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What is the best way to incorporate a different language that uses another alphabet into a fiction manuscript? I am trying to use Russian in an English manuscript, but I don't know if I should use the pronunciation or the actual Russian alphabetic letters. Are there rules for this?

(I would give my examples, but they're swear words, and I don't know the rules on this site for putting that content out.)

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Rules? No, not beyond any that your publisher or editor might have. But one factor to consider is that, assuming you're not publishing in a specialized or foreign market, your readers probably won't know how to pronounce the words in a different alphabet -- you can't sound things out if you don't know the pronunciation rules. This means that the words you use are just glyphs, not words they can subvocalize and remember.

I saw this used to good effect once (can't remember where) in a story where the characters encountered a sign they couldn't read. It seemed perfectly reasonable that the reader couldn't read it either. But some people might be thrown a bit if they can't "hear" something that's spoken in the story. If you instead transliterate (and change the formatting; italics is common for this), you convey that it's a foreign word while still giving them something they can pronounce.

There are readers who don't care (I know people who can't tell me the names of Russian characters in books, but they know them when they see them), but using the original alphabet will get in the way of people who do care without helping most of your readers. So, assuming you don't have a higher-than-normal proportion of Russian readers in your audience, you will be more accessible by transliterating.

In practice, a few isolated words in a novel won't make a difference either way. But if you have a character who tends to use these words more frequently, you might want to fall back on the transliteration.

  • Thank you! I was intending to use it only once as a phrase when one of my main characters is so in shock, he reverts to his native language to swear. So it's a total of two words, but I think I like using the transliteration with italics. – Nicole Apr 15 '15 at 1:17
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    Glad to help! Another benefit: you'll teach your readers a little bit about how to swear in Russian -- skills they can use! :-) – Monica Cellio Apr 15 '15 at 1:18
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    I see you say that it's just two words. But I'd add that including a lot of text in a foreign language -- whether given in the original alphabet or transliterated -- just makes it harder for the reader who does not know that language to follow the story. I've seen this done at times, someone has a French character regularly making statements in French or whatever -- and as I don't speak French it's just annoying. I'm missing chunks of the story. For an exclamation, it's probably obvious in context it's an exclamation, that's probably all the reader needs to know. – Jay Apr 15 '15 at 13:35
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    @Jay - I've seen it come up in sci-fi a lot. More in movies than in novels (i.e. R2-D2), but I've seen it in books too. The key is making it a dialog with someone who responds in such a way that the reader can infer what the sentence was. And not to overdo it. – Bobson Apr 15 '15 at 17:07
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    @bobson Yeah, it can be done. Making what A said inferable from B's reply is possible -- I've seen it done a lot with phone conversations -- but when done clumsily can get silly. Like, "Hello, Bob" ... pause ... "You say that Sally lost her job?" ... pause ... "Huh, because she was late for work?" etc. Fill in the other side and the conversation is apparently, "Sally lost her job." "You say Sally lost her job?" "Yes, her boss said he fired her because she was late for work." "Huh, because she was late for work?" Etc. Of course it can be done well, but it's hard. – Jay Apr 15 '15 at 18:58
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Outside of scholarly of scholarly work the norm would be to transliterate. Now I am all for violating norms, but it is riskier, more work and you have to know what you are doing. if you can pull it off It would be praiseworthy, but it is not appropriate to all situations, particularly in that violating norms draws attention so one question is do you want to draw attention here?

  • Based on the OP's statement "only once as a phrase when one of my main characters is so in shock, he reverts to his native language to swear. So it's a total of two words" using a truly foreign representation could be appropriately jarring to the reader, emphasizing the mental break in the character. The fuzziness of waking up could be another circumstance where phonetic transliteration might be less desirable. Another case would be, as Monica mentioned, when the other characters do not understand. – Paul A. Clayton Apr 15 '15 at 11:01

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