When writing, scenes come to my mind in different languages mixed together. For example in a single scene a description will be in French, some dialogues in English, with a few words of Spanish and Occitan appearing here and there. Sometimes a single sentence contains three different languages. The result can be an incomprehensible mess.

How should I proceed?

Should I write everything as it comes and have an editing phase later? Or should I try to translate my thought during the writing process?

Are there exercises or rules I could follow to help me control/focus my thoughts?

  • It could be great to take profit from that: imagine a detective story where readers get different clues depending on the languages they can understand - or at least grasp. You could have a different reading experience for each language combination, although it would be hard to build the story in a way that all combinations are enjoyable.
    – Pere
    Feb 23, 2017 at 9:42

3 Answers 3


One way of approaching this may be to commit to the linguistic styles of your characters and let the story develop a "slang" that you introduce to your readers through annotation provided by the narrator.

Exact, literal translation is not as important as conveying meaning. Consider providing frequent, explicit crutches early in the text before settling on a minimal, but constant, scaffolding through to the end. The reader will not need to know what "merde" is, as a material, if they understand that characters only utter when really angry.

Given the common roots of French and Spanish, and the number of borrowed words that appear in English, the gap between where you are writing and where your audience may be reading might be smaller than you fear.


If it's your first draft, just write it as it comes. You can't edit a blank page.

After your first draft, go back through and clean up the polyglossolalia. If you're writing in third person, pick one language and make it all that. (Obviously if your characters speak multiple languages, you can decide what to keep and what to translate.)

If you're writing in the first person, you may choose to have a multilingual narrator. You then have to pick one "main" language (the language of whatever you think your audience will be) and figure out from there how much of the other language(s) you want to translate for them. For example, if the first-person narrator's main language is French, you can leave in a few swear words in Spanish, but if she's going to have a lengthy conversation in English, you need to translate that for your French readers.

There's a certain charm in code-switching (when a character changes languages for a few key words because the main language just doesn't have the term or phrase), so I wouldn't edit out your other languages entirely.


I doubt that there's a definitive answer to this. Different writers have different styles and different things that work for them.

Personally, my approach is that for the first draft, I just throw words on paper. Whatever comes to my mind I type into the computer. Once I have a whole bunch of words down, then I go back and clean it up. I rewrite sentences that are poorly worded, re-arrange sentences or paragraphs so that the flow of the thought makes sense, drop text that doesn't really advance the thought, and add text when there are gaps.

When I was young and the idea of owning your own computer was in the same league as owning your own jet airplane, I wrote with a typewriter. Then, once you typed a word, if you changed your mind you had to throw away the whole page and retype it. If on page 10 you decided that you needed to add a paragraph to page 4, you would have to retype page 4, which would push some text from that page onto page 5, so you had to retype page 5, etc. So back then I would type a first draft, make notes on it and scribble all over it, and then type a second draft, and declare myself done.

Today, with word processing software, I go back and forth through my work constantly. It's easy to add or subtract a word or a sentence and let the computer adjust all the following pages. Do it. Hack and chop and go forward and backward and move things around. It's easy today. I don't really make "drafts" anymore, like first draft, second draft, third draft. Rather, it's an ongoing process, change a little here, change a little there, until I'm satisfied that it's the best that I can produce. (Or until I'm sick of reading and re-reading my own work.)

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