Using Foreign Words

One reason why I add foreign phrases to my picture books is to welcome readers into a new world or mindset, or to acknowledge the mindset they may already share. (It’s easy to forget that millions of U.S. citizens, for example, speak and dream in both English and Spanish.)

Whether adding foreign words to describe cuisine or anything else, the trick is to use them with…discretion. Are the words recognizable at least by some target readers? Are they easy to “negotiate” or pronounce by the uninitiated? Do they add dimension or nuance by pinpointing something for which there is no English equivalent? And, finally, should you define the words–in a glossary or on the page–or is the meaning already so clear from the context that formal definitions would seem academic?

I grew up speaking only English. But learning to speak more than one language (through years of classes and life overseas) has allowed me to sustain a keen interest in words. Using the occasional foreign phrase in my writing has helped me to preserve this sense of wonder and curiosity. When writing the book Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs!, I even let the sound of the Japanese haiku I was translating inform my choice of words in English, not just in my translations of the poems but throughout the text of the biography on Issa.

My latest book with audio CD, Jazz Fly 2: The Jungle Pachanga, is narrated in English but contains a healthy dose of both Spanish and jazz. (Za-BEEM, Za-BOP…Skiddily-bim BOOM!) The “foreign”phrases are just one more way to get creative and help people celebrate what makes them unique:

“Hola, welcome, mis amigos.

I thought you had been eaten by our enemigos.”

Recently, while performing Jazz Fly 2 in south Texas, every time I recited one of these lines in “Spanglish,” the audience erupted in spontaneous clapping. I felt like a politician hitting one applause line after another! I believe my words resonated at least in part because, as a gringo, I had taken the trouble to acknowledge their bilingual mindset.

In short, adding foreign words not only adds to our language; it’s a way to reach out to others–and to let them know that they count.