I'm kind of having trouble with portraying one of my main character's English speaking foreign friend. My character and the country he is in don't really use English as the language they communicate in, but they can speak it.

My problem is that their language is translated like how everyone in the Mulan movie spoke "Chinese" but speaks in English to be understood by the non-Chinese audience, with Mushu telling Mulan "Don't you understand Chinese?" when she misheard him.

I'm trying to have my character have a conversation with his friend without it looking like the foreign friend was just speaking his language. I'm thinking of italicizing their English conversations, but I'm not that sure about it. I hope someone could help me on this.


3 Answers 3


The common solution is to just say in the narration that the characters are speaking in English now. Then say when it goes back to Chinese or whatever language.

"We need to tell the ambassador about the invasion plans!" Fred said in English.

But Ling Chan was looking at us curiously. I was sure he had overheard. He didn't know any English so he wouldn't know what was said, but I didn't want him to get suspicious.

"Yes," I quickly replied in Chinese, loudly enough for Chan and anyone around to hear. "Though I think it might rain tomorrow."


Sometimes novels give foreign dialoge in the foreign language:

"Guten Tag!"
Bob blushed and said: "I'm sorry, I don't speak German."
"Oh, I'm sorry," the woman switched to English, "I didn't realize you were American."

This works well, if the passages are short. You can paraphrase brief passages for your readers:

"Guten Tag!" the woman greeted me.

Here "greeted me" explains the general meaning of the spoken phrase, making the exchange comprehensible to the reader. You can be more explicit, if you want:

"Guten Tag!"
Good day, I understood, but how did one ask for a person's name again? Not, What is your name? ... ah, I remember: What are you called?
I asked her: "Wie heißen Sie?"

If you want to avoid foreign phrased, for example if there would be too many of them you make clear who says what in what language and who understands it and who doesn't in the narrative:

"Good day!" the old lady said in German.
Bob looked at me, waiting for me to translate.
"She wished you a merry christmas, Bob," I lied to him.

Since you give the "foreign speech" in the reader's language, you can easily show how what is said in one language may differ from what is understood by a non-native speaker.

Use italics only for foreign words and phrases, not to signify text translated from a foreign language1. See this overview on the use of italics in fiction.

1 Contrary to my advice here, this great answer recommends to mark up translated passages in italics.


One technique for this I remember from James Clavell’s book Shogun is for characters speaking in non-English languages would use words, grammar and sentence structures of that language, in as far as it was possible to be understood by and English reader.

For instance, two of the characters - a English man and a Japanese woman - would speak in Latin to each other, because he didn’t speak Japanese and she didn’t speak English. When they spoke Latin, it read like this:

“Be thou of Zen. Remember, in tranquillity, that the Absolute, the Tao, is within thee, that no priest or cult or dogma or book or saying or teaching or teacher stands between Thou and It. Know that Good and Evil are irrelevant, I and Thou irrelevant, Inside and Outside irrelevant as are Life and Death.

Besides the use of “thee” and “thou” the style of speech was formal, which was shown through the use of different grammar to when they spoke in English or Japanese. Shogun also used the (now cliched) dropping in of Japanese words (like -chan and -san honorifics) when Japanese characters spoke Japanese.

Other markers you could use are the use of non-English punctuation, like the << … >> quote marks, to show foreign dialogue; or run that text in italics.

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