Monday, March 10, 2014

How to Use Foreign Languages (Real or Imaginary) in Your Novel

By Juliette Wade, @JulietteWade 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I recently received a wonderful question about using made up languages in a novel, and I knew just where to go to get the answer. One of my critique partners (and best buds) is a linguistic anthropologist who writes science fiction and fantasy, and deals with this topic all the time. I can't think of anyone better suited to share tips on how to handle this situation.

Juliette Wade's first short story, "Let the Word Take Me," appeared in Analog Magazine, followed by her novelette, "Cold Words," "At Cross Purposes" with cover art by Bob Eggleton, and "The Liars," appeared on the cover of Analog's October 2012 issue with art by Michael Whelan. Other short stories include, "The Eminence's Match" in the Eight Against Reality anthology; "Smoke and Feathers" in When the Hero Comes Home 2 from Dragon Moon Press; with two more stories coming soon: "Lady Sakura's Letters" in the inaugural issue of STRAEON from Stupefying Stories, and "Mind Locker," which will appear in Analog in the coming year.Her most recent story is "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" (Not Easily Thrown Away) from Clarksworld Magazine.

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Take it away Juliette...

Q: My novel tells the story of explorers coming to a previously completely isolated island, told from an islander’s POV. One of the first issues which comes up is communication between the two groups: over time they learn each other’s languages sufficiently to get by, but at first they cannot understand each other. Although the places do not exist, the explorers are essentially from a western society, so, for example, I have used English names for their characters and exotic names for the islanders. Therefore it follows logically that the explorers speak English, or at least, the equivalent thereof, while the islanders speak the “foreign” language.

My issue is how to write dialogue between the characters. Since the book is written in English, I can hardly use this as a source of the words the explorers use which cannot be understood. I am also reluctant to start inventing languages or (ab)using existing languages. I’m not a fan of writing words on a page that the reader can’t understand. Can I get away with large chunks of reported dialogue? e.g. “He said something she couldn’t understand.”
A: You ask an interesting question.

You have two populations, the island population and the explorer population, neither of which actually speaks English within the story world, but both of which have to be comprehensible to readers.

I think one of the issues that makes the task difficult here is that you are taking the point of view of the islander population, which could lead to an expectation that the islanders speak English… but you are associating English instead with the explorer population, since you may be emulating aspects of real world history.

Let's step back from the problem for a moment, and think about what the language difference is doing in your story. It's not only creating an overall sense that we are in a fantasy world rather than a real world, but it's also creating a divide between two groups. Whatever decision you make should have something to do with how closely you want your reader to identify with each of the two groups.

Using a lot of incomprehensible words is automatically going to make readers feel alienated from the group that uses them, so if you want to create a sense of insider perspective, keep the use of "exotic" words to a minimum for the islanders. Names of people and places are totally fine. Names of things can also be fine if you are able to support them enough in the surrounding text that readers will be able to understand them.

You can also make the sense of insider perspective stronger by thinking through the kinds of issues that are important to the islanders, how they define their lives and what metaphors they use. Then you can contrast those with the outsider's way of thinking.

When it comes to portraying the explorers as outsiders, you can certainly say things like "the newcomers spoke at length but we couldn't understand them." Another thing you can do is describe what their language sounds like – hard and fast, for example, or mushy with lots of sounds deep in the throat. Still another thing you can do is take a word or two from the explorers' language and show how the islanders might spell it. For example, when I had aliens listening to humans speak, at one point I had my human character say "Wow," but my alien character heard it as "waaaau," which was more consistent with the language he spoke. You can also have explicit language teaching and related talk built into social situations here and there.

I understand your reluctance to start using foreign languages, or start creating languages, but in a sense, you already started as soon as you created exotic names. Take a look at those names and try to figure out if they have a set of sounds in common. What is the "feel" they give you? If you can grasp that, then you may be able to extend that "feel" into the way that you use English when you are writing from their point of view.

I hope this has given you some helpful options to consider going forward.


  1. Thank you ms Wade, good article. I have a character Iada who is from the deep south and has an accent so thick she is hard to understand. I am wondering at what point do I just intimate her accent or flat out use her words as she speaks them?

    1. Hi, Harry, thanks! The deep south question is a good one. I find in my own reading that trying to use spelling to convey an accent causes a lot of trouble and can confuse (or even insult) readers. An accent like that isn't just a matter of pronunciation, however. A lot of it can be terms and expressions unique to that dialect, so I encourage you to use those when you can. You can also try to capture the different rhythm of the accent in the words you choose, even when they are more standard words. This will actually be sufficient to "intimate" the accent effectively, even without surrounding description (though obviously you can use that, too). If you are deliberately trying to indicate that she is hard to understand, you can always use the perspective of her listener to cast judgment on the content of what she has said. I hope that helps!

    2. It sure does, thanks for the quality advice :)

  2. Good stuff, Juliette. I wanted to add a couple of side notes:

    1. Another good reason to avoid using a real-world language for this is that some percentage of readers are going to know that language, so for those readers, you'll be presenting something as exotic and foreign when in fact it's familiar and ordinary to them.

    2. More generally, anytime you find yourself using the word "exotic" to describe an aspect of something you're writing, it's probably worth taking a little time to think about whether you're exoticizing something that someone else might find ordinary. (For more on this general topic, Google the word [exoticizing] and wander through some of the search results.)

    1. (Um, to clarify: That "you" wasn't directed at Juliette; it was a generic "you.")

    2. Jed, I think you make a good point. Exploring the idea of what is exotic would take another whole article, but it's a good idea not just to use existing languages that "sound exotic" for alien or fantasy situations. It takes some work to create an insider perspective within an unfamiliar group, but I've found it's worth the effort.

    3. Funny story related to your first point - there was a movie made (one of the Zulu Wars ones), in which the filmmakers wanted to create a sense of realism. So they hired a Swahili speaker (yeah, not Zulu) to give them translated sentences for the dialog that wasn't in English (it was also subtitled, of course). The movie was released in the US and UK and did very well...then it went to Nairobi. At a very tense point in the film, a clearly exhausted runner dashes into the chieftain's tent, collapses at his feet and gasps out an urgent sentence, subtitled as something like "The British are coming!". At the Nairobi release, at this point, the entire audience burst into uproarious laughter. Apparently what he actually said, in Swahili, was "I'm not getting paid enough for this!"

      So yeah, using actual words, especially if you're not sure of their meanings (denotation and connotations) can be very problematic.

  3. Hi Juliette
    Good post, thanks. I must confess to wimping out as far as alien languages go, often opting for the all-purpose 'common' tongue.
    I do enjoy writing dialects as well, though getting the balance between realism and not annoying the reader can be a tough balance. I find reading it out loud is the best way to get a sense of whether your reader is going to be disrupted in trying to decipher what's being said.
    When you create language, do you read it out loud? In the real world, I imagine language is created aurally first, and as an author I think it can be easy to write names that look great but don't sound right.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your comment!
      I agree - the balance between realism and not annoying the reader can be a tough one. I play with it all the time (I've even had a rejection saying that the language worked well but was annoying!). I usually rely on the help of outside readers and critique partners to tell me whether the dialect is working or not. That said, I do also read things aloud later in the process. I talk about my stories with friends, too, which means all my character names get tested out aurally.

  4. Thanks for this interesting income!

    Language is a real struggle for my story too, since my protagonists come from very different countries, and I'm still trying to find out how they are going to understand each others. I can pretend they all speak a decent english by chance, but it sounds a little too convenient to be believable.

  5. Great post. I really like the idea of having your POV character describe the sounds with something in their world. For metallic clangs from an alien, an earthling might think, 'Maybe if I dropped silverware on the floor, I'd have a better chance to get them to understand me. No, I'll end up just insulting his mama's hair. Not sure I want to see this warrior angry. Do zxynogoughts even have mothers?'

  6. Great post! And very timely. I'm currently working on a story where my main character is the one translating for the other species, so instead of giving my creatures invented names I'm having him think of them by their name meanings. (Like, their name might be Bright, or Honor or something.) Is that sensible, or something that 'll bother readers?

  7. Thanks for your post. My character speaks 3 languages and flip-flops. The narrator speaks English. I was wondering how to handle it. Does the narrator use the foreign language with translation in paranthesis? Does the narrator sum up as suggested above? The relevance to the story is that the character is multicultural which provides an unique perspective on life.

  8. Ooh, thanks for this article!! This is one of those posts that I'm going to shelve away and drag out when I get around to project #20852384....

    1. "... get around to project #20852384...."

      I love it! How true!

  9. I've been working on creating a language for my people for some time. I actually enjoy it, but when I write the story I only sprinkle a few words here and there so as not to confuse or irritate the reader.

  10. I'm sure this comment is going to float in the aether, coming ten years after the last comment in this section, but I'll take my shot anyway, such this is the only place I've seen my particular use case addressed as closely as this.

    Basically, similar setup as the person whose question you answered with a couple of differences. In my book, a character from another realm gets transported to England. The character doesn't speak English, but obviously I'm writing the book in English so his speech is written in English. But when other characters start talking to him, they are actually speaking English. but he doesn't understand it at first, so I can't write out what they are saying in English (I represent it as my character intuiting their meaning from their intonations and gestures). After a chapter or two, he'll have learned the language and he'll be speaking English like everyone else. But it's this intermediate stage that is flummoxing me. I thought I had come up with a good workable solution, but my writer's group all expressed the same issue with it. Basically, whenever my character was talking in his own language, I'd write it like so with brackets indicating this other language:

    ["Why are you looking at me like that?"]

    I also plan on this character talking to himself in this other language from time to time, and I want an easy way to indicate he's not using English.

    I felt this was an elegant solution so I didn't have to constantly write: ....he said in Vatari. Or ....he said in his native language.

    But my writer's group all said that the brackets were confusing or that it felt like I was writing a parenthetical aside. They suggested just having the other language be in italics, but I'm already using that visual trick for direct thoughts.
    My only other solution to this is to just use a visually distinct font for that language, but I know no publisher would ever use that, and unless someone was reading a pdf with the fonts baked in, I could never be sure the text was appearing properly in a digital version of the document.


    1. Juliette isn't checking this anymore, but I am :)

      That's a tough one, and I'd warn against any strange fonts or weird brackets. That takes more to explain than just saying "No one here understood Vatari."

      Here are some suggestions:

      1. Establish that the protagonist is speaking his language early on and then just treat the English like it's his language. You might toss in the occasional reminder that he's not speaking English, but if he learns it within a few chapters, you won't need many reminders. Readers are used to this. Movies do this all the time.

      2. Keep doing what you're doing with showing the character not understanding those speaking English. You can also make it clear when he speaks, they don't understand him.

      3. If his native language isn't English, and readers know that, they'll assume he thinks in his language. You don't need to make a point of of that. If he's speaking out loud, you can always have someone look at him confused or something to show he's not speaking English. But even that's likely unnecessary unless it matters to the scene that someone overhears him.

      Don't overthink it :) The whole point is for readers to be able to read the story, and they're used to English being other languages in media. Once you tell them that, and then show he learns English and is now speaking that, they'll just go with it.

      Hope this helps!