Other Than The Mother Tongue | Incorporating Foreign Language In Your Fiction

Beginning not long after the Times Square Ball dropped to ring in 2021, I've been learning Hindi.


My progress has been gradual, but I finally feel able to recognize most of the language's alphabet and a few words, and I've picked up a few phrases as I've been progressing through Duolingo's lessons.


Hindi isn't the first language I've attempted to learn in addition to my native English. I was enrolled in my elementary school's dual language program starting in the first grade and continuing through fifth, in which we switched teachers about every week or so and would be taught primarily in English or Spanish depending on whose classroom we were in that day. I also had Spanish classes in middle school but these were limited to one-hour blocks twice a week and not nearly as immersive.


In college, I took French for a semester, but let's just say it didn't click as easily for me.


A few of my characters, however, fared far better in their language courses than I did in mine. Several are fluent in Latin, French, or Italian—and one protagonist even understands the archaic form of English spoken in Anglo-Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest. These languages may appear in my works at varying degrees, from a quip or single phrase to a full conversation.


When incorporating foreign languages in your writing, or even a language created specifically for a fictional universe like Dothraki or Klingon, there are a multitude of ways to weave them together on the page.


But there are also some standard rules to keep in mind as you do, so let's start with the basics.


For the purposes of this post, I'll be referring to English as the "main language" and others will be referred to as "foreign." As far as I know, the main language pertains to the language the book was written in, so a story set in Germany that is written in English would still have English as its "main language."


Formatting

As is the case with many things in the world of writing and publishing, there are a few standard practices for including foreign languages in your fiction.


The typical format is for these words or phrases to be italicized.


"It's like my grandmother used to tell us when I was a kid." An eased smile crept along her lips. "Petit poisson deviendra grand."


or


Resignation shot from Sara's lungs in a quick huff as she shoved the matchbox into her pocket. The ofrenda had to wait.


That's about it for the concrete rules, but there is still the consideration of whether or not you want foreign languages to appear on the page or if you only want to reference them in passing. This comes down to preference and the needs of the story, and whether or not you want to include translations for the reader.


Sans Translation

Sometimes, it is enough to make a brief mention of a foreign language being spoken without the text appearing, or include it but not provide a translation.


This tends to come up most when you're working with a character who doesn't speak the same language and having the narrator step in to explain it to the reader disrupts the pacing.


He said something in Mandarin.


Ellen frowned, realizing how little she remembered from her Hebrew classes as her cousin addressed the crowd.


"Testa di cazzo," he muttered.


These can be sufficient when going into detail would break the narrative flow or pull the reader out of the story.


Just as often, however, you might find you need to include the translation.


How you choose to do so is up to you as the writer, but here are a few options I've encountered over the years or have implemented in my own fiction.


Translation In Narration

One of the most common ways of incorporating foreign languages in fiction is to weave in the translation for readers who do not share the character's fluency.

The way you go about this may depend on the perspective you're writing from.

In a first-person POV, your protagonist might simply explain it to the reader.


"Mija." Lita's eyes find mine. "El tiempo lo cura todo."

I nod, failing to hold back scalding tears. My grandmother is right.

Time heals all. But I can't help wondering how long it takes.


Alternatively, you might have a character provide translation through dialogue.


A rich laugh erupts from him. "Senza tentazioni, senza onore, my friend. No temptation. No glory."


The latter example proves helpful when the protagonist doesn't speak the same language but you still want to clue the reader in.


This is the most common method I've encountered and the one I rely on the most in my own writing, but it's not the only one out there.


Glossaries

I encountered this one a lot when I was reading chapter books in elementary and middle school, especially in historical fiction, but I've also seen them in books intended for older audiences.


Glossaries are like mini dictionaries and tend to be found at the back of the book. Here, you'll find specific terms from the work with some additional context like definitions or translations.


The format can vary, but it may read something like:


Mooncake: Pastry filled with sweet-bean, meat or lotus-seed paste. Making and sharing these delicacies during special holidays is a tradition in several Asian cultures.


They may also denote the pages where the term is introduced, but this is not required.


Including a glossary can be a great way to go into great detail in translating words or describing the usage of a phrase without breaking into the scene because it acts as its own separate unit.

Most often, I've encountered glossaries in works for younger readers where there is an educational element to the book or in fantasy.


Footnotes

Like glossaries, footnotes provide additional context to what may be unfamiliar material. The primary difference between the them is that while glossaries tend to be included at the back of a book, footnotes are printed at the bottom of the page.


Terms may be marked with a number or symbol, directing the reader to the bottom of the page where the definition is found.


While this is more applicable to works of nonfiction, I have read a few novels that go in this direction. It really depends on the tone of your writing.


Do Away With The Need To Decipher

The above options are great for incorporating foreign languages in your writing, but there is one approach it would be better to stay away from.


Back in the day, I had it in my head that showing my characters speaking in Latin made them feel more intelligent, not to mention classes at Eton were taught in Latin and a lot of my Regency Era gentlemen characters attended the college. One individual was also fluent in French.


Because of this, I got in the habit of just including entire paragraphs of text in languages other than English.


The problem with this is that it can be a lot.


As I started editing, finding almost an entire page I essentially needed to decipher turned out to be overwhelming, and I started skipping over them.


If I was doing this in editing, imagine what future readers would do if they encountered this in the finished product!


Blocks of foreign languages can be disorienting and irritating to work through, so it's best to refrain from overindulging.


These days, I tend to keep it to the occasional line or two sprinkled in unless a specific scenario calls for it.


Nuance Knowledge

Every language has its special rules, even if they're unwritten.

English speakers know that adjectives go in a particular order based on what they are describing.

Clifford is a Big, Red Dog. He's not a Red, Big Dog.

Why? Because the English language says so and I've never argued with it. Even though ordering adjectives is not something I've ever been instructed on, it's something a majority of English speakers just know.

English is far from the only language with its own set of special rules.

In Spanish, one needs to consider the circumstances when addressing someone. Casual scenarios, like talking to a classmate or a loved one, would probably allow for the informal .

However, if you're speaking with your boss or a new acquaintance, Usted is used because it is more formal.

This is something found across several languages and can be very telling for character relationships, even allowing for potential development.

Characters whose first interactions have them using Usted when speaking but gradually shift to offers readers a sense of their strengthening friendship. There's actually a term for this change in Spanish: tutearse.

Contrarily, usage can display negative shifts just as easily, such as having a character revert to using usted after an argument.

Playing with nuances such as these create a layer of depth in your writing, so it's definitely worth looking into.

Additional Words Of Caution

When you're working with a language you are not fluent in or have a limited understanding of, don't let Google Translate be your only guide. Although it can be a helpful resource for figuring out a quick phrase, it's not perfect.

In my experience, Google Translate won't pick up on some of the aforementioned nuances and other things are prone to slipping under the radar.

Some languages have masculine and feminine terms like pronouns and adjectives. These might be denoted by spelling or accented syllables, or terms being considered appropriate for a masculine person but not a feminine one.

Two countries that speak the same language likely have individual phrases and syntax you won't hear in neighboring regions.

My French professor once made mention of differences in the French spoken in France and the French spoken in areas throughout Canada. The differences are subtle to an untrained ear or eye, but readers fluent in that language are likely to catch them and may feel inclined to point out mistakes.

This is why it's important to bring in a helping hand when working with foreign languages.

Where possible, connect with someone who speaks the language you're working with so they can offer feedback. This could mean reaching out to a friend or posting a question on social media like, "How can you tell someone you love them in German?"

Hopefully, you'll be able to send messages back and forth or sit down and talk through the scene to provide additional context as you're drafting or send them some pages so they can correct any mistakes.

I lucked out when I was working with beta readers for Bound to the Heart because one of my betas was a former French teacher so she was able to immediately point out mistakes in my dialogue.

Sometimes, this can also open up conversations about cultural and historical details to revise or incorporate down the road. Language can get tricky. Even as someone who has been speaking English all my life and has a degree in it, there are times where I'll get tripped up by something and have to double-check.

This shouldn't stop you from including multiple languages in your fiction. Whether your usage is inspired by a character's culture or bringing your readers into your settings, multiple languages can be an excellent tool for enriching your writing. This can be the thing that breathes life and realism into your stories.

Just ensure your readers don't get lost in translation along the way.



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