How much foreign flavor is too much?

Having traveled extensively all my life, I like to set stories around the world.  I lived in Sweden for a couple of years so Ragnarök Willie is set in Kiruna, above the Arctic Circle. I wrote much of “How a Valkyrie Flies” sitting in a hotel room overlooking Hyde Park in Sydney, so it’s rather naturally set in Australia. And I like to add local flavor to my foreign settings–place names, foreign words, even culturalisms.

But like a spice, one shouldn’t add  too much. Should a story set in Germany include some jas and neins?  Is the city in Germany München or Munich; the one in Sweden, Göteborg or Gothenburg? Is the bridge in Sydney the Sydney Harbor Bridge or the Sydney Harbour Bridge?  And just how many no worries is too many?

Me, I tend to like to throw in local words and color, strict use of local names, and a smattering of foreign words.  So my main character in Ragnarök Willie is from Göteborg, he throws in a hej or a ja justa now and again, and he dreads elevators. But 99% of his dialog is  in English, down to an occasional f-bomb.  I try to weave a translation into the dialog as well, often by echoing it back.

Ska vi fika?” he asked suddenly, in Swedish.

A coffee break sounded divine. 

or

The station was deserted save for the woman with the attitude, a tan and white mutt lying in a patch of sun, and a gamla gubbe—an old fart my American girlfriend would say—with a gray ponytail, a barrel chest and sandals. 

Vad tycker du om det? What do you think about this?

CR Hodges

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