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To provide a little background, I'm writing a novel set in a fantasy world, within which there are multiple languages.

I'm applying the rule that any speech the viewpoint character (I'm using subjective third person, by the way) is able to immediately understand is rendered as English, and everything else is written in the original language (as he would hear it).

The trouble is that some characters speak a language that is very similar to the viewpoint character's own language. It's not close enough that he'd understand every word, but he could probably get a rough idea of what they mean.

My question is, how can I convey this (in the sense of putting the reader in the character's head) as clearly and simply as possible?

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Two methods I can think of:

1) The character says or thinks what he's understood.

"So you want me to go to the hut in the forest and kill the wizard?"

He listened as the elders discussed the situation. Do they really want me to go into the Black Forest and take out the sorcerer who's cursed the whole kingdom? He wasn't sure if he was up for that.

2) The narration summarizes what the character thinks he's understood.

The elders spoke for a while. He couldn't follow the entire conversation, but he gathered that they wanted him to go into the great forest beyond the village and either incapacitate or kill the sorcerer who had cursed the kingdom. He wasn't sure if he was up for that.

  • Hi. Thank you for the answer. One concern I have is that a change of style (such as summarising the speech, rather than directly reporting it) could be jarring, and create a distance from the character. Perhaps there's simply no way around that, though. – TheTermiteSociety Nov 19 '16 at 0:53
  • @TheTermiteSociety That's Your Mileage May Vary. Write it, see if you like it, ask your beta readers if it works. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Nov 19 '16 at 2:30
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    @TheTermiteSociety Paraphrasing dialog is a common convention and not jarring at all. – user5645 Nov 20 '16 at 16:43
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The cheap and dirty trick which comes to mind is to take a phrase in English and replace all the words, or at least most of the keywords with made-up English-sounding (or even not English-sounding ones). It does require a certain level of knowledge of the language, but I think it is manageable with the help of a spell-checker—to make sure the made-up words do not actually mean something.

Something like this.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

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    This is great, if you use it only once or twice. If you have long streches of dialog that go like this, you will irritate your readers. If I picked up a book in the bookstore and found it contained dialog like this, I would put it back in the shelf. – user5645 Nov 20 '16 at 16:41
  • @what Most certainly so. One or two short samples should be enough to establish the level of the language barrier. – Lew Nov 20 '16 at 18:21
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    I like this suggestion. I think it could work well in small amounts, and - done well - be very fun to read. After some experimentation, @LaurenIpsum's solution is the one I've decided to use, however. It seems to feel the most natural, at least in the particular context of what I'm writing. – TheTermiteSociety Nov 22 '16 at 21:08
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How about speaking English but in a Strong dialect. That might help, examples Geordie, Doric (1 of many Scots dialects if y'ken whit I mean). Some may argue that they are languages rather than dialects.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Flood! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Apr 4 '18 at 11:01
  • Thank you for the welcome Secespitus. I shall take the tour and visit the help centre. ( No comment on UK v US English ) – Flood Apr 4 '18 at 15:44

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