A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I still remember with a faint sense of outrage the reviewer who described my first novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden as “partly written in German.”
I certainly wouldn’t say the book is partly written in it, but there are enough snippets of German to merit a glossary in the back, containing translations of such interesting phrases as Ihr seid total blöd (You’re totally stupid). Mostly the German is confined to single words rather than whole phrases; these include a number of swear words or insults, such as Scheisse, Scheissköpfe and Verdammt!
After having written a further five novels, two of which were set in Germany and three in Dutch-speaking Flanders, I know that although there are some readers who love a bit of exotic foreign vocabulary, there are others who don’t like it at all. So why do I keep including it?
When I was actually writing The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, we were still living in Bad Münstereifel, the little German town where the book is set. Although I’d done two years of German at school some twenty years before, it took me a long while to become really fluent. Even now, I can be reading a German text or watching a film and flounder over a term like Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (car insurance). This is the reality of living in a country where the language is not your mother tongue; it’s normal to get by understanding maybe 70% of what you hear, perhaps a lot less. The other thing that happens – well, it happened to us – is that even at home, when the family speaks their mother tongue together, words from the local language creep in. Sometimes it’s because the word is uniquely suitable – for example, a German school bag is called a Ranzen and we always called our kids’ bags that. A British school child might have a satchel or rucksack, but a Ranzen isn’t really either of those things. It is carried on the back but is made of a very rigid material so it’s almost like carrying a box. It’s quite bulky; when our son got his first one, the man in the shop commented that there was “more Ranzen than boy.”
We also found ourselves using German words when they were shorter than English ones (believe it or not, this does sometimes happen). Gern is much quicker to say than “Yes, I’d be happy to do that”, and Pech trips off the tongue more easily than hard luck. So I think that the slight mixing of language in my books represents the experience of living abroad, and indeed most of my heroines are split between several cultures: Pia Kolvenbach, the heroine of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, has a German father and British mother; Lin Fox in The Glass Demon is a British girl living in Germany; Veerle De Keyser in my Forbidden Spaces trilogy has a Flemish father and Walloon mother.
And then there are the swear words. My personal favourite is a Dutch one: klootzak. I like to use local language versions because I’m not keen on peppering my text with f-bombs – occasional ones, perhaps, but not every other page – but on the other hand, I am writing thrillers. Nobody who is being chased by a serial killer with a sharp knife or who has just discovered a mouldering corpse is going to say “Oh dear” or “Bother”.
My most recent book, Urban Legends, was the last set overseas – at least for the time being. I’m now working on a book set in Scotland, where we have lived since moving back to the UK in 2011. Those who objected to the German words in my first novels may be relieved to know that this one won’t be “partly written in Gaelic”! There might be some expressions that are unfamiliar to non-Scottish eyes though. For me it’s all about finding the right words, the ones that fit the place.
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Helen Grant was born in London. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany, and it was exploring the history and legends of this beautiful little town that inspired her first YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. The book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Booktrust Teenage Award and won an ALA Alex Award in the US. Helen has written two other novels set in the same part of Germany: The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead. She later moved to Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and her two most recent novels, Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent, are set there. Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two rather shiftless cats. As well as writing YA, she writes ghost stories for adults. She spends her spare time walking, exploring ruined churches and castles, and going to the cinema.
I love the smattering of foreign words in your novels. It helps me to really feel like I’m in those countries. They are never hard to understand and always used in a way that makes the meaning obvious, even if you don’t have an exact translation of each word. I think it adds to the general atmosphere and setting of the stories. Keep doing it! Plus, it increases my vocabulary of foreign swear words. 😉
I agree with you, it’s all about finding the right words. As a reader I’ve always enjoyed stumbling upon foreign words and expressions and as a writer who’s living abroad and learning a new language I find using them in my stories inevitable.
I’m a reader who very much liked the smattering of German and Flemish in your books!