I am currently reading a historical fiction novel about the Second World War. The characters are German and the setting is Berlin. The author uses German words or short phrases almost routinely, without any accompanying English translation, without using italics, and without any attempt at context that would allow the reader to easily perceive the words' meaning. Words such as "gnädige", "Menschenkenntnis" and "elekrische Tram."

Is there a more "fluid" method to give meaning to these words other than crudely following them with an English translation? Should such unfamiliar foreign words be avoided in the first place?

I suppose the second question borders on opinion, but I'm hoping that someone can give me some examples of where an accomplished author has handled this problem adroitly, rather than simply stating the unfamiliar foreign word without translation or context and thereby leaving the reader scratching her head as to the word's meaning.

  • Maybe if you explain why you want to do this. There seems no reason to give words like "elekrische Tram" in German when there is an uncontroversial English translation. You can look at writers like Agatha Christie who didn't have Hercule Poirot going on about "Let us rendez-vous in la salle and discuss the murderer" but used other ways to indicate his nationality.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 13:41

2 Answers 2


In fiction, I much prefer foreign words not to be in italics. Being foreign already makes them stand out, adding italics makes it even more distracting.

I also like to use well-known foreign words, like 'Dieu', 'nein', 'sayonara'... On the other hand, I speak two languages fluently, understand three other very well, and know basic words in another two. What I think is a well-known word may not be so for most people. To address this, I try to ask a variety of people and see if they think it's well-known. If they turn out not to be that famous, I treat them as general foreign and follow the methods below.

These methods are based on context and translation. A few examples using a made up language so it'll work for anyone:

1. context only

Juphtay, the young Martian who'd just arrived, was putting away some crates when one fell on his foot.

"Lert!" He yelped and glared at the crate.

That must be an expletive of sorts. This approach works well only for expletives, insults or amorous words. Say...

Jophtay held his wife and whispered 'nahrthnee' lovingly.

After you use it in a clear context several times, you will be able to use them again and expect the reader to more or less remember their general idea.

2. context with a little help from the narrator

Juphtay was completely focused in his cooking.

"Oun frags, aal frags..." he mumbled as the milk he poured into the measuring cup went from two centilitres to four centilitres.

Again, you can tell he's speaking up the measures. This particular example is rather weak but you get the idea. This approach works best in situations where characters are so engrossed they're speaking their minds unwittingly as they do something, or they are following instructions and saying them out loud for themselves (at least I do that in real life) or to someone else. Say...

"Nagty bwork un pleryith," Jophtay said, and Anna quickly inserted the key in the little hole on the wall.

This can get a bit mixed up with number 1 (context only).

3. narrator translates for the reader

Juphtay grumbled in his native martian against all the mosquitoes buzzing in the warm evening.


Juphtay quickly wrote a message in a Martian shorthand his boss had invented. The human who was in charge of the warehouse was embezzling. Soon he'd have the necessary proof and he'd need a couple of agents to stand ready to assist him once he did get that evidence.

This works best if no one else is supposed to understand what's being said except for the reader.

4. The whole dialogue is translated

"You really must be careful," Jophtay told Anna in slow, careful Martian so the young human female could follow. "If these people realise you're spying them for me, they may attempt to kill you."

As number 3, essential information for the reader that must be passed on without doubts.

5. Another character translates for the reader

Through the character's thoughts...

"Jophtay!" Anna crossed her arms as she stopped at the doorway. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Larm acht phatorney-up leertun!"

Anna glared at Jophtay. She knew full well he was just reading a magazine, that was the whole point! It was an English magazine and he wasn't supposed to show everyone around he could read in that particular language.

Or in direct speech...

"Larm acht phatorney-up leertun," Jophtay said.

"So you're reading a magazine, so what? Everyone reads magazines."

Or in indirect speech...

"Larm acht phatorney-up leertun," he said over the phone

Anna sighed and once more told him he shouldn't be reading magazines. He knew it was dangerous.

This approach works well if the foreign dialogue isn't very long or information heavy.

Those are the ones I most use. If I can think of more I'll edit them in.


Oops, I overlooked the second question:

Should such unfamiliar foreign words be avoided in the first place?

Personaly, I like the judicious use of foreign words. If a character is foreign, then dropping at least a few foreign words every now and then helps to create the right feel and image. As I said above, I'd rather they aren't in italics in fiction, and I do dislike if they are abusively used (meaning dropped without any hint to meaning or even just general feel), but no, I don't think they should be avoided per se.

  • 1
    Agreed with everything here! I would add that 6. Sometimes you shouldn't be translating the foreign words. By using a foreign word, you're setting the character as other than the reader. And while it's easy enough to try and write them in a way that doesn't mesh with what the reader typically expects, there's no quicker way to other a character than to have them communicate in a way the reader can't understand.
    – Spyder Z
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 12:13
  • 1
    @SpyderZ. quite right. And you made me think of something else: when a reader knows the language of the character, even if not fluently, there is a precious feeling of knowing more than the average reader, of being a 'special reader' with the privilege of understanding the foreign character better than those who don't. Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 13:34

The most simple solution is Using footnotes. Why not just add a footnote to every foreign word, and make a page with translations in the back? That way it doesn't mess up the flow of the book, but people unfamiliar with the words can easily get the translation and thus still follow the story.

  • 2
    I understand this approach, and it may suit some readers. However, I believe that the use of foot notes would have the opposite effect on me: breaking the flow, when I had to look for definitions, instead of being served hints or obvious meanings through the context in which it's used. I like idea of a page (or multiple pages) with translations in the back, but this could exist whether or not the words were explained through context or footnotes.
    – storbror
    Commented Mar 1, 2017 at 8:24
  • Agree. Footnotes seems belonging to another century. Modern readers prefer to stay in the flow of the story. That's why, as creative as The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet was, having so many footnotes here and there made it a pain in the foot to read.
    – kikirex
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 11:49

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