The protagonist is from a certain country, and in some point of the story he moves to another one that speaks another language. The protagonist learns their language and talks with them in it.

Movies (usually North American ones) set in another country, almost always have one or some characters who speak English, lowering the impact that the foreign language causes. However, the fiction I'm writing is quite long, and I think that only 2 or 3 characters who speak the protagonist's language throughout the whole story is quite inadequate.

Some parts of these movies have dialogs in the local language, but with subtitles. What about a written story? Provide the translation right after? That would be partially good only if these parts are few if compared to the whole story's dialogs, but that's not my case.

Also, fictions set in another country, but that don't have a change in the local language, are much easier than those that do have, because if, for example, the story is an adaptation from a Chinese story, anyone would know that though every character is speaking English, they would actually be speaking in the local language.
But would this be possibly applicable to the situation when there's a country switch? All dialogs in the other country will be in the same language as the ones in the initial country? Wouldn't it be weird or unrealistic?

Sorry, I think I didn't explained much clearly. I explain:
The problem is the language in the dialogs, not the narration. This story involves a lot of dialogs, and the protagonist moves to another country and learns their language. The problem with this moving is the change in the language in the dialogs, that, in reality, would be another one. And my question is how to deal with this situation in the story.

  • What languages do your target audience speak? Would you assume your readers only spoke English? Or are the readers mostly bilingual?
    – Memming
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:19
  • Well, actually the fiction is being written in Portuguese, and the most of the target public don't know another language. Some would know another, but only English. And others don't know other language but know isolated words from the language.
    – Yuuza
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:27
  • Related, possible dupe: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1742/… Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:40
  • @Memming I'm not sure you can make a presumption that readers are going to be bilingual. Choose a language and write it for that language, else you automatically alienate a proportion of your audience.
    – Michael B
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 9:47
  • 3
    Consider just writing the dialogue in English (or whatever language your story is in) and let the setting and characterization communicate to the reader what language is being spoken. For example, Frederick Forsythe's The Odessa File is set in post-war Germany with a German protagonist and mostly German characters. It's easy to understand after the first couple pages that the characters are speaking German and you, the reader, can magically understand everything perfectly.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 17:54

6 Answers 6


We have four variants of foreign language dialog in fiction and the corresponding solutions how we can handle this:

|                      |    foreign language   |    foreign language   |
|                      |     is limited to     |    makes up a major   |
|                      |    short phrases or   |   part of all dialog  |
|                      |   occurs only rarely  |                       |
|      the protagonist | translate the phrase; | translate (2)         |
|      understands the | use typography (1)    |                       |
|     foreign language | to signify foreign    |                       |
|                      | language              |                       |
|      the protagonist | give the original     | describe that people  |
|  does not understand |                       | speak ('Tik said      |
| the foreign language |                       | something and pointed |
|                      |                       | at the sky.')         |


(1) Signifying translation typographically is optional. Usually the context makes it clear enough that if an American goes shopping in France, the clerk will speak French. Readers use their knowledge of the world to supplement the texts they read.

If it can reasonably be assumed that the foreign person speaks the protagonist's mother tongue, typography can help make the difference clear. Explain the convention the first time you use it. E.g.:

Bob and his wife flew to France. When they arrived in Paris, the customs officer said to them in French: "Please show me your passports."
"What did he say?" Bob's wife asked.
"He wants to see our passports," Bob answered and handed the passports to the officer.
"Thank you," the officer said.

What conventions you use will depend on your book design and your publisher. I have seen the use of italics, as in the previous example, and angle brackets:

〈Please show me your passport,〉 the officer said.

Do not use markup or typography if foreign language dialogue is extensive (as in your book). In that case, just translate it and let the context make it clear which language is spoken.

(2) Wether or not you translate foreign language dialog will depend on your readership. If you write for a highly educated audience, it is quite common to leave French or Spanish text untranslated in English fiction. But if you write for a more general audience, you should aim for a monolingual text. The exception is fantasy and SF, where Elvish and other fictional languages are often left in the "original" for effect.

  • 11
    The immediate example that comes to mind is James Clavell's Asian Saga, specifically Shōgun. Japanese comes in italicized snippets as the protagonist is learning the language. Once he becomes more fluent, it starts to shift away from that into fully translated speech. I think he hits all four areas of that chart at some point or another.
    – Geobits
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 15:20

Most books set in a foreign country nevertheless give all dialog in the language of the intended audience. That is, if you are writing for, say, an English-speaking audience, you give all dialog in English, even if the story is set in France or on the planet Vulcan. For the obvious reason: if the reader doesn't understand the dialog, the book won't make any sense to them.

Sure, you could write the dialog in French, and then translate. But what does this gain? It's a lot of extra text that the non-French-speaking reader is just going to skip anyway.

The reader knows that people in France generally speak French, and will understand that the dialog is all intended to be a translation.

I've read many stories where they say, "Then he answered in French ..." and proceed to give the text in English. The reader understands that he spoke French, but you are giving the translation.

In most stories, the language doesn't matter, i.e. the story would be no different if everyone in France spoke English, so just translating everything doesn't cause any problems.

If language differences are really important -- like if there are characters in the story who don't know the language -- that's different.

If the hero doesn't understand the language -- say French to continue my example -- then you could give the dialog in French. But then a reader who DOES speak French will know what was said, while the hero doesn't, which could destroy important elements of the scene. You'd probably be better to just write things like, "The policeman said something in French. George had no idea what he was saying. He tried pointing at ..." etc.

The only catch I see is if some important point in the plot hinges on something about the language, like two words sounding the same or a point of grammar. I've occasionally read stories where the text must be assumed to be a translation, but a character makes a statement that's some play on words or a rhyme or some such, and I've said to myself, "Wait, but they all must be speaking in French. Does the French word for the big yellow thing in the sky sound the same as the word for a male child just like in English? If not, then there really wouldn't be any confusion here ..."

  • 1
    "Wait, but they all must be speaking in French" - Umberto Eco is interesting on the topic of translated fiction. See for example Mouse or Rat?. I think he includes there cases of his own work being translated into English, where the same issue arises that you describe: the translated text cannot be an "accurate" representation of what was said in the other language, and one joke/pun or other linguistic effect has been replaced with a different one having the same literary purpose. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 17:44
  • In case the dialogs will only give the translation, what about leaving untranslated some common expressions or isolated words, then add a footnote with the translation, for those who don't know?
    – Yuuza
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 22:22
  • +1 in general, but especially for the bit about someone who speaks French understanding something before they were supposed to be able to.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 0:07
  • 1
    @BrunoLopes You certainly could. Would that help add flavor, or would it be distracting by calling attention to the fact that most of the text is not in the original language? I don't recall reading a book that did this -- other than well-recognized titles, like "monsieur" or "tsar", place names of course, and occasional greetings or exclamations.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 3:34

The answer would seem to be to remember the point of view of the narrator. If you are writing from the protagonists point of view, then write it from the language that the protagonist speaks. if (s)he goes into a shop and doesn't understand anything that is said, then say that they had to point at what they wanted etc

If later on the protagonist learns the word for banana, then you can include that development.

If the narrator has a different point of view, then describe / show what the protagonist is doing, there is no need to include language / speech in the story.

TV is a visual / audio experience, they need to have people speaking because it is near impossible to show what a character is thinking. A story can do that very easily though, you don't need to show the reader the conversation, just tell the story

As for changing the language, if I was reading a book where the character went to China and suddenly all dialogue was written in chinese, I'd feel pretty annoyed! Again it comes down to the point of view of the narration. If the narrator speaks that language then the narrator can translate for the reader. If the narrator doesn't understand what is being said, then neither should the reader.

  • Ok, but in this case the narrator would translate every dialog that would happen there?
    – Yuuza
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 10:29
  • 2
    @BrunoLopes The idea is that the audience has to learn along with the character. If Roberta doesn't understand the English, she isn't going to understand what anyone's saying until she learns it. So you present the language from her POV. She points, other people speak slowly but it's still incomprehensible, she learns one or two words, etc. When she learns the one or two words, you then include them in Portuguese, because now your reader understands the words as well. Your narrator is not translating until the character learns. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 11:46
  • @BrunoLopes Try reading The Chanur Saga from CJ Cherryh. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chanur_novels A human becomes part of a group of hani, and he sounds like a child to the hani until he learns more of their language. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 11:48

I am currently reading a book where the majority of characters speak one language (Japanese), but two characters additionally speak a different language (Latin). If a character is speaking in Japanese, it is written in normal English:

You are beautiful

but when one of the characters wants to talk in Latin (so that no-one else can understand), the author uses archaic/flowery language:

Thou art beautiful to mine eyes

A reader of the book can therefore instantly tell what language is being spoken, but it is easy to read as it is actually all in English.

  • 4
    I have seen novels where the foreign language dialogue was written in English but in the foreign grammar, so if it was German it would say "have you breakfast eaten?", "today shines the sun" and so on. This is clearly "foreign" but still understandable.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 10:40
  • A similar concern — perhaps I put this in a separate answer — is the expression of idiomatic figures. Most people seem to forget those when they consider characters speaking in different languages. Of course, idioms are also a concern with different cultural backgrounds which share the same language i.e. dialects. Contextual clues, footnotes(*), and introducing morés to readers as if the morés were characters can be used much like suggested by this answer and the comment above Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 11:26
  • Also, another answer here talks about differences of language when such is important to the story itself. Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 11:39

Provide dialog in the language of your narration and use distorted spelling to indicate the accent of your character (and other poor speakers). You could also use distorted spelling to indicate the way your character mishears the foreign language.

— Huts a dime.

— Come again? — I asked, trying to make sense of the fluent speech.

— What’s the time? — he repeated, enunciating clearly.

You could also use phrases like “Hearing English was relieving after all this time” to indicate a conversation in English. Normally you’d only have to indicate that a character speaks English a few times before the reader learns it and gets used to the fact that most other characters speak another tongue, but this one speaks the protagonist’s mother tongue.

  • With this approach, I would take care to vary the typeface of the speech which is represented as expressed rather than as impressed. E.g. using italics so that the reader is certain they are reading phonetic representation and not the intended words from the speaker. Commented Jul 14, 2018 at 11:29

Use angle quotes:

  • "Speaking in English"
  • «Speaking in Portuguese»

This also has the advantage of being actual (former) usage according to Wikipedia.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.