The story I'm writing is in English, but it's set in a constructed world with a range of different languages. The general conceit is that anything the viewpoint character (of which there's more than one, with more than one language) understands is portrayed in English.

The trouble with this is that many of my characters speak in a fairly informal way (in a "less formal register" of their own languages). Intuitively, I've represented this through the use of somewhat informal English. So, these characters say things like 'y'know?' and 'alright', and 'yeah'.

These phrases are also used in different ways by different characters, helping (I hope) to give a clearer picture of the sort of people these characters are.

My concern is that these specific phrases are unlikely to be directly translatable in the fictional language, and so by using them in the "translated" final text, I'm misrepresenting what my characters "actually" said.

I also find it a little jarring when English idioms turn up in translated versions of non-English novels. I find myself diverted into trying to guess what the original phrase was, and my immersion in the story is broken. I'm concerned that my fictional translations will have a similar effect on the reader.

I'm torn, then, between using phrases which break realism (but add nuance to the characters and how they relate to their culture) and not using these phrases (and losing those nuances).

Another possibility I've considered is to do direct translations of the phrases they would more likely have used, but since these will only be meaningful when the reader is already familiar with them, I'm concerned that I'll need to do a lot of setting up (and the reader will have to do a lot of adjusting) before this can even begin to express the subtleties that the English equivalents can.

Are these my only three choices? If so, are they really as problematic as I think they are, or am I overthinking this? If not, what should I do instead?

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    To be honest, I would be more distracted by the direct translation of an idiom than something which gets the idea across. In Sicilian, an idiot is a testa di cipuda, which is literally "head of an onion." But in English, you'd say idiot, or possibly blockhead. If Person A called Person B "head of an onion," I'd wonder if there were more to it. (Does the person have layers? Does the person make other folks cry?) My sense is that you're overthinking your conceit of "translation." Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 21:31
  • @LaurenIpsum Thank you, yes, well, it wouldn't be the first time I've overthought something like this. I think "lossless translation" isn't really possible in the real world, but it seems like you're saying that since the translation in my story is really just a literary device, it doesn't need to be completely realistic in that respect, and I should just focus on getting the information across to the reader. Is that the gist of it? Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 13:38
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    Mostly. Literal realism is not your goal. You can create "local flavor" as @KyleLi notes by using slang and accents which your English-speaking reader will recognize, and your audience will understand that your Klangton speaker isn't actually speaking in a Received English or Southern American accent. It's to get across the idea that "the accent this person uses would be heard by other native speakers as being posh/uneducated/formal/hick etc." Your accent is sort of symbolic or representative in that sense. I've seen Mercedes Lackey do this, so it's not unprecedented. Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 13:43
  • "trying to guess what the original phrase was, and my immersion in the story is broken" - this seems to be a matter of perception of the story. Your immersion into the events of the story ("what you read is happening around you") diminishes, but at the same time, one might perceive the immersion into the story-document ("what you read is actually a translated representation of true events") to increase. In other words: You think about an "original phrase" in a fantasy setting. This implies a high degree of immersion of some kind. Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 20:54

5 Answers 5


Basically, you want your choices to call as little attention to themselves as possible. The best way to do that, under the circumstances, is probably just to "dial it back."

In other words, write the bulk of the story in "vanilla" English, and then sprinkle a few invented terms and/or idioms in, to show it's not really English, and a few slang terms, or instances of deliberately poor grammar, to show it's informal. If you hint at these things, your reader will fill in the rest automatically, as opposed to if you hit them over the head with it in every sentence.

The theory behind this is to remember that the actual word choice is just an avenue to conveying the meaning, and that realism isn't a matter of duplicating reality, but simulating it.

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    "realism isn't a matter of duplicating reality, but simulating it" - Thank you, yes. I think this is where I'm going wrong. I'm obsessing over realism when what I'm trying to do is (like all fiction, I suppose) inherently unreal. If I've understood the crux of your answer correctly, it's that the best choice is whatever makes the reader feel the most like the viewpoint character would feel. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 9:15
  • Yes, that's a good way to understand what I was saying. :) Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 14:06

When writing fantasy or any form of fiction that exists in a world vastly different from ours, try to imagine the text you're writing as a translation. Yes, even for your own main character. Remember that you're writing in the perspective of your main character. If your character can't understand something, then the reader shouldn't either, unless you're going for an omnipresent narrator.

If you want to differentiate each language, add certain quirks that we can relate to other languages in our world. For example, if you're writing for an audience of Americans, a foreign language can use stereotypes London-English, using terms such as 'Oi' or 'Ey?' scattered to vary the language. You can also study certain language patterns done by various English dialects or how different cultures speak English. For example, a first language Chinese speaking person will have a widely different speech pattern than a native English speaker.

In general, if a character is speaking another language - you should keep in mind that the Main Character needs to be able to understand it. Since this is a translation, you can use quirks or simply introduce that the character is speaking a different language.

The first thing he heard when he entered the bar was the distinctive dialect of a Native Klangton.

"Oi, what do ya think yer doing with that?"

As long as the Main Character has an understanding of the text, assume it was translated in the process - like a biography of the events.

  • Thank you for your answer. What you're talking about here isn't really the issue I'm having, however. I'm already writing from the perspective of the my viewpoint character, and translating anything that they understand. My problem isn't to do with differentiating between different languages, but differentiating between the various ways in which individual characters use and relate to their shared language. Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 13:21
  • "if you're writing for an audience of Americans" - This seems true. but are you? To me, as an English Brit, the example seems quite stereotypical Irish (not "London English"?). I wonder what an Irish person would think of it? - I'd go without stating the explanation "Native Klangton." Just do it if you are going to. And how does the narrator understand Klangtons? "The first thing he heard was Klangies." "There were Native Klangtons here! Damn" Or what?" -tl;dr don't rely on this to show attitudes. "There were Pennsylvania Dutch here!" "Confederates!" - who knows , reader? Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 18:22

Translator's footnote.

* [Translator's note]: Dargo was using a heavy Tuvelarian accent, characteristic to the small, isolated rural settlements of Tuvelar. To reflect this, I'm using the Texan country accent in my translation, considering many cultural parallels between the two regions.

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    I like this idea, and I think it could be fun if done right, but for various reasons (some which have to do with the particular tone I'm stabbing at, and some of which have to do with the practical limitations of my "translator" conceit) I don't think it's suitable for solving my problem. Thank you nonetheless. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 9:32

In addition to what Chris Sunami said, I would point out that a scene is a lens, not a window. A great scene works by focusing your attention on just one thing. You can have many different things going on in a story, but in each scene you want the focus to be on just one thing. All you have is words, and words line up one after another. There is no foreground background in prose. If you try to have multiple things going on at once, what the reader actually receives is a narrative full of context switches. The effect is not rich, it is distracting. It does not immerse the reader, it expels them from the scene.

Any tricks of language in a passage of dialogue, therefore, draw attention away from what is being said. In some cases, they may be part and parcel of what is actually being said. How certain characters speak is indivisible from how you interpret what they are saying. But there is a limit to what you can convey synchronously through a single stream of prose. A light touch is essential.

And, as I seem to keep saying a lot, setup is essential. Because you can only describe one thing at a time, any complexity in the reader's reception of a scene depends on the setup you have done. If a character's diction has to be decoded in a particular scene, make sure that you have decoded it already so that the reader recognizes it in content rather than being distracted by having to decode it in the moment.

  • This is a really good answer. I've chosen Chris Sunami's answer because it was the one that made it click for me, and the one that I feel answered my stated question the most directly. Your answer added depth and context to the idea put forward in that answer, however, so thank you. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 9:21

I am an American English speaker, I have a few friends who speak New Zealand English, British English, and Scottish English. For the most part, we can talk easily without issues but every once in a while, they will say a phrase or a sequence of words that I just go... eh.. WHAT? I will ask them to rephrase what they just said and they will clarify, some times the clarification helps other times I am still lost. Point being that, certain phrases that are cultural specific won't be understood by the other. You could turn it into a comedy and make them joke at each others "weird way of saying certain phrases" or you can make them curious about cross cultural things and learn about each others sayings. We have many chinese proverbs in the english culture.

  • "you can make them curious about cross cultural things and learn about each others sayings" I think for writing, you can make the reader curious about cross cultural things ... and learn about each others sayings when it become apparent. Don't force it. No one wants an "info dump". But learning just by observing how the characters talk to each naturally - that's good! Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 18:25

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