Using foreign languages in stories

Not everyone in the world speaks one language, so sometimes your characters shouldn’t either.

I read more books with mix languages these days. They don’t have descriptions or scenery in another language, but they do have small common phrases.

Some characters do this because they’re not from an English speaking country and it’s natural to slip back to their native tongue. Others do it because they’re bilingual and trying to tease someone. The foreign phrases are always small and no more than a sentence or two long.

As writers explore this concept, it’s good to know some basic tips.

  • Write in a language that makes sense for your character.

Let’s say you love Japanese. (日本語は面白いですね。) So, of course, you want to have Japanese in your story. But your story is about a British guy. Having that character bend over backwards to learn a language when it’s irrelevant to the plot is a bit too much. It may confuse the reader why so much background is needed to say one or two lines.

On the other hand, if the character is from Japan, it makes more sense for the character to blurt random Japanese out, especially when he/she is emotional.

  • Italicize familiar phrases

Small everyday phrases slip out all the time, especially if it’s a common phras. Saying buongiorno is quite common in Italy. For these phrases, put the words in italics with no translation. Keep in mind that these are phrases that the reader can figure out with context or already knows. If the reader doesn’t know what the character is saying, there’s another way to write those words.

  • Translate non-familiar phrases

There’s a couple of ways to approach non-familiar phrases. The first way is to say the foreign words – not in italics – and translate it afterwards. But when you translate, put them in italics. “Tu as un joli canard!” You have a lovely duck! This helps the reader get into the character while also understanding everything.

Another way is to not say the unfamiliar phrases at all. Instead, write something along the lines of “[s]he slammed her foot into the door and muttered curses in French”. This helps the reader understand what’s going on still while imagining what the character is saying. It’s also used when the character who speaks the second language is not the main character. Sometimes, even the main character won’t know what is being said.

In those instances, writers may write out what the character said in italics and not let the main character understand. This is uncommon, but it works with the right set up.

If you use a foreign language, make sure the second language is used accurately and have fun with it.

Les langues sont amusantes. Languages are fun.

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