Getting to Know What to Say*

Not long ago, I read a very interesting post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. She made some very strong arguments for learning at least one other language, even if one doesn’t become thoroughly fluent in that language. I won’t go over the points that she made; she did a better job than I ever could. Read the post yourself and you’ll see.

It all did get me to thinking, though, of the way this all plays out in crime fiction. There are plenty of fictional characters who negotiate more than one cultural world because they speak more than one language. That’s a major advantage for a character, as it allows better communication, a wider network, and a lot more.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is, by birth and background, Belgian. His first language is Belgian French, and that’s his culture. He went to England as a refugee because of World War I, and has learned to adapt to a very different language and culture. He’s kept his own culture in many ways, but he knows that he’ll be able relate better to the English people he meets if he uses their language. So, he’s learned fluent English (he’s actually more fluent than he sometimes lets on). With that language has also come some important cultural knowledge (e.g. shaking hands as a greeting, rather than embracing). Poirot is still culturally Belgian, but he’s also able to negotiate the English culture.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now called the Navajo Nation Police). By birth and home culture, he is Navajo, and follows his people’s traditions. He speaks Navajo, and keeps many of the Navajo cultural ways. But he’s also fluent in English, and understands American cultural ways, too. This allows him to interact effectively, whether it’s with members of his own cultural group or not. He’s also useful when people from off the Reservation have business there. In more than one of Hillerman’s novels, Chee accompanies a white police or FBI official on an investigation; many of them don’t know any Navajo, or any Navajo cultural ways. Without that knowledge, or Chee’s assistance, they won’t get the information they need to solve cases. It sometimes makes for tension in a story, but it also shows how important and valuable another language, and another ‘window on the world,’ can be.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, we are introduced to Andrea Curtin. She and her husband lived for several years in Botswana, and she learned some of the local language, as well as the local cultural ways. Their son, Michael, loved the place so much that, when Andrea and her husband returned to their native US, Michael decided to stay in Botswana. He joined an eco-community, and prepared to live there permanently. Then, tragically, he died. The official police report is that he likely strayed too far from the group’s camp, and was killed by a wild animal. But his mother wants closure. So, she visits Mma Precious Reamotswe to ask for her help. Mma Ramotswe has a lot of sympathy for her new client, and agrees to investigate Michael Curtin’s death. Part of what influences her is that Andrea understands the Botswana culture:

‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’

Andrea’s cultural awareness puts Mma Ramotswe at her ease, and makes their communication that much more productive.

Anya Lipska’s Detective Constable (DC) Natalie Kershaw is a skilled police officer. But she’s not really fluent in other languages or cultures, although she’s respectful of them. So, in Where the Devil Can’t Go, for instance, she’s at a disadvantage when a murder investigation takes her into London’s Polish community. As a part of that investigation, she meets Janusz Kiszka, an émigré from Poland, and an unofficial ‘fixer’ in the Polish community. He’s actually more trusted than the police are. Kiszka is thoroughly Polish by culture. But he speaks relatively fluent English, and he understands the English culture better than Kershaw understands the Polish culture. Together, they make a solid team as they look into cases.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. By birth and culture, she’s Australian (originally from Melbourne). After some ‘globe-trotting,’ she’s settled in Thailand, where she’s learned the language and the culture. She speaks fluent Thai, and understands many of the nuances of Thai culture. This allows her to interact with Thai people in much more productive ways than would be possible if she were ignorant of the language and culture. It also gets her out of trouble more than once. She doesn’t know every single detail of the culture, and she makes mistakes, as we all do. There are also times when, even though she understands an aspect of the culture, she doesn’t agree with it, or see a situation in the same way. But it helps her to know the language and have a sense of the culture.

There are plenty of other fictional sleuths who’ve found that understanding other cultures and languages is useful (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte?). Being able to negotiate more than one language and culture gives the sleuth quite a lot of flexibility. And that can be extremely useful.

And that’s true, really, for all of us. Of course, it’s critical to understand history, the sciences, and something about mathematics. They shape our world and explain it. But culture and language shape our thinking about that world, and about each other. Speaking at least some of another language lets us understand others’ ways of thinking. It gives us another perspective for looking at the world. And that can do much to teach us, and help us learn from others.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration! Now, folks, do give yourselves a treat and visit Finding Time to Write. Fine reviews, evocative poetry, and lovely ‘photos await you!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ernest Lehman and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Getting to Know You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Tony Hillerman

12 responses to “Getting to Know What to Say*

  1. A brilliant post and sparked by one of my favourite bloggers and my admiration for the number of languages she speaks is huge. My prowess in this field being weak at best but my job does involve looking at documents in other languages and it is surprising how much you can work out if you have some context and some of the ‘stems’ of words that you recognise in at least one other language.
    Of course I love Poirot and his Belgium ways, especially when he plays on his background depending on the situation…

    • I like that about Poirot, too, Cleo! And I think it really is interesting how you can work out what a word or phrase might mean, even if it’s a language you don’t speak, just by looking at familiar roots. You’re right that context helps a lot,too. And I couldn’t agree with you more about Marina Sofia’s blog; it’s one of my must-stops. Thanks very much for the kind words!

  2. Aw, shucks, the two of you are making me blush!!! Thank you for your kind words.

    I love all those detectives who have to operate in a different culture and language, as you can imagine. I was also thinking of the bilingual and bicultural skills of Sonchai Jitpleecheep in John Burdett’s Bangkok series. And the famous Smilla in Peter Hoeg’s book speaks both Danish and the language of the native population of Greenland, which enables her to resolve the mystery of a certain little boy’s death and much more.

    • Oh, both of those sleuths are great examples of the value of negotiating in a different culture and language community. I think it adds richness to a fiction character to be able to move among different communities and communicate successfully, etc. And, of course, it adds to the plot, too. And in real life, having access to another language and culture is a treasure trove. Thanks for inspiring me to think about it, Marina Sofia, and for your kind words.

  3. gideon oliver, the bone detective, travels extensively and has to get along in other languages; he’s not fluent, but has knowledge enough to exchange information with local police authorities…

    • That’s a great example, Mudpuddle, for which thanks. It shows, too, that a person doesn’t have to be thoroughly fluent in another language in order to get along and function within another culture. It’s really a matter of interest in other ideas and ways of thinking, and the understanding that those other ways require some adaptation.

  4. Col

    It can make for an interesting investigation if there’s a crime committed within an ethnic community ensconced in a larger society. A couple of Pronzini’s Nameless mysteries has him having to delve into San Francisco’s Chinatown for information and answers. He’s not a foreign language speaker, but has to penetrate the walls that are often raised to outsiders.
    Thatcher Robinson’s Bai Jiang character operates in the same city, but has the advantage of her heritage and background.

    • I agree with you, Col. Those communities are interesting to begin with, and if the sleuth has to penetrate them to get answers, it makes it all the more interesting, and with a bit of tension, too. The nameless stories are good examples of that. And thanks for mentioning Robinson. I need to read at least White Ginger. There’s never enough time to read what one wants…

  5. Ah, I fear I shall just have to stay in the cultural darkness of the monoglot! 😉 In theory I agree with both of you, but in reality one has to be extremely fluent in another language to catch nuance, I feel, and certainly my schoolgirl French and Russian has given me far less insight into those cultures than a good translator does. However, for a detective operating in a place where more than one language is routinely spoken, then it would undoubtedly be helpful to be able to communicate in both.

    • You make a good point, FictionFan, that it takes a certain amount of fluency to understand all of those nuances. And don’t get me started – oh, please don’t – on what foreign language education programs ought to be doing… At any rate, your point about a skilled translator is also well-taken. I give so much credit to people who can capture those nuances in their translations. It’s definitely a challenge. As for sleuths, yes, I think being able to negotiate meaning in two languages, and communicate effectively in two different cultures, is a definite advantage if you’re a sleuth.

  6. Great topic from both of you! I am always fascinated by the nuances of different cultures and languages, and although my skills in foreign languages are rudimentary, I will give it a go – and I do try to be sensitive to local manners.
    On the other hand, I have always enjoyed the comic possibilities in crime fiction of American sleuths visiting the UK and vice versa. Always plenty of room for jokes…
    My favourite phrase (from a magazine interview rather than a book) describes a young woman as being ‘conservatively dressed in vest, pants and suspenders’. That may be conservative in the US, but would be the complete opposite in the UK!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Moira. I’m just so glad Marina Sofia brought the topic up. You’re right, too, about the difference between what’s considered conservative, even between two cultures that speak the same/similar (depending on whom you ask!) languages. As you say, when the author handles it well, there really are lots of great possibilities for comic relief, too, with those cultural differences.

      Those nuances are fascinating, and I think they’re important. We may not think about it all when we’re among people who share our ways. But we notice it quickly if someone does something out of the norm. And that, to me, is a sign of how much those things matter.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s