Diving (OK, dove) into conlanging for a novel I'm working on. The conlang is atmospheric and allows for some subplot intrigue, but it's not absolutely essential to the story. I've got basic grammar, punctuation, and syntax. My question is about providing translation for the conlang pieces. Where the POV doesn't speak the conlang and he has no direct access to translation, won't provide a translation. But when the POV does understand it, and the other characters do not, I'm not sure how to proceed.

Leave it untranslated?

In-line translate? eg. The Preacher said, "Gibber gibber bibber frabbish, gibber blabber!" ["Son, she's no lady. She's your wife!"]



5 Answers 5


If you're writing for an English audience, your readers are expecting an English novel. From a reader perspective, it is utterly tedious to read a lot of dialogue you cannot understand. Providing translations can help, but that's equally tedious, since the POV character won't have those translations. I would recommend keeping use of foreign language to a minimum.

If the POV character understands the language, then I would suggest that everything should be written in English with the understanding that they're talking in Conlang, and also that the other characters don't know what is being said.


"We should take them to the desert and get rid of them," said Thrull, switching to Conlang. He glared at the three tourists. "They're useless."

The tourists blinked and smiled, confused. "What did he say?" asked the one with the camera.

"He said he'll take you to the ruins." replied Tomas. "For a fee."

If the POV character does not understand the language, then I would not necessarily write the dialogue in Conlang, but rather show that the person doesn't understand what's being said. Have the POV rely on the speaker's body language, facial expressions etc. to try pick up what's being said.


Paul listened as Tomas and the one called Thrull spoke in their harsh, guttural tongue. Thrull's lips curled in a sneer, and he glared at Paul and his friends as he spat out his final words.

Paul tried to smile. "What did he say?"

"He said he'll take you to the ruins," replied Tomas. "For a fee."

Paul looked from Tomas to Thrull's leering eyes. That must be some fee.

When I've overheard people talking in foreign languages, I am completely unable to repeat what was said because of the strangeness of the words, and the speed at which they talk, so it's unrealistic from a POV perspective to have conversations written down in foreign languages.

That's not to say you can't put in some of the language. There are one or two words that get repeated, such as curses, swearwords etc., or short, easily-pronounced phrases, and there you can probably write them as is, because it's something that the character will likely pick up on, even if they don't understand them. Also, sometimes there are written words, signs etc. that the character can repeat. In those cases, the character can ask what they mean, or someone (knowing the character can't understand) can translate for them.

  • 1
    Nice answer Craig, you said everything I was going to say, but in more detail. Adding to what you said, everytime you read a WW2 novel, the Germans dont start talking in German do they? Most books use 1 or 2 German words, like Achtung, but then stick to English for everything else. Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 8:30
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    Great points, Craig! I think I'm struggling with finding the right balance of spare usage. For example, when I think of foreign languages used in writing, I think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Shakespeare's Henry V. Eco uses a number of languages that he doesn't expect the reader to understand, but he does it to great effect. Only a handful of spectators would have understood the French at the end of Henry V, but the scene is still intelligible. And better off for the French. Much to think on.... Thanks!
    – patrick
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 20:13
  • @patrick - Glad that was helpful. Btw, if you're writing something as good as Foucault's Pendulum or Henry V, ignore almost everything I've said ;) Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 7:53
  • I would add only that the constructed language should be denoted with an unusual punctuation (I like "<Dialog Here>") that would be writer short hand for "this statement is translated into the nearest English Translation possible.
    – hszmv
    Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 11:06

If the POV character doesn't know the language, then the reader won't be able to understand it either. A fix could be separate chapters in different POVs allowing the reader to 'learn' the language. An advantage in this case is that the readers will know more than the characters in the book. It's always good to let the readers have and edge on things; they'll keep hoping the characters will discover what they already know...helps to keep the reader's interest.

On the other hand, if you can have a secondary character who DOES know the foreign language, then he can either translate or just interpret what is being said. The reader won't know if the translations are accurate or not, so it takes away some of the intrigue, but if the POV character trusts the interpretor, then it tends to work well enough.


I'd mix a bunch of these answers, A friend is writing a story with a conlang in, and the characters code-switch a lot, so instead of saying 'switched to conlang' every time she just writes in the conlang. Sometimes some sort of translation is given in different ways, sometimes it is not. There are a lot of conlang words mixed with the dialog and I believe that gives a very realistic feeling of how people would code switch in real life in a similar context.

It all depends on many things. Does the POV know the language? is it their first or second language? how fluent are they? and also, and more importantly, what do you want your audience to know.

So I wrote a story with several conlangs in, and words in them are thrown around quite frequently, for different effect. One is to differentiate the cultures a bit more. The other one is to give a sense of 'alien' culture, since this words aren't translated, there is probably not a word in english to describe the thing quite well so it seems foreign to us. Like the leaders of one of the cultures are called Sivos and you're not supposed to know the meaning of the word, just that it's a title leaders get. Or one character talks about the tiizo games or the Vannbaali and the vanntal. It also helps with names, by giving each language a different orthography and just a different feel all together you can create names that look quite distinct one to another. Kinda like in got you know Viserys and Daenerys are from a different culture than Drogo and Raqqaro, and them from a different culture than Eddard and Ramsey. The orthography and the feel just help further the divide and create a more real and grandious world.

Also you can teach some of the words to the audience and use them in clever ways at the end. I can only come up right now with a character teaching some words in conlang to non conlang friend, and when non-conlang-friend finds themselves in a dire situation with conlang-people, they can use those words to earn trust, and stuff like that. Or that with names, specially if the conlang-people use Viking-like compound names. If you know a word means something you can use that to make the audience draw conclusions about a character based solely on their names.

You'd have to see how the conlang adds to the story and use it to the best advantage.


It depends on readers you are targeting. Leaving foreign language fragments fully untranslated could be quite challenging for a reader but then they (fragments) need to be used sparsely and carefully. No matter whether the foreign language is constructed or just unknown (and unfamiliar) among your potential readers.

Edit: Content (meaning) of a foreign language fragment should emerge from the context.

A good example can be the "Windtalkers" movie where the foreign (existing but almost unknown) language fragments are untranslated.

On the other hand, some readers can consider this as disturbing and insulting.

  • I agree with Indoril. I dont like it either when authors put quotes from foreign languages, and dont translate them. It makes me wonder if they are essential to the plot, should I use google translate, or just read on? Anyway, it is insulting. Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 8:23
  • Exactly. When I was twelve I had been trying to plough through the Tolstoy's "War and Peace". It was an edition where the sentences in French were left untranslated. Cried from anger, literally.
    – Nerevar
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 11:57

If the POV does not know it, you would want to keep it untranslated. But if the POV does know it, you should translate it. This would give an audience experience roughly like the character herself, based on her understanding of what is being said. That is, unless what is being said is vital to the plot, for example

"Bob Thlaka Kar" if important, translate it but say something akin to, "'Bob is the Hero', she said in Sarit", and make sure to emphasize that what is being said is not understood by the POV Character.

But to speak more objectively, you do it however you want. As long as the point is gotten across and doesn't bring about confusion as to what the intention is.

Extra Note: Look at Stormlight Archive for example, where there are many different languages, and characters can, at times, go back to their own language. Like Lumanor, for instance, whose native language is Unkalaki, so he at times say some Unkalaki words, either out of exclamations of suprise, or to describe more foreign concepts. And they are not translated due to Kaladin not knowing Unkalaki.

Such as when he was shocked at something, not going to spoil what, he said "Umalakai'ki! Kama mohoray namavau—", which was not understood by Kaladin. Or when with more religious or cultural phrases he would speak in his own tongue, "Uma'ami tukuma mafah'liki...".

Also, some terms are just kept in the native tongue even if understood, due to them being very specific or culturally important, like ''Lait'', which is not translated, and refers to a geographical formation which protects from the winds of the Highstorms.

In general, it does language very well, and would be a point of inspiration for how to implement it, in my opinion.

But that is just a suggestion.

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