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So... imagine you have a story in your native language written down, with protagonists that speak this language and no problem at all, except a bunch of scenes where your protagonist meets someone who speaks another language. And you write it down in that language. I don't think this is a huge problem at all, even if you assume that your protagonist does not speak this tongue (but the reader may understand it) and you are using this as some kind of a plot element. Everything is fine until now.

Now the unexpected happens: your story is kind of successful and gets published in your country. Now it even amasses more fame and suddenly someone gets the idea to publish it in other countries too... so what should be done with these dual language scenes, especially if it got published in even that language your protagonist has no clue of?

What starts off as

Poor Siegfried was standing around, listening to the foreigner speaking "Ha, der versteht uns doch sowieso nicht, der Depp"

will get to

Der arme Siegfried stand herum, hörte dem Gespräch der Fremden zu "Ha, der versteht uns doch eh nicht"

or (inverse it)

Poor Siegfried was standing around, listening to the foreigner speaking "Ha, he will not understand what we are saying, that moron"

I mean, you can't just flip the language, if you state that this did happen in country whatever before, because readers will get confused if the native language in Germany is suddenly declared to English. For example.

Is there any way to avoid this kind of pitfall, aside from writing

They said in their native German language "that moron will not understand what we are saying" and poor Siegfried indeed did not.

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While not a perfect solution, this may help somewhat:

Der arme Siegfried stand herum, hörte dem Gespräch der Fremden zu "Ha, der versteht uns doch eh nicht"

to demonstrate in english:

Poor Siegfried was standing around, listening to the foreigner speaking "Ha, he will not understand what we are saying, that moron"

Of course there is always the possibility that it will appear that Siegfried can understand the foriegn language, but it does suggest that the words are in a different language (akthough in this case it may appear that the foreign language is not german/english.)

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I would not advise swapping round the languages. Part of the flavour of any story is its setting. If I am reading a book set in Germany or Austria I expect and understand that, for the most part, the characters will be depicted as speaking German, even if it is translated into English for my benefit. I also accept and understand that English will be a foreign language to them. (Quite possibly I picked up that book specifically because I wanted a change from the usual sort of books I read that concern native English speakers in the US or the UK.) As you suggest, it just looks weird if a bunch of characters who have hitherto been stated to be German are suddenly revealed to be native English speakers for whom German is a foreign tongue. My response is likely to be, "Huh? What? Is this a science fiction novel about an alternate timeline, or am I dreaming?"

Nonetheless, sometimes the inversion you describe is done, or sometimes a third language is brought in to be the foreign language. It is common enough that there is a whole TV Tropes page about this phenomenon. However often it is done, I still say flipping around the languages almost always looks stupid and jarring. The only way it ever works is as a joke.

So, my strong recommendation is either to translate all the dialogue into the target language or, preferably, to simply state that Character X said something in English that your viewpoint character did not understand, even if he did catch the tone of what X was saying.

I would like to add a few minor points:

  • The difficulty you describe would not be likely to arise in the first place with novels published in English because the convention followed by most publishers in the UK or the US is that very little of the dialogue is left in the original language, usually only greetings, exclamations, culturally-specific terms and any speech where the plot depends on the reader knowing the exact words spoken in the original language. I realise that the convention may be different in Germany where a greater percentage of the people are multilingual.

  • I suggest you look at some previous questions and answers on Writers Stack Exchange that cover questions related to yours. The question most relevant to you was "How to convey that the POV character does not understand what's said in dialogue?"

  • There have also been questions on the best way to show a foreign language, on how to handle multilingual scenes, on untranslated passages in translated works, and on translating thoughts in a foreign language.

  • While we're on the subject of translation, in the excerpt in English about Siegfried, replace "speaking" with "saying". The verb "to speak" just isn't one of the verbs we use to immediately precede a direct quote in English. I can offer no logical explanation; it's just one of those quirks that all languages have.

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