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Poll: Would you read a book featuring protagonists of non English...

Primarily the books published in English are about English speaking characters.   Is there a market for stories about characters who speak another language?   And would it really matter if the story is written in English (i.e. the dialogue is all translated?)

Would you be more or less likely to pick up a book if neither the hero nor the heroine were of English-speaking origins?

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Elise Logan
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:07:49

    As with all books, it depends entirely on the plot and characters in question.

    I’d say I don’t think it makes much difference in my choice. If you consider how many historicals have non-English speakers (in the Star Trek-everyone-speaks-English sort of way), I’d say it is pretty common. I think exotic cultures and/or different settings are interesting – but they don’t sell me the book.

  2. Katrina
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:10:24

    I’d be really interested. I’ve lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life and think there are so many things you can explore when characters are from different countries than your readers are from, or different countries to each other. In fact, I’m writing a novel where the hero doesn’t speak English as a first language. It’s hard to make his accent authentic and not laughable, but it’s a good challenge.

    When a book’s written in English but the characters don’t speak English as a first language, I think it can be tricky to show the complexity of their language (and thus of their conversations with each other) without making them sound like caricatures. But I’d love to hear of novels other people think have done this well.

  3. blodeuedd
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:27:30

    I read those all the time

  4. SylviaSybil
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:39:22

    I voted “it depends” because I wanted to say “neither”. I really don’t notice what language they’re speaking. Now granted, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy set in worlds where English doesn’t exist, but even in contemporary books I don’t think it plays a part in my decision.

    When we were discussing Blue Diablo by Ann Aguirre (set in Mexico and Texas), an Australian friend said he knew Americans spoke a lot of Spanish but he found the book hard to read because of some parts said in the language. For my part, I would have said that the context makes the meaning of the dialogue clear, but his comment made me pause. I do speak a little Spanish and it made me wonder if knowing the exact meaning of those passages was necessary to enjoy the book. It also made me wonder about American-centricity, if the book really was more accessible to Americans than Australians.

  5. Jayne
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:51:27

    I would love to see more romance books with both the hero and heroine being from countries with a native language other than English. It seems that even when there is one main character who fits this description, usually the other is English/American/Australian/New Zealand/Canadian.

  6. Mireya
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:51:52

    Yes, UNLESS the characters are from a Spanish speaking country or countries, in which case, unless I know that the author is either a Spanish speaker or is 100% fully bilingual, I wouldn’t touch the book with a 10 foot pole. 99.9% of the books I ever tried that involved that sort of characters were so poorly done (and that includes a couple of big name authors) that I promised myself, NEVER again.

    Same applies to French and Italian characters, as I have enough understanding of the languages to know when it is being misused, and yes, I’ve found a number of those as well, so I tend to avoid them as well.

  7. FiaQ
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 13:56:59

    I’m feeling such a thicko because I’m not sure if I understood the question.

    Are we talking about translated novels or English novels that feature non-English speaking characters?

    If latter: it already exists and have been for a long time. Particularly in historical fiction and some genres, such as adventure (The Bourne Identity, for instance), fantasy, crime, romance and like so.

    What is English, too? I recently finished struggling through read ‘Unco Case O’ Dr Jekyll An’ Mr Hyde’, a graphic novel by Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy, and all text in Scots. Back cover, too:

    A faisible London lawyer, John Utterson, is compelled tae unhap the unco cleek atween heez auld freen, the gey heidie scientist Dr Henry Jekyll, an a glowerin an gurlie ootlin cawed Edward Hyde. Aw whae clap een oan Hyde experience an unco chitterin feelin o dree an forebodin, an heez reputation is that o a scunnersome an ramstam gadgie. Tae Utterson’s vexation, hae finnds Jekyll an Hyde hiv a dumfounerin contract atween thaim, the parteeculars o which naither wull let oan. As Utterson deeks further hae unhaps a richt ugsome story o sleekitness.

    I survived by reading it out loud (which was a bit embarrassing, heh).

    That said, I prefer authors to have non-English speakers’ dialogue in English because, my god, there are some toe-curlingly awful attempts with Gaelic, Japanese/Romaji and Scots out there.

    If former: I think crime fiction is the only area where casual readers would be willing to try translated novels. So far, we have Nordic crime fiction (Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, etc.), Japanese crime fiction (Battle Royale, Out, Villain, etc.). As for me, I’d read anything so it’s not an issue.

    Sorry if I misunderstood the question.

  8. FiaQ
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:02:44

    @FiaQ: Sorry for forgetting to point out I took it from the summary at (English version is there, too): Unco Case O’ Dr Jekyll An’ Mr Hyde: A Graphic Novel in Scots.

  9. Ell
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:05:19

    My feeling is that making a foreign language rendered in English sound realistic and not awkward is a skill not all authors have. If they’ve got it–great! If not, ouch!

  10. LoriK
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:13:12

    I would be (slightly) more likely to read a book (in English) about non-English speaking characters because I assume it would be in a setting that’s not the same old, same old. That’s always a plus.

    That said, the language spoken by the characters doesn’t really make a difference to me. If the book sounds interesting I’ll try it and if it doesn’t, I won’t. The language spoken by the protagonists isn’t an issue.

  11. SarahT
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:34:42

    I read a number of books featuring non-English speaking protags, both in English and in German. So, yes, I’d love to see more of them in romance novels. A couple of my earlier attempts at contemporary roms feature German heroes, but I’ve heard they’re very hard to sell.

    Many years ago, Mills & Boon had a special mini series devoted to romances set in various European countries. I think it was around the time of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 (European Community became European Union). I really enjoyed several of the Euromance titles.

    ETA: Just found a Romancewiki entry for the Euromance series:
    I remember particularly liking the one set in Germany (‘Designed to Annoy’ by Elizabeth Oldsfield).

  12. Limecello
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:35:02

    I don’t mind either way – but – am I not thinking what you’re thinking? Because a number of romances have European heroes – French, Greek, Spanish, Italian, and English isn’t their native language. Category romances and historicals especially. Are we not counting those?

  13. Estara
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:40:01

    Being German means I’ve read lots of books with non-English speaking protagonists. However, if the setting is Regency London I would prefer characters to be able to speak English ^^ – even if they’re not from London.

  14. Jen X
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 14:56:20

    I wouldn’t be swayed to pick up a book specifically for this reason but if I’m understanding the topic correctly then I think Pamela Clare did a great job with this in NAKED EDGE.

    Her heroine, Kat, was of Navajo origins and English was not her first language and throughout the story this was referred to in realistic, often charming ways. An accent here and there but most endearing were her confusion with idioms and American pop culture. She thought Scooby-Doo was a real person (LOL moment for me) and once referred to herself as a “mole” when she felt jealous when she meant shrew.

  15. Tweets that mention Poll: Would you read a book featuring protagonists of non English speaking origin? | Dear Author --
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 15:03:19

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cara Lopez Lee and Jeannie Lin. Jeannie Lin said: Curious about this :) RT @dearauthor: Poll: Would you read a book featuring protags of non English speaking origin? […]

  16. Jan
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 15:10:43

    I don’t think that particular point would influence whether I’d read a book or not. I agree that it probably makes for an interesting setting.

    I am however not a native English speaker myself, so maybe I see this differently. I do have one concern with the research though. Recently there was an author (don’t remember the name, but I’m pretty sure she was featured either here or on the Bitches) who wrote a book with at least one Dutch speaking protagonist. I got all excited because the Netherlands can be an awesome setting, but then I checked out her glossary she posted online. Half of the words were correct but the other half was a strange mix of German, old Dutch and words I had no idea where she got them from. Also a lot was misspelled.

    I found that so disrespectful. And it totally put me off. It’s just lazy researching. And with twitter and facebook and the likes around it isn’t that hard to find a native speaker.

    So after that I wondered if I’d missed mistakes in other books I had read with more common foreign languages like French or Spanish or Italian. I have a basic grasp of those, so in theory I could spot them, and I’m pretty sure I’d be terribly put off by them as well.

  17. atypical romance
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 15:20:51

    In a word, yes. I’m an American of Japanese ancestry and I really like reading stories featuring main characters who have different backgrounds. Nothing wrong with the usual Anglo/American characters, of course ;) – but variety is the spice of life and definitely the spice of fiction, IMHO.

  18. Kristen A.
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 15:48:23

    I badly want more France. So if one or both are French, that’s a plus. Otherwise, don’t care.

    Granted, there are things that can be done badly when you bring more languages into play that don’t happen when there’s only one. For example, randomly not translating easily translatable words just to remind everybody of the language being spoken. If I’m reading a conversation between two French characters in France, I’m going to assume they are speaking French unless told otherwise. Therefore, why say “Oui, fill in the rest of the sentence here,” when the character isn’t switching between languages? It only makes sense if you’re dealing with a word or phrase that doesn’t translate easily into English. But since obviously anything done badly is less likely to appeal to me, I’m not factoring that into my answer.

  19. Ros
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 17:26:29

    I like books set in England featuring English people. I am English and one of the main reasons I read romance is for the comfort of familiarity. Not just the places and the landscape and the climate (though those are important too) but also the cultural and social setting.

    I do read books with non-English characters and settings but not as my first choice.

  20. Kay Webb Harrison
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 18:10:22

    I voted “It depends.” Like Elise in comment #1, I’m more concerned with other aspects of a book. I have also read much Sci/Fi and Fantasy where people speak many languages other than English; I suspend belief in favor of “universal translators” a lot.

    In addition, I am pretty much bilingual in English and Spanish. I have read many books all in Spanish. Not long ago, I mooched the French translation of Jayne Castle’s [aka Jayne Ann Krentz] Guinevere Jones story The Dangerous Game. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

    I am most concerned with a good story, interesting characters, and engaging writing. I have always been fascinated with other languages and people who speak English with “foreign” accents. I was looking for the choice “the same as I do now.”


  21. Darlynne
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 18:32:43

    I chose “it depends” because everything depends on the skill of the writer. If you’d had a choice of “hell yeah,” that would apply to the mysteries I read, which are predominantly about non-English characters. Love, love, love the armchair traveling aspect of such books.

  22. TKF
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 19:01:15

    Do you mean like Jade Lee’s The Concubine? Yeah, I’m totally up for non-Eurocentric romances.

  23. henny
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 19:39:42

    I will, as long as the accent isn’t rendered painfully and the author hasn’t obviously thrown in the three French tag words she knows: “Let us go to ze ball, oui, chere?” for example. I am so sick of, for example, French characters who can speak English perfectly except for half a dozen of the simplest words, such as yes.

  24. Pat
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 22:08:47

    Well, it will have to be written in English or I won’t be able to read it. Other than that, the nationality of the characters is far less important to me than other little details like believable characterization. coherent plot, etc.

  25. Bella F.
    Dec 23, 2010 @ 23:48:31

    I chose it depends because for me the thing that matters to me is how interesting the story/plot is to me, and if the characters feel genuine. I’ve read books with characters that had accents or strong colloquial dialects and it didn’t detract from the storyline when it was done well, and in fact added to my concept of them.

    But like Limecello said above, I’m a bit confused. Are we not counting romances? Because tons of those have Scottish brogues, British accents, Spanish accents, etc

  26. Nadia Lee
    Dec 24, 2010 @ 01:51:36

    Almost always “less” likely to pick one up because most are really nothing more than American in attitude and thinking.

  27. Carolyn Jewel
    Dec 24, 2010 @ 12:19:11

    Just about all of Joanna Bourne’s amazing historicals feature characters who are not speaking English most of the time, and for most, as I recall, English is not the first language of one or both.

    Jeannie Lin’s books have been very highly reviewed, and her books are set in China.

    Technically, just about every Fantasy novel is set in a non-English speaking world.

    Really, as so many have pointed out, it depends on the skill of the author, or, possibly, also the skill of the translator, if the book was not originally written in English.

  28. Shéa
    Dec 25, 2010 @ 07:02:53

    I also voted “it depends”.

    If the book is a book written in English, I don’t mind if either (or both) the hero and heroine are non-English speakers or speak English but not are not native speakers. This has been done for a long time, so I feel the question is a bit… weird. (It depends on the country they’re from whether or not the book strikes my fancy specifically, as well as other things such as setting and so on.).

    I do get annoyed when the author throws in the character’s native language in an English language book. I understand enough Spanish that I could mostly make out the stuff in Ann Aguirre’s Blue Diablo. Anything I didn’t know I used the internet. Agatha Christie did this with French in her Poirot books so I used my mother’s old French/English dictionary for that (This was pre-internet). For the most part though this annoys the heck out of me. It’s an English language book, so if the author wants to use some other language for flavor, he or she needs to include a translation or just skip it all together. They usually don’t get it right anyway.

    I enjoy futuristic made-up words, though. Like Ann Aguirre does in her Jax novels. How fun is “choclaste”! You get what it is, but it’s something fun and different and gives you that futuristic feeling.

    As for translated books, I generally don’t like them as the translations are often very poor. I’ve read a few and most of them were badly done.

  29. Silvia
    Dec 26, 2010 @ 03:14:41

    I’m all for protogonists of different ethnic backgrounds and as long the book is in English it doesn’t matter what language they’re really speaking. We watch movies set in different countries all the time, where all the dialogue is still written as English so we can understand it. I guess I don’t see why romances would be any different.

    Just no painful written out accents! Only 1 in 100 authors can pull that off, imo.

  30. Laura Florand
    Dec 27, 2010 @ 18:36:35

    I was away for Christmas so missed this whole discussion! I love reading what people discuss about language, as this comes up *all the time* during the editing process and comes down to translation theory. (Should something written/spoken in a foreign language keep that exotic feeling when put into English or should it be rendered as familiar and comfortable to the English reader as it would have been to the original audience, or in the case of fiction the imagined foreign characters?) So should you keep some words in the foreign language or keep some of the phrasings that can be culturally so revealing or not? (There is such a difference in culture revealed in expressions such as the French “it’s not as if he invented the thread that cuts butter” and the American “you would think he had invented sliced bread”, for example.) I think stories where one character is not “English” and the other is are quite common, but this has been a frequent debate with my publisher and agent, whether having two characters who weren’t “English” (in my case 2 French characters) would be marketable.

    I’m sorry to join in late, but I love seeing what people have had to say! Thanks, Jane, for the question.

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