investigates. For instance, in
Skinwalkers, Chee works with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to solve a mysterious group of murders that seem to be connected with the Yellow Horse Clinic. Since the investigation crosses state lines, the FBI gets involved in the person of Agent Jay Kennedy. So Chee and Kennedy work together to interview witnesses. At one point, they interview a witness whose father may have seen one of the murders. She doesn't want to get mixed up in the investigation and in any case, she doesn't trust Whites, especially not those in law enforcement. So she pretends she only speaks Navajo. Chee's able to use his own Navajo to put her slightly at ease so that he can ask her for the information he needs. There are several other novels, too, where Chee's ability to speak Navajo and his knowledge of the Navajo culture are useful as he puts clues together.

Dicey Deere's sleuth Torrey Tunet is an interpreter, so her strength is languages. She uses this skill as she investigates cases like the shooting death of historian John Gwathney in
The Irish Village Murder. Gwathney's housekeeper and lover Megan O'Faolain is the most likely suspect, since she stands to inherit quite a bit of money by the terms of Gwathney's will. There's also the fact that Megan's taken up lately with local potter Liam Caffey, and could have shot Gwathney to get his money and be with the man she wants. Tunet doesn't believe Megan O'Faolain's guilty, though, and begins to look for other suspects, of whom there are several. Gwathney left a journal that Tunet thinks may hold clues to what happened to him. So she manages to "borrow" it to see what she can find out. Gwathney wrote in Greek, though, so Tunet has to use her language abilities to read it. When she does, she finds out that Gwathney had discovered an old and shocking secret and had planned to include it in a manuscript he was preparing. This discovery adds a fascinating and suspenseful layer to this novel as Tunet tries to find Gwathney's killer before Megan O'Faolain is jailed for a crime she didn't commit.

Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti usually speaks his own beloved Veneziano, although he also speaks standard Italian. He also speaks English, and finds that useful in
Blood From a Stone, when he and Ispettore Vianello investigate the execution-style shooting of an illegal immigrant from Senegal. The victim was selling handbags in an open-air market when he was shot, but no-one seems to have seen exactly what happened nor who the killer was. Brunetti eventually discovers that two American tourists, Fred and Martha Crowley, might have witnessed what happens, so he arranges to meet them at a café, and uses English for the interview. It turns out that although neither can identify the shooter, they do give Brunetti useful information that eventually helps him find the killer. What's also interesting about this novel is that the victim, who's considered a lower-class vu cumprá, is also multilingual. He's learned that to sell his wares he has to speak more than one language; so besides his own language, he speaks Italian and English.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's sleuth, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is also multilingual. In fact, that's what gets her involved in the murder of Harald Guntlieb in
Last Rituals. Guntlieb was a German student studying at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered, and at first, the police arrest his former friend and room-mate Hugi Thórisson for the crime. Guntlieb's family doesn't think that Thórisson is guilty, though, and they hire Thóra to look into the murder. The main reason for which Thóra's hired is that she speaks German, so she'll be able to work with the Guntliebs' banker Matthew Reich. Reich travels to Reykjavík, and he and Thóra investigate the murder. Throughout the novel, Thóra often serves as interpreter for Matthew, who doesn't speak Icelandic.

There are, of course, lots of other sleuths I could mention who benefit greatly from being able to speak more than one language. Which ones do you enjoy? Does it bother you when words and phrases from other languages (especially ones that you don't speak) are used in novels you read?

: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Michelle.


  1. I think that it adds a layer to a novel when the MC can speak more than one language. It's one of the reasons I loved Poirot. Oh, I also love it when they keep it secret until when it comes in handy and they solve mysteries because the suspects believes the MCs can't speak their language.

  2. Clarissa - I like that about Poirot, too. We don't learn a lot about his personal life, but he's got that interesting ability to speak and think in more than one language. And I agree; it really is engaging when the sleuth keeps the other language a secret and gets to learn a lot that way. That's one thing I really like about After The Funeral, actually. It's an neat little trick.

  3. Sherlock Holmes often says things in other languages- don't always understand them, but the beauty of it is that not knowing the lanuage doesn't really make you miss anything, but knowing the language adds a new dimension.

    And I love Poirot's trick of often appearing more un-English than he is. It is one I often employ- I speak very few, but I understand almost all Indian languages. Pretending not to know them is a good way of evesdropping.

  4. Rayna - I so wish I knew some of the Indian languages. I have to admit to embarrassing and woeful ignorance about them *blush*.

    I get a lot of fun, too, though, out of Poirot's way of using exaggeratedly "foreign" mannerisms and speech patterns when it suits his purpose. It's interesting linguistically, too, to see how everyone reacts to a person when it's assumed that person doesn't speak the language. Fascinating!

  5. I loved, in Ngaio Marsh's A Surfeit of Lampreys, when a plain old policeman was placed in the room with all the Lampreys to keep an eye on them when the investigation was underway, that they all switched into speaking French, snobbishly assuming they were duping the ill educated constable. Wrong assumption on their part! Loved that.

  6. Vanda - Oh, thank you for reminding me of that! Yes! It's very funny scene, and it's exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of. It goes to show you not just how badly we can misjudge people, as the Lampreys do, but why it's important to pay attention in foreign language class :-).

  7. I agree that a second language adds a new layer and sometimes a twist to a story. I must 'confess' though that this is where audio books are a great advantage - you get to hear the beauty of the language (even if you don't understand the meaning).

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - You know, you've got a very well-taken point about audio books! When you're listening to the way a language sounds, you get the chance to experience the story in a way that just reading it doesn't offer, unless you speak that other language. Well said!

  9. When the writer handles it well, putting a few foreign phrases in the character´s mouth to add flavour but without leaving readers behind who don´t know the language in question, I like it.

  10. Dorte - I think you've got the key right there. If the author doesn't leave the reader behind, those few phrases and sentences in another language can add a lot of texture and colour to a story. The important point is not to take the reader out of the story through confusion (or for any other reason, either, actually...).

  11. I like it when the writer is able to explore in more than just one language. Probably because I speak Spanish and Italian and I know some Russian lol. The only thing is that if the author is going to play that card, they cannot screw it up. If it sounds like they google translated it, the suspension of disbelief is shattered.

  12. Erica - You actually make two really interesting points. I wonder if readers' feelings about using something from more than one language depends in part on whether the reader is multilingual. I haven't done the research but I'll bet it has an effect. And I agree; if the writer is going to use another language, it's got to be something the writer knows well enough so that it's accurate and real-life. Otherwise it pulls the reader right out of the story.

  13. It doesn't bother me to see the phrases in a foreign language when the reader can understand the phrase or word from the context. However, I dislike the need for constant translations of the phrases used. It's distracting and pulls me out of the story.

    Some of the authors who write about Florida cops, P.I.s and amateur sleuths in their books use Spanish words and phrases. I'm pretty sure Lupe Solano, a Cuban P.I., uses a bit of her native language from time to time.

  14. Pat - I know exactly what you mean. There's a difference between a word or phrase that's easily understood from context, and constantly having to stop and translate. I admit I'm not crazy about that, either.

    In cases like your example - Lupe Solano - it makes sense to use some of another language. It's part of the atmosphere that places the reader in the novel. It's part of the character, too.