Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Trowie Mound Murders - Marsali Taylor

Marsali Taylor was the first teacher I had who was one of those teachers you never forget, the ones who really inspire you with a love of something and now she's writing books which I also find very inspiring. She taught us English, French, and Drama all of which interests are reflected in her books. 'The Trowie Mound Murders' is the second of her Cass Lynch series. I had hoped to read and post about it before I went on holiday but didn't quite manage to do that - a review will be forthcoming when I return. Meanwhile here is a bit from Marsali about the languages involved in her books and a link to my Death on a Longhship review which is well worth a read (the book that is, I'm making no great claims for the review).

What language are my characters speaking now? Author Marsali Taylor talks about the difficulty of writing foreign languages in her two crime novels, Death on a Longship and the newly-published sequel, The Trowie Mound Murders.

Often things that amuse a writer whizz un-noticed past the reader. One fun problem I had to solve in my Cass novels, Death on a Longship and The Trowie Mound Murders, was language.
The obvious one was trying to give a flavour of the wonderful, distinctive Shetland dialect without losing the reader. ‘Quar’s du gaaun?’ On the westside, my heroine Cass’s place, wh becomes a qu sound, and throughout Shetland du, dee, dy, dine are used for you, your, yours. An a sound is often drawled aa. Grammar-wide, the verb ‘to be’ is often used differently. That question was simply, ‘Where’re you going?’ I ended up trying to keep the distinctive grammar, some vocabulary, like peerie for small, and Shetland use of English words, like turned or mad for angry, and easily read pronunciation differences, like the common Scottish no’ for not. I hoped this gave a Shetland feel without making life too difficult – and for those who wanted to know more, there was a glossary at the end of the book.

However Cass is a linguist. Shetland was her first tongue out of the house, but in it she spoke English to her dad, and French to her mother. Maman is a French opera singer, and although she’s noticeably foreign when she’s talking English to Dad, of course when she and Cass are talking to each other, they’re fluent. It’s always a problem in films: if it’s an English language film, where two French characters are supposedly talking to each other in French, why on earth should they have French accents? Properly speaking, the director should ask for a suitable English accent: city, country, posh, chav ... which would sound equally odd. In the same way, I wanted the reader to be aware that Cass and Maman were talking in French, but as it’s completely natural to them, I didn’t want to splatter my prose with French words in italics. Instead, I tried to think the conversation through in French as I wrote, and translate, so that though the English is as gramatically correct as Maman and Cass’s French would be, the turns of phrase are French.

That’s where proverbial phrases came in: you know, the kind of thing your Granny used to say to you. ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it.’ ‘Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.’ Every time I cut my sewing thread too long (because threading needles and knotting threads is such a pain) I hear my own Granny, who was a tailor, say, ‘The mair haste the less speed, says the tailor with the lang threed.’ (She was right too – it always tangles.) These lovely sum-ups of folk wisdom are different in every language, and so the sayings they’d grown up with became a way into my characters’ childhoods. Maman’s parents were Poitevin farmers, and her mother encouraged her singing talent with phrases like ‘Nothing’s impossible to a stout heart’ and ‘Paris wasn’t built in a day’. Her more down-to-earth father commented, ‘With ifs and buts, you could put Paris in a bottle’. For ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’, Maman would say, ‘you can’t have your butter and the money for your butter’. Translating these into English gives a beautifully French feel to the conversation.
Cass’s dad is Irish. His father was a builder in Dublin, with rather traditional ideas of a woman’s needs in life: ‘’It’s a lonely washing that has no man’s shirt in it.’ His country-bred wife encouraged Cass’s self-reliance: ‘It’s a bad hen that does not scratch for itself’. Irish Gaelic was spoken in their house, and now Cass is trying to revive those memories so that she can speak to Gavin Macrae in his own tongue, Scottish Gaelic. Where she tries it, I’ve put the words in Gaelic, in italics, to show how tentative she feels about speaking this foreign language.

Anders, Cass’s crew, is Norwegian, and, like most Scandinavians, he speaks beautiful, slightly formal, English. However there are episodes in both books where he and Cass are using Norwegian as a more intimate language. Both are less inhibited; I’ve tried to make Anders sound more colloquial, and although Cass’s Norwegian wouldn’t be as fluent as I’ve made it, I’ve used the fluency to show how her normal emotional reticence is freed by this language that is half-foreign and half harking back to the Shetland of her childhood (Shetland dialect and modern Norwegian both come from the Norse the Vikings spoke).
Language. It’s who we are: the tongue we use, the proverbs we cherish. In many ways, my Cass has too many selves: Shetland, English, Irish, French. Only when she leaves them behind to embrace the pyhsical language of the sea, balancing against the swell, adjusting rope and sail, bracing herself against the great ship’s wheel, does she feel truly at home. She could remain with that world, safely apart from human emotions, or choose a language to join the human world of relationships – but which?

I had fun juggling Cass’s languages... not that she gets a lot of time for speaking in The Trowie Mound Murders. The past angst that she worked through in Death on a Longship has lightened her, and this second book is less introspective, more action-filled. If I’ve written well, you’ll be too busy turning the pages to notice languages ... I hope so!
Death on a Longship and The Trowie Mound Murders are both published by Accent Press, and available on Amazon.

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