I plan at several parts of my book to have war chants done in the fictional language of my main race/species. Would it be better to write the chant in their language? Put the fictional language with an English translation next to it? Or is this something that should just go straight to English?

I thought I recall some of my fantasy books in the past doing one or both of the first 2 options but to me, it is important that the reader is able to also understand the meaning to the words.

Most of my inspiration for my main species' culture is drawn from the Maori, the natives of New Zealand. This video would demonstrate what I mean by attaching the English words to a chant:

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    While it's not strictly applicable, I've added the translation tag for now. (I think this at least contains a related concept.) Sep 20, 2017 at 19:21

2 Answers 2


Tolkien wrote a number of important things in their "original" fictional language -- the language of Mordor for the inscription inside the One Ring, the language of the elves for quotations from their history and poetry, in a few places he even used the language of the dwarves. When necessary, he supplied a translation into English (couched as translating into the "common speech" for one of the hobbits, usually). In several places he used an elvish word, then explained (character to character) what he meant. For instance, lembas, elvish waybread -- the explanation of what it was accompanied warning Pippin that, in one bite, he'd eaten enough of what he thought was ordinary cram, what we'd call hardtack, to support a long, hard day's march.

His way still works very well, and doesn't really require you have a complete language as background -- unless you have enough examples for too-complete fans to decide you've been inconsistent, there's really no need for it. Tolkien did it as a hobby, because by profession he was a philologist -- he studied the structure and evolution of real languages, and taught the same subject at a university.

However: whether to write something as substantial as a chant in its original, and whether to translate it immediately (as opposed to, say, in an appendix) ought to depend more on what character's POV you're writing in. If you're writing from POV of a native speaker of the chant's tongue, I'd write it in English -- because the speaker will understand it without effort or thought. If the POV character understands the language as a "second" tongue, you might supply a basic translation -- perhaps one character summarizing for another. If the POV is from a character to whom the language is gibberish, you'd want to reproduce it as heard, or even just allude to it as unintelligible (speech you don't understand is terribly hard to remember, compared to speech that makes sense to you).

  • Would you mind providing an example of how he went from the elvish to the "common tongue"? That's mostly my struggle as I don't intend to create a full language but enough to add culture. Some of those bits I would like to be translated to common as well so it's understandable by the reader. The only way i can think of is side by side but imo would be too tacy.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:26
  • Many places he used an elvish word, then explained (character to character) what he meant. For instance, lembas -- the explanation of what it was accompanied warning Pippin that, in one bite, he'd eaten enough of what he thought was ordinary cram, what we'd call hardtack, to support a long, hard day's march.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:28
  • good point. I also thought of an idea to have someone possibly sit on the side during the chant (an outsider) and ask a local to translate for them. This might be the best way to do it.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:37

Try and do both.

But first, I reocmmend you need to construct the fictional language. Maybe go a little in-depth at linguistics and see what you're trying to do, so that way the language could be a little bit more translatable. But if you don't want to, that is fine.

Try and write the fictional language and translate it to English in some way. I had an idea where if the book you were writing were to go to print, then you could somehow format the fictional language and English translation on top of each other, in a way where you see the language more clearly. You would then have a color filter to hold above the words, where the English translation would show.

  • I definitely intend to create the language first. For now, I am using rough mockup of it as a place holder. The issue isn't so much translating my language as it is on how would I display this translation with the created language in a book congruently.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:27
  • That's also why I suggested the color filter idea. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:31
  • A color filter isn't a bad idea, but I would feel that people would be turned off at the idea of having to go and get a color filter simply to read a translation of a book. Personally, I haven't seen a color filter for books since I was a kid and we used them to find items on pages. For an epic (well an attempt at an epic), I don't think a color filter would fit the mold.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:36
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    The idea was that it would be included with the book. As an epic, in my mind, it kinda fits. The reason being that Homer's Illiad and Odyssey were translated from it's original language - Greek. The Code of Hammurabi was on a slab. To me, it would feel like something ancient. But of course, I do see your point and you bring up a good one at that. Sep 20, 2017 at 19:41
  • You are correct in that it would bring a unique feel to it, and I can see it being useful if there were images of inscriptions on various items/walls. In this case, most of what I am looking to have translated would be verbal and not inscriptions which I don't think would achieve the desired feel as it would if it was a wall inscription being looked over with a filter.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 20, 2017 at 19:45

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