Monday, 10 August 2009


The surest way to lose a reader is to make them feel stupid.

I received another reader's report over the weekend. It wasn't glowing. 'Far too much Spanish,' was one comment. They're probably right - I found 300 instances in the text where I've used Spanish - individual words like and a couple of complete phrases such as: 'De primero: salmorejo, y de segundo: pollo. Postre no, tomaré una manzana.' Translation: 'For my first course I'll have cold tomato soup, Córdoba style, and for my second course I'll have chicken. No dessert, I'll have an apple.'

Tricky. A good many readers enjoyed the references to Spanish food and drink, reporting it added another layer to the novel's authenticity.

Using a Spanish word like carajillo - a coffee with a splash of brandy or rum, whisky, vodka or whatever - is more economical than spelling out a coffee with a splash of brandy.

In general English is a much more specific language than Spanish. However, when it comes to food and drink Spanish is much more specific, often using one word where English would use three or more. Viz. bacalao - salted cod; melindros - sponge fingers; calimacho - Coke and cheap red wine; cortado - espresso coffee cut with either hot or cold milk; soave - coffee and Coca-Cola with ice; sangria - a summer punch made from red wine, fruit, ice, etc etc.

'I know what sangria is,' I hear some readers say. 'I don't need you to spell it out for me.'

But, what about a clerico? A sangria type drink made with white wine or cava.

'I know what a paella is.' Are you sure? Go visit the Paella Professor.

So, now I'm sat here with a few sheets of paper filled with strings of page and line numbers, like some arcane version of bingo, as I review, amend or not, and tick off each instance of Spanish language.

How much knowledge of other languages, and other customs, should a writer presume a reader has?

Should writers play safe and trot out the usual suspects: sangria, paella, vino, cerveza etc and risk reinforcing stereotypes? Or, should writers tell it like it is, using context as far as possible to reveal meaning, and push readers just a little beyond their comfort zone?

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