How to Write Foreign Languages in Your Novel

Let’s face it, foreign words are cool. They can make your characters sound smarter, make exotic settings feel more authentic and even increase the dramatic tension in a scene. But before you start sprinkling a certain je ne sais quoi into your prose, take these steps to make sure your reader doesn’t get lost in translation. Here’s how to handle a foreign language in your novel:

Option 1: Write it in English.
By far the easiest way to handle a foreign language is just to keep everything in English, like this:

“I will never leave you,” he whispered in French.

Of course, this only works if your point-of-view character actually speaks French and can understand what’s being said. If not, things get a little more complicated.
(More on that in a moment.)

Option 2: Use English, with a sprinkling of foreign words.

“Give me the gun, mi sobrino,” his uncle said. “Very slow, now.”

This is tricky, because many of your readers won’t know what the word or phrase means. (“Mi sobrino” means “my nephew.” Now you know.) If you can cut the foreign word out of the sentence without hurting anything, you’re probably okay. But if the meaning of the foreign word is key to understanding the sentence, rework it. Your reader wants to live the story, not go searching in Google Translate.

Bonus tip: If English isn’t the speaker’s first language, you can mess up the dialogue’s grammar just a tad. But be careful, because the more you mangle the English, and the more foreign words you include, the more you risk losing your reader. Use a deft touch, and tone it down in the rewrite.

Option 3: Use narrative summary.
Narrative summary is a pretty heavy-handed form of author intrusion that sounds something like this:

The men argued in Russian, pointing fingers at each other and shaking their fists.

It gets the point across quickly, but the danger here is that you’re breaking from the on-screen action to take the reader aside and tell them what’s happening. (Ever hear the rule about “show, don’t tell”? This is telling.) But sometimes this is the most economical way to keep the story going, especially if your character doesn’t speak the language. What you lose in style you’ll gain in pace.

Option 4: Write it all in one long block of foreign language.

Don’t do this. Ever. Under any circumstances. I can’t emphasize this enough, mi amigo. If your reader runs into a solid block of indecipherable words, you’re toast. At the very least, your reader will be jolted out of the story long enough to skim past the wall of foreign text. But it might be so annoying that the reader just closes your book and never comes back. Let’s avoid that, shall we?

Quick recap: Foreign Language in Fiction
  

  • If your point-of-view character can understand the language, just write it in English. At the end, add ‘she said in Russian.’ Or whatever.
  • If you want to drop in the occasional foreign word, make sure the meaning of the dialogue is still crystal clear.
  • If the viewpoint character doesn’t understand the language, the easiest way to keep the story moving is to work around it with a narrative summary: She fired off an angry retort in German.

Try writing your scene a few different ways and see which method works best for your story. Remember, learning how to write a novel is a lifelong process, so look at this as a chance to learn a new skill. And who knows, you might pick up a few words too, verstehen?

Do you have a writing question? Need a writing coach to help you solve a problem with your novel? Just ask! And if you try this idea and like it, let me know!

Categories: For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “How to Write Foreign Languages in Your Novel

  1. Thanks, I like your writing and you're dead on with this advice. I've gotten frustrated with more than one author showing off their knowledge of another language. A word or two, fine. But paragraphs?

  2. I agree! Anything that breaks the “invisible” flow of the text is dangerous to your storytelling.

  3. What about 'What the helvete is happening?'
    Is a phrase by my norwegian character :)

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