Transliterating Accents (If that's the right word)

by Twilight Dragon
(Adelaide, South Australia)

Hey Glen me again.

I'm struggling with the dialogue of one of my characters in a story.

Most of the characters, and the setting, are English and thus so is their dialogue. But one character, a woman named Madeline, is on transfer from France. She understands English perfectly, but speaks with a very heavy French accent, substitutes words, and if she's really bored/unimpressed with who she's talking to, she'll just speak plain French.

I took French class back in primary school, so I have a basic understanding of French words. But how exactly do I portray her heavy accent without falling into the cliched, slurred and frankly incorrect method of replacing 'the' with 'zhe' (as the French have their own 'th' words, thalassotherapie being a prime example, I cannot believe they would slur their words like this).

And in case this is the option you come up with, I don't live in the proximity of any French people for inspiration.

Thanks again, Glen

Answer: Well, I don't know how accurate the "zhe" for "the" is for a character from France, but "da" for "the" is a fairly common pronunciation among French Canadians (and Maritime Canadians for that matter).

However, trying to capture an accent with phonetic spelling is often not the best solution,
because it makes the reader work harder to decode what is being said.

One option is to use conventional spelling, but capture the essence of the accent through the character's word choice, sentence structure, figures of speech, etc. If your French speaker is not very fluent in English, there are certain mistakes she may be more prone to make -- in her attempt to translate French sentences in her head into their English equivalent.

Another option is to also have her use occasional French expressions.

However, to do this with authenticity, you pretty much have to listen to some French people speaking in English, whose background is similar to your character. Sorry, but I don't know a lot of shortcuts here. You need to be able to hear your character's voice in your head.

If you can't find even videos of French people speaking English to study (not too likely), you should at least research the kinds of mistakes your character is likely to make.

You can get away with a little less authenticity in genre fiction than literary fiction, but if you aren't confident, consider that less is more. In other words, use a few French-isms to establish the character, but have her stick to English most of the time.

Best of luck.

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