Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How to Use Foreign Languages in Fiction

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Using a foreign language in a novel can be tricky, but it can also add a sense of the larger, diverse world. This month, Laurence MacNaughton tackles options for using foreign languages in your story.

When 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 several 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.

(Here's more on How to Use Foreign Languages (Real or Imaginary) in Your Novel )

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, or contact me on my author website at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About No Sleep till Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 3)

An inexperienced sorceress must retrieve a priceless artifact from the enchantress who stole it, break the curse on her half-demon boyfriend, and stop her friends from turning on each other before the enchantress calls down doomsday.

When a wicked enchantress steals a cursed doomsday amulet, crystal sorceress Dru Jasper has only twenty-four hours to get it back before the world will come to a fiery end. With this supernatural amulet in hand, the enchantress intends to break the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll--making the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and the earth itself split apart. Overall,  bad news.

Dru must hit the road to get the amulet back. But she suspects her half-demon boyfriend, Greyson, and his demon-possessed muscle car, Hellbringer, are hiding a dark secret. Can she trust them to help her stop doomsday? Worse, tracking down the enchantress runs Dru smack up against a pack of killer  shape-shifters, the grim mystery of a radioactive ghost town, and a dangerous speed demon even more powerful than Hellbringer.

As the clock runs out, Dru is locked in a high-speed chase with the enchantress, fighting a fierce, magical duel she can never win alone. Can Dru and her sorcerer friends unravel Hellbringer's secrets, outwit the shape-shifters, and retrieve the stolen amulet before the dawn of doomsday?

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  1. I would caution against sprinkling words in other languages into the dialogue. Even if it's clear what it means, real people usually don't talk like that.

    1. Real people do talk that way, especially in multicultural areas.

    2. Real people who are multilingual do use a mix of languages. I speak from experience as I speak three languages (Bengali, Hindi and English) and use a mix when I’m with similar people.

  2. I wrote a novel where two characters speak to each other in Italian. My solution to including the reader? Include the Italian version in the main dialogue, then restate in English afterward in italics. Works like a charm!