1. Faux foreign diction.
I blame Hemingway for this one. In his twenties, Papa H. perfected an entirely new narrative prose style, an etiolated strain of which has become the default ‘transparent’ style of the modern American novelist. Of all the bizarre ‘experimental’ styles of the 1920s, from Joyce’s glossolalia to Stein’s commaphobia, Hemingway’s was the only experiment that really succeeded. Doesn’t matter; he paid the rent for them all. Unfortunately, he soon degenerated into self-parody. A man’s wit may outlive his wits, in which case he will retain the ability to write arch imitations of his best work long after time and tide and whiskey have washed away the rest of his talents.
Alas, Hemingway’s judgement went the way of his skill, for the style he chose to imitate in his parodic senescence was not the style of the successful experiment. It was the laboured and mannered style of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the purpose of which is to make you think that the book has been translated from Spanish with painful literalness. So he peppered his prose with irrelevant Spanish palabras that you’re expected to know the meaning of, not because they have no English equivalents, but because, you know, people speaking Spanish occasionally throw in a really really Spanish word just to remind you that they’re not speaking English or Cantonese. He also makes much use of Spanish idioms translated word for word, no import how unnaturally the prose puts itself in consequence. He makes sure, once in a while, after giving you a phrase in English, to repeat himself in Spanish, y relanzarse en castellano. And he uses thou and thee with wild inconsistency, often forgetting and settling for you, and just as often using thee as the nominative case. Quakers in Spain, forsooth! There are words in Spanish for people who do this kind of thing, and we do not have such words in English, but I will not instruct you in obscenity by repeating them here. Sinverguenza is one of the milder ones.
The effect of all this is to persuade you that the book you are reading was written by a peculiarly self-important idiot savant who is intimately acquainted with foreign idioms, but does not know how to form English contractions. In a short book, like The Old Man and the Sea, it is just tolerable, but at greater length, or done inexpertly by other hands, it descends rapidly into schtick. Cormac McCarthy is said to be one of the worst culprits; I’ll take B.R. Myers’ word for it (not without sufficiently extensive quotations to make me viscerally ill). James A. Michener was another frequent offender, though in his case the contrast is less striking because his usual English is apt to be clunky enough.
There is a place for this technique, but not much of one. It is appropriate to dialogue, not récit, and at that, to the speech of characters who are either represented as speaking a foreign language (to the narrator, that is), or as foreigners trying to speak the narrator’s language with imperfect success. A little goes a long way. It is particularly unsuitable for long passages when the subtextual ‘foreign’ language is itself fictitious. Tolkien skirted the bounds with his gobbets of undigested Elvish, but at least his Elves, when speaking English, spoke English (a peculiarly archaic and cadenced English, which suited them, and sorted well with the things they had to say) and not a tortured attempt at Elf-glish.
(To be continued. . . .)