Using foreign languages in stories

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

More books that I read these days mix languages into their stories. They don’t have descriptions of scenery in another language or so, because I might end up throwing the book across the room as I try to decipher letters mixed in strange ways. But they do speak small, common phrases or pet names in other languages.

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

As writers explore this field, it’s good to know some basic tips on doing this.

  • 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 guy from Britain. Having that character bend over backwards to learn a language when it seems irrelevant to the plot is a bit too much. It may confuse the reader why so much background is needed on him being interested in Japan 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 angry, embarrassed, ecstatic, etc.

  • Italicize familiar phrases

Small everyday phrases slip out of the character’s mouth all the time, especially if it’s familiar phrases. Saying buongiorno is quite common in Italy. For these phrases, putting the words in italics and no translation is common. Keep in mind that these are phrases that the reader can figure out with context. 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 phrases that are not familiar to a reader. The first way is to say the foreign words, not in italics, and then translate them afterwards. But when you translate them, put those words in italics. “Tu as un joli canard!” You have a lovely duck! (Duolingo kept giving me that phrase and I had to use it somewhere.) This helps the reader get into the character’s language while also understanding everything. It’s also used more if the character who speaks the second language is the main character, because of course the character knows what is said.

The other 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 having more imagination as to what the character is saying. It’s also used more for when the character who speaks the second language is not the main character. Sometimes, even the main character won’t know what is said.

In those instances, writers may write out what the character said, with italics, and not let the main character understand. This lets the reader know what the character said (because we’re probably going to look it up either way) and not the main character. This is uncommon, but could work with the right set up.

If you do use a foreign language, make sure the foreign language is used accurately and have fun with it. Les langues sont amusantes. Languages are fun. Use that fun to your character’s advantage.

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