4 Ways to Handle Foreign Languages in Fiction

How to Use Foreign Languages in Your NovelWhen a character in your story speaks a foreign language, should you write it out in that language, or in English?

How can you make the dialogue sound exotic without confusing the reader?

These are tricky questions.

Foreign languages can lend your characters and locations a more exotic flair, and even increase the dramatic tension in a scene.

But before you start sprinkling a certain je ne sais quoi into your prose, understand that you have four options.

Option 1: Write it in English.

By far the easiest way to handle a foreign language is just to keep everything in English. Simply tell the reader that a character is speaking in another language, 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.

The second-easiest way to include a foreign language is to use as little as possible. Just an italicized word here and there. No more than a couple per page. For example:

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

This technique can be a little tricky to pull off, because many of your readers won’t know what the word or phrase means. So you could risk losing them in translation.

To avoid that, re-read the sentence before and after the foreign word, and rewrite it if needed. You want the context to make it crystal clear with the word means.

For example, “Mi sobrino” means “my nephew” in Spanish. But even if you didn’t already know that, you can figure it out because it’s his uncle speaking.

If you can cut the foreign word out of the sentence without hurting anything, you’re probably fine. But if the meaning of the foreign word is key to understanding the sentence, then rework it. You don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of confusing the reader.

Bonus tip: If English isn’t the speaker’s first language, you could play around with the words a little bit. Mess up the grammar ever so slightly. But don’t do too much, 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.

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’s not ideal. With this technique, you’re breaking from the action to take the reader aside and tell them what’s happening. (Ever hear that old saying about “show, don’t tell”? This would be telling.)

Don’t use this technique for crucial turning points in a scene. It’s more of a shortcut so that you can get the point across quickly and then move on to the good stuff.

But if all you need to do is get the point across quickly, then go ahead and summarize it. Sometimes, it’s 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 dense 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, everything comes to a screeching halt. At the very least, your reader will be jolted out of the story long enough to skim past the wall of foreign text.

But do this more than once, and the reader will probably get annoyed. Maybe even enough to put your book down and never pick it up again. Let’s avoid that, shall we?

Quick recap: How to use foreign languages in your story

Don’t make this any more complicated than it needs to be. If your point-of-view character understands the foreign language, just write the dialogue 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 would still be crystal clear, even if you deleted the foreign words.

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. (For example: She fired off an angry retort in German.)

If you’re not sure, 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 handy words too, entiendes?

Don’t get lost in translation

What’s your biggest challenge with using foreign languages in your fiction? Do you use a translation app? Leave me a comment below.

P.S. Want more writing tips you can really use? Get my newsletter.

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