Friday, August 1, 2008

Voulez vous écrire avec moi, ce soir?

Subtitle: Working with foreign languages in your writing

I am a newbie to writing, but an oldbie to computers. When I saw that Lynn Viehl was hosting her Left Behind & Loving It series of writer workshops this week, I was intrigued. There are so many topics that folks across the blogosphere are posting about this week, and I've browsed lots of them already. But, I wanted to host one. I wanted it so bad that I could almost taste it. Granted, yesterday I wanted a cookie so bad I could almost taste one of those too, so my taste and attention span are generally suspect. But after a week or more of seeing notices about hosting workshops, I'm going to try one.

The problem is, what on earth am I qualified to teach to a bunch of writers? I started writing fiction less than 8 months ago, and blogging only about 2.5 years ago. I'm still the patched-together corpse that hasn't yet gotten enough electricity to begin walking and talking on my own yet.

What I am is a computer geek. I considered (and then discarded) discussing customizing Excel and Word with macros. I don't think I could water down 10 years of Visual Basic experience into a blog post or two aimed at non-technical folks. And I am not sure that you want me to try :)

Today, inspiration hit. Or maybe it was hunger pains. (I am out of the Dove chocolates that I typically keep in my desk drawer). Regardless of my blood sugar level, I have an idea. I am fairly proficient at Microsoft Word, as many of my fellow writers probably are. But most of my fellow writers probably speak and write in English. And when faced with a foreign character, they may have a diablo of a time coercing Word into flipping their exclamations points upside down for the requisite ¡Dios Mió!

Here's my dirty little secret: In addition to my Computer Science degree, I hold a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. This degree has afforded me the luxury of 1) knowing how to order a beer in any bar in Mexico, 2) Understanding directions to the bathroom once I am finished with said beer, and 3) ordering the newest Isabel Allende books in Spanish from Amazon. Occaisionally I get to eavesdrop on unsuspecting strangers, too. I can also type words like baño in Word, with the little squigly (the tilde) over the n easily. I wrote paper after paper in college, and you better believe that I had to have every accent and tilde in the correct place, or my paper would be returned to me bleeding like a gored matador.

So here, at last, is a subject where I can contribute. What follows is a series of "tips and tricks" for handling the occaisional (or the frequent) foreign language in Word (and a few things that would work with other word processors). None of this information is ground-breaking, and most of it is available in the help, if you know to look for it. But now you don't. I hope that by compiling it together here, that I might save someone a few minutes of aggravation. If not, don't tell me. I like my illusions.

Accenting Your Prose

I think that the first challenge writers face when sprinkling a little Spanish or French into their manuscripts is how to type an accent over an i, or a tilde over an n. Standard English keyboards don't have those buttons, and I assure you that adding them by hand to a printed copy looks cheap and amateurish. Leave them off, and you will make the folks that speak those languages shudder. Accents, tildes, and other special characters are not 'special' in other languages. They're part of the syntax.

In word, the easiest way to do it is with keyboard shortcuts. Need an accent on an i? Hold down ctrl and the apostrophe key at the same time. Then let go and type i (or e, or o). Voilà! Oops, I cheated...voilà has a backwards (grave) accent. For those, hold down ctrl + the backwards accent key (top left corner of the keyboard to the left of you 1 key). Same procedure, different direction of accent mark. Use them both together and make ASCII eyes with eyebrows: òó.

Need an upside-down question mark (¿), hold down shift, ctrl, alt, and the ? key at the same time. Go on, try it. I know it's a lot of keys. Hey, you mastered Ctrl-Alt-Delete, right?

There are lots more of these. I could make you look it up in the help pages of Word (type "Keyboard shortcuts for international characters"). Or, follow this link to see the documentation on Microsoft's website.

Spell Checking

So, now you can spell words in Spanish, French, and whatever else those special characters allow. But are you doing it correctly? Personally, I rely heavily on Word's built-in dictionary to do most of my English spell-checking. But type in "Ay Caramba" and Word reminds you over and over again that it is WRONG WRONG WRONG. How do you fix this?

First of all, you have to tell Word "Dude, it ain't English". Highlight your colorful phrase and, from the menu bar, select Tools->Language->Set Language. Scroll through the list, select your preferred option and click ok.

I can hear some of you yelling "Wait! I am writing in Clingon (or High Elven or Infernal or Garbledygook) And it isn't on the list!" No, those options are missing. Instead of selecting a language, check the box that says "Do Not Check Spelling or Grammar". Problem solved. Word will just ignore your homemade language. Now lather, rinse, and repeat with all of your other foreign language phraselets. Yes, it's work. And it can be a lot of work. But there are benefits.

Now that Word knows what on earth you're trying to say, it might attempt to spell-check it for you. It might even do a good job of it (Not if you're writing in Infernal, though). Back when I was in college and using the state-of-the-art Word 95, there was no built-in spell checking for anything other than English. If you wanted something else, it co$t. Many versions released in this millenium come with at least some built-in dictionaries other than English. Now, if you're writing in Kyrgyz, you might be out of luck. With Spanish and French, you might be in business. One way to tell is to open up that Set Language dialog again. On my desktop, the languages that have built-in dictionaries have a checkmark icon next to them, and the rest do not.

If you have an active internet connection on your computer, Microsoft Word can attempt to help you translate words and phrases. I stress the word attempt because I firmly believe that good translation is an artform combining a working knowledge of two sets of vocabulary and grammar plus an ear for how phrases sound. I stink at it. I much prefer to keep my Spanish in Spanish and my English in English (ask me to reminisce about my exchange program in Mexico and one of us will need a dictionary).

However, if you're don't have a paper dictionary handy and are desperate to say the word "peach" in Spanish, Word has you covered. (It's durazno--I can't tell you how many times I've had to look that one up.) Simply highlight the word or phrase you wish to translate, right-click, and pick "Translate" from the popup menu (or find the command under the Tools Menu->Language->Translate). A sidebar will appear allowing you to select the "from" and "to" languages. This actually brings up a site called WorldLingo, which may also offer you a "professional translation" for a fee. Don't know how good they are--I've never needed $65 worth of translation.

Help for non-Word users

Character Map: Finding your inner tilde

So you're cheap (or just poor) and are using Wordpad or even Notepad to type your manuscript. Think those tildes and ¡'s are out of reach? Nope. Let me introduce you to a tool that I found almost 15 years ago on Windows 3.1. It's the character map. Look on your Start Menu, under Accessories and/or System tools for a program called....wait for it....Character Map.

No, this will not help you remember the name of your heroine's father's brother's nephew's cousins former roommate. It just helps you find characters that aren't on your keyboard. The tool is pretty simple: choose a font, select the characters you want and then click "copy" to place them on the clipboard. Then open up your wordprocessor of choice (or even your web browser if you're blogging...) and click paste. What I have done is to select one each of every special character (all of the accented vowels, plus ñ and the upside-down punctuation for Spanish), and pasted them to the top of my work in progress. Then, as you're typing, you can scroll back to the beginning of your doc and copy just the letter you need and paste it into your sentence. It is also a neat tool for exploring extra characters like smileys, hearts, and arrows. Do pay attention to your font, though, because if you paste a character from the one font and then change your document to another, your special characters may change.

Web Resources
Free Web Translator. This site has a basic tool for converting to French, Spanish, Japanese, and a large list of other common languages. This is the site that Word links to for its translation feature.
Microsoft Office Language Packs If you work in a language other than English, then this will show you some of the additional language features you can buy for your Microsoft Office products.

Where to find a Translator (One with lungs)

This is kind of a tricky question for me. I've never used one. I'm not one either. I said that already. I would feel comfortable screwing up my own writing with my book-learned Spanish skills, but not anyone else's. But if your high school French skills have withered away to the size of Steak & Shake freedom fry, then here are some ideas on where to look for help. Some might not even break the bank:

Local high school language teachers. If you're lucky, they'll be native speakers. If not, they ought to be mostly grammatically correct.

University language departments. Professors or grad students would be your best bet. Some universities attract folks from other countries to study their native language here. I shared classes with folks from Spain, Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico, etc. Younger folks would have a better grasp of how younger people speak (duh) than aging professors.

You can try calling your local police department or justice department and see if they would share their roster of interpreters with you. If there are people in your city who speak a language, then the police know someone who can talk to them.

If you're aiming for a widespread language (like Spanish, which covers almost 1/3 of the world's population), try to find someone from the same country/region you're writing about--I can guarantee you that Mexican slang and Barcelona slang are very very different (and some of your readers WILL know).

Also, if you're thinking of hitting up a gardner/janitor/taqueria clerk for help, then make sure you know what you're getting. There are some very well educated gardners/janitors/food service people out there. But if you find someone who isn't particularly literate (in our language or theirs), then the quality of what you learn from them will reflect that. Which can be perfect or disastrous, depending on what you're trying to write about.

Tecnical Notes

Versions of Word (Or, "That's not on my menu")

If you're having trouble following my instructions, or your menus and dialogs look a little different than I've described, then, well, I wish I could help. Microsoft has a habit of renaming and moving features around with every release of their software (what, you didn't think they paid their programmers to just add new stuff, did you?). I would try checking online help and see if you find any leads. Or, post a comment here and I can make wacky suggestions.

I am using, both at home and at work, Microsoft Word 2003. The licenses are provided by my job, and are probably some enterprise-level-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink version. If you have a newer, older, or bare-bones installation, you may be lacking the same translation and spell-check features that I have access to. If you will be using foreign languages a LOT, it might be worth your while to check into buying an add-on package for Word, or upgrading to a more "feature-rich" (and tehrefore "buyer-poor") version. Back in college, I forked over the (then) enormous sum of $100 for a Spanish spell-checker. It was worth every penny and more, and it actually helped teach me the rules of when to apply accents more than any professer ever had.

The Character Map is Missing

The Character Map feature has been around since Windows 3.1, as far as I can remember. If you've searched high and low (and deep into every folder on your Start menu) and can't find it, then try looking in your C:\Windows folder (or C:\WINNT or just do a search of every folder starting on c:) for "charmap.exe". Find it, make a shortcut, and stick it on your desktop or your start menu. If you still can't find it, then I'm at a loss. Maybe you're on a Mac?

Muchas gracias por haber leído esta basura.

P.S. I only know the most rudimentary French, so I availed myself of some free online translation to create a catch title. If I massively butchered it, you have my permission to mock me freely in the comments :)


Anonymous said...

Merci Beaucoup! I have been writing Franglaise, figuring I'll deal with the nuts and bolts of that later, but I do tend to get bleary eyed when I have to "Ignore" the French phrases too many times.
I linked over from PBW's site. Thanks for having the courage to post a workshop! I enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to sign my name -- JulieB

Margay said...

This is great! I will be bookmarking this page for future reference.

Kristi said...

JulieB and Margay (and anyone else who popped in): Happy to Help!

Thanks for commenting, even though I'm one of those lame (poor and also unpublished) workshop writers who's not giving something away :) Maybe next year if I come up with a good workshop.

Robin said...

Oh, this was awesome!! Thank you! You did a fabulous job and this was a great workshop! I'm printing it out to keep handy. In the mss I just finished I had some French - now I can go back and add the accents I need. Woohoo! Honestly, Kristi, this was super and you know what? I'm thinking maybe you should guest on my blog and offer this information. I bet a lot of people would find it very useful! Let me know what you think.