A dark confession: though I was born in the ‘90s, I have an awful weakness for ‘60s TV spy shows. I got hooked on Get Smart, devoured The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and – most recently – started zooming my way through the original Mission Impossible TV series.
Settle in for a few episodes of the old Mission Impossible and you’ll quickly notice that no matter what far-flung corner of the globe our intrepid spy gang ventures to, the locals always speak English – or at least an ‘eavily eccented vairsion of Eeengleesh intended to give the flavor of Russian or Portuguese or Chinese, without all those pesky subtitles.
But for real intelligence officers – and for international spy thriller writers – grasping foreign languages and cultures is mission-critical.
Everything looks more intriguing in a foreign language – even McDonald’s. (Photo credit: © Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic / Wikimedia Commons)
If a principal goal of intelligence work is to acquire and evaluate information about foreign targets, fluency in foreign languages is essential. All the ingenious wiretaps and intercepted messages in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t understand them. And no automatic translation system yet devised can capture the full range of cultural nuance you need to correctly interpret a message when lives are on the line.
Turkish: A window into another world
For me, mastering a foreign language – Turkish – is what lead me to writing spy thrillers in the first place. My first novel, Liar’s Candle, begins with a massive terror attack at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey’s capital city, Ankara, where I studied Turkish as a teenager.
Istanbul—Turkey’s cultural capital, is bureaucratic Ankara’s more glamorous sister. The ferries that ply the Bosporus look like a perfect setting for a chase scene… (Photo copyright: Mstyslav Chernov, 2013 / Wikimedia Commons)
Every language holds its secrets: traces of a bloody past, of ancient migrations and mingling cultures. Nestled on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Turks still speak the language of their steppe-riding Central Asian warrior ancestors. But Turkey’s colorful history has transformed Turkish into the Rocky Road ice cream of languages: studded with chewy Greek words from the Byzantines, crunchy pieces of Italian from the Genoese traders whose ships once plied the Bosporus Strait, and thick swirls of Arabic and Persian vocabulary acquired during the Ottoman Empire.
When I began writing Liar’s Candle, I knew I’d draw on my knowledge of Turkish for local color. But I didn’t anticipate how profoundly the Turkish language would infuse the storytelling in my book. The way we use language is an enormous part of how we tell the world who we are. If you’re writing a tough-as-nails New York lawyer greeting a judge, she’s probably not going to say, “Howdy”. Turkish is every bit as subtle. Would a Turkish character choose to use secular, Turkic word – or its more religiously-inflected Arabic synonym? Did their slang match their politics? Turkish even has an entire tense devoted to gossip and hearsay: a special set of endings you add to words to indicate that you’re repeating something you didn’t actually witness yourself.
In New England, where I grew up, we have lots of proverbs about thrift and our schizophrenically unpredictable weather. In Turkish, you can say something is as heavy as an infidel’s corpse — although my Turkish friends looked horrified when I used that particular turn of phrase. On a less macabre note, the Turks, who claim to have invented yogurt, have a proverb which I think applies well to writers:
Her yiğidin bir yoğurt yiyişi vardır.
or, “Every young man has his own way of eating yogurt.”
I chose to take the title of my novel from another Turkish proverb: “A liar’s candle burns only until dark.” In other words, the truth will eventually come to light.
Have you used foreign languages or foreign travel to gain insight into other cultures for your writing? Do you have a favorite proverb or saying about spies?