Part of an English story takes place in rural South America, where Spanish is the native tongue.


A Spanish character thinks to himself. In English (i.e., in the story's native tongue), thoughts are quite often placed in italics, but never inside of quotation marks. The question he asks is:

What’s going on?

There are only a few places in the text where characters speak Spanish, and even fewer where they think in it.

Punctuation Permutations

A handful of ways to write his question include:

  • ¿Qué está pasando? he wondered, what’s going on?
  • ¿Qué está pasando? he wondered. What’s going on?
  • ¿Qué está pasando? he wondered: What’s going on?
  • Qué está pasando? he wondered. What’s going on?
  • He wondered, Qué está pasando?--What’s going on?

I'm unsure of whether to prefix with the upside-down question mark, whether to use two independent statements, or join them together with punctuation (e.g., a comma or full-colon).


How would you:

  • punctuate the foreign language question that the character thinks?
  • provide a translation for the reader?



1 Answer 1


Both your second and fourth examples look natural to me. Including the upside-down question mark might be slightly preferable, but sometimes adding a little-used character can add to the expense and trouble of printing a book.

That said, styles for punctuation vary across countries, across different publishers, and even between different editors. If you are submitting your manuscript to a publisher, look at other books published by the same company and copy the punctuation they use.

To be honest, though, I don't see any reason to have the Spanish for "What's going on?" appear in the original language at all when your book is in English. The usual convention is to translate everything into the language in which the story is told, except for a few exclamations1 or greetings that give a flavour of the story's setting, or for dialogue where the fact that the words spoken are actually in another language is important to the plot. "What's going on?" is a straightforward question that could be asked by anyone anywhere in the world. The only reason I would put it in Spanish would be if I wanted to stealthily give the reader a little language lesson because I had a turn of plot later on for which the reader needs to know those particular Spanish words. Even then, I'd probably just give the words in Spanish and let the reader figure out the meaning from context.

1Which would would give rise to a similar question to yours but regarding exclamation marks, or to exactly the same question as yours given that many exclamations are in the form of questions, so I'm far from saying your question is invalid, just that providing "ordinary" words in both languages seems laboured.

  • 1
    This is a good answer, yet raises a subtlety of the original question. Without the English translation, writing ¿Qué está pasando? he wondered. could be construed as him wondering aloud in Spanish, because contextually, my understanding is that quotation marks and italics are not mixed. In this case, he's wondering internally, therefore the text would be ¿Qué está pasando? he wondered to himself., which is also laborious. Is there another way to show he's speaking Spanish to himself? ¿Qué está pasando? he thought. might suffice, but loses the sense of wonderment. Jan 6, 2016 at 0:59
  • 3
    Yes. If you're writing a book for an English-speaking audience, then 99% of the time you should just translate all dialog to English. Anything else just gets confusing and tedious. The only exceptions I can think of are, (a) as @lostinfrance says, a few odd words to add flavor, and (b) when something about the original language is important, like the fact that two words sound similar in Spanish and so might cause confusion to a Spanish speaker even though they don't in English.
    – Jay
    Jan 7, 2016 at 7:34

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