Today, it’s another post about using foreign language words in your writing. Up for examination is Eleanor Morse’s novel White Dog Fell from the Sky, which came out in 2013 and was released by Penguin Books. Set in the Botswana of the 1970s, it paints a detailed portrait of the political and cultural landscape while presenting the absorbing story of three individuals connected by extraordinary circumstances.
In White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse captures both the thrill of the southern African countryside and the horror and deprivation of apartheid in the 1970s. The novel focuses on the journey of Isaac Muthethe, a medical student who escapes South Africa after military thugs murder one of his acquaintances. Two men smuggle Isaac across the border into Botswana in a hearse and then leave his unconscious body at the side of the road. When he wakes up, the eponymous white dog is there, watching over him, a would-be symbol of the perseverance that Isaac will require if he wants to survive. In due course, he meets a sympathetic and unfulfilled American woman who employs him as a gardener, and their friendship provides the backbone for much of the drama in the story. This drama is heightened and made more real by the use of foreign-language words that create an authentic and believable setting.
When a writer opts for a foreign word in his or her prose, it can serve a number of purposes, least of which is the education of the reader, especially when the foreign word is then explained. On an aesthetic level, however, it goes beyond the didactic and provides a more vivid and authentic experience for the reader. Implementing foreign words also makes the reader sit up and take notice of the surroundings in the narrative. At the most basic level, Eleanor Morse uses simple everyday words in Setswana, the majority language in Botswana, to pepper the dialogue in White Dog Fell from the Sky with a tone of authenticity. The most common words the reader encounters are “ee” for yes, “rra” for sir, and “mma” for madam, and their frequent repetition serves to remind the audience that the action is playing out in a foreign country. On page 92, for example, when Isaac answers a question put to him by responding with “Ee, rra, there was no choice” it has a totally different effect, a richer one, on the reader than had the answer been: “Yes, sir, there was no choice.”
Throughout the narrative, at least every two or three pages, but sometimes several times on a single page, Morse introduces individual foreign words or entire in such a way that the reader is easily able to comprehend them. Usually this involves an explanation by way of a direct translation in instances such as on page 42 when Isaac says “Tla kwano.” Immediately thereafter Morse writes the command “Come,” so the reader knows the precise meaning of the phrase in Setswana. As far as literal significance is concerned, the author did not have to include the foreign-language phrase; its inclusion, however, greatly adds to the overall tone of the narrative and provides an undeniable note of authenticity. In other instances, Morse achieves the same kind of authenticity by incorporating a Setswana phrase and then providing an exegetic tag that explains the translation. On page 49, for example she writes: “”Ke a lebogo, mma,” he thanked her.” When written such a way it is easy for the reader to know that ke a lebogo means “thank you” or something to the effect.
Exegetic translations, like the one above, enable comprehension but they also add to the exotic tone and connotations lent by the word. This is also achieved when Morse incorporates foreign-language phrases and then allows the reader to decipher the meaning through context. On page 44, for example, a character is asked “Why is that?” after declining an offer, and as a response he says: ““Ke a lwala.” I am ill.” Because the author provides a translation here, it is easy to understand that ke a lwala means “I am ill.” When she writes “U lwala fa kae?” on the next line, however, and then on the line that follows “Go botlkoko makgwafo.” The lungs,” it becomes a bit tricky to figure out. But when the reader goes back and examines the exchange and the Setswana answers that it produces, it’s not too difficult to figure out that U lwala fa kae? means “What is wrong?” – or something to that effect – and that Go botlkoko makgwafo is an explanation for the malady that is preventing the speaker from accepting the offer that has been made.
Although most of the foreign words and phrases in White Dog Fell from the Sky come from the Setswana language, Eleanor Morse also uses other languages to enrich her prose and add authenticity to the narrative. Hardly surprising considering that the main character Isaac comes from South Africa, Morse also uses an Afrikaans word or phrase every now and then, as is seen when Isaac ponders segregated life back home and the “whites only” mentality that prevails on page 89: “Even after you died, you’d go to a nie blank cemetery; no one wanted your black ass anywhere near a white person, even though everyone was dead.” This inclusion of foreign language once again adds to Morse’s effectiveness as an author by creating a more authentic atmosphere in a purely linguistic sense, which in turn contributes to a more genuine, stimulating narrative for the audience. These random, but frequent usages of foreign words and phrases by Eleanor Morse add authenticity to her dialogue and descriptions, and this helps her create a vibrant and satisfying setting for the reader of White Dog Fell from the Sky.