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I have written the first draft of a Middle Grade detective adventure in the vein of Enid Blyton's Famous Five or Astrid Lindgren's Bill Bergson. In my novel, the protagonist, a boy from England, is on holidays in France. He befriends a French boy, and together they solve a crime.

The English boy has learned French in school for a year, and a small part of the story is how he first struggles and later manages to communicate with the locals. Since the French boy doesn't speak English, much of the dialogue in my first draft is in French.

When I began to write, I liked the idea of showing the difficulties of getting along in a foreign country with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. But now I believe that such a book is basically unpublishable. There are a few books for language learners that have foreign language dialogue in English text, but they are for more advanced learners and have more foreign language dialogue than my book has. Also, not every child learns French, and my audience would be severely limited. Therefore I want to revise the text and write all the dialogue in English.

As I see it, I have now three options:

  1. Set the story in England. All persons are English. The language subplot is lost. Locations, names, cultural differences, etc. have to be changed into English places, names and so on.

  2. Set the story in France. All persons are French. The language subplot is lost. The French setting remains. (Basically my novel will appear as if it was translated from French.)

  3. Keep the story as it is, but give the French dialogue in English. Italics signify French (example is not from my text):

    "Dad, this is Jean," Charlie introduced his new friend to his father.
    "Hello, Jean," Charlie's father greeted Jean in French.
    "Hello, Mr. Miller," Jean replied, and then added in strongly accented English: "Nice to meet you."

A few questions on this site deal with how to represent foreign language in fiction. But that's not the problem I have. I know how I want to represent foreign language (in italics). What I want to know is:

What would readers prefer? (And what would therefore probably sell best?)

Is the difficulty of getting along in a foreign language environment interesting to kids between 10 and 12? Does it add more to a detective adventrue story for them than it detracts?

I have never read a Middle Grade novel where the protagonist had to speak in a foreign language for most of the story. There is a lot of adult fiction where the protagonist has to get along in a foreign language environment (e.g. James Clavell's Shōgun or some science fiction stories), but maybe in Middle Grade fiction it is unsellable. Should I get rid of the foreign language problem subplot completely (and choose options 1 or 2)?


To clarify:

I have already decided not to write the dialogue in French. The question is which of the three options outlined above would be the best choice when it comes to marketability and increasing sales. None of the options contain any French dialogue!


What I miss in the answers I have recieved, is a source that substantiates that the proposed option is the best (or the sensible one). Sources could be examples from successfully published Middle Grade books, or a statement by a person from the publishing industry on this or a comparably similar matter.

  • @CraigSefton My question is not about how to represent foreign language, but whether I should represent foreign language at all (in Middle Grade fiction). – user32754 Aug 17 '18 at 13:54
  • It's very difficult to tell whether "Set in England" or "Set in France" book would sell better. So I would say to decide between #1 and #2 the best is to follow your own inspiration. – Alexander Aug 17 '18 at 18:08
  • @Alexander I followed my own inspiration in the first draft and produced a book that is unpublishable. Now I want to revise following the demands of the market. – user32754 Aug 17 '18 at 19:20
  • @Samuel Snow - well, in this case (#1 vs #2) distinction is very subtle and should be driven by your own ability to describe a particular country. – Alexander Aug 17 '18 at 19:42
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There's another option which I think combines the best options of each: Initially treat French as unintelligible, then when the protagonist learns French, don't treat it as a separate language.

Early in the story, you'd have something like this:

"Where is the bathroom?" asked John. Antoinne responded with a few words of French. John frowned and shook his head.

In other words, don't include the French words themselves; just write that the characters are speaking French.

Later, once the protagonist has learned French, establish that other characters only speak French, then you won't need to reference the fact that they're speaking French every time. You can just write "I agree," Pierre replied and it should be clear to readers, especially if you reinforce a few times that the other characters are speaking another language.

  • I think this is the best option, it's the one that best places a monolingual reader in the place of a multilingual character. The experience for the reader should simulate the character's experience, and this does that effectively. – Chris Sunami Aug 20 '18 at 19:22
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As someone who teaches eleven to sixteen year olds (a bit older than your target audience) I would avoid foreign dialogue language completely. I can't see them reading it.

Instead, I would do what television shows do and have the 'foreigner' speak English with an 'accent', occasionally getting it wrong and using some unusual grammar. I understand that accent is hard to do in writing but it can be done.

Look at Poirot in Agatha Christie novels. You understand he is French and yet it isn't difficult to read e.g. 'Gentleman shot himself.' instead of 'The gentleman shot himself.'

  • I have already decided not to write the dialogue in French. The question is which of the three options outlined above would be best. None of the options contain any French dialogue! – user32754 Aug 17 '18 at 13:54
  • The British Comedy (About a group of French Resistance members during WWII) basically used accents to denote languages. When a character was speaking French, they used a French Accent, when they spoke German they used a German accent... There is one character who is an Undercover British agent who is pretending to be a French Policeman, who would use a French accent and wrong words to show he spoke very poor French (i.e. His catchphrase of "Good Moaning" instead of "Good Morning"). It was later showed this speech pattern was used by most of the "English" characters when they spoke French. – hszmv Aug 17 '18 at 14:07
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    @hszmv I'm not writing a tv show. A whole book of broken English is unreadable. – user32754 Aug 17 '18 at 14:49
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As someone who read a lot of Comic Books, this trope comes up and is usually handled by a format of an additional unusual punctuation mark and a note at the first use of what language was being used such that...

"<"I am over here*,>" Jean replied. *Translated from French.

Please note that the quotation mark with in the less than sign is deliberate to escape issues with using the less than/greater than on this web page, specifically that they are used as part of the HTML code for formatting block quotes.

You could use the "Replied In French" quote you provided, I'm just demonstrating the use in comics. There is one problem that you don't have in comics, but what happens if we add a third character, Hans, who speaks German and wants to ask what Jean is saying... Comics deal with this by changing the color of the speech bubble background (So Charlie has White, Jean has Blue, and Hans has Red) but it's really hard to do that in a novel. Perhaps you could change the the symbol to a [] for Hans or a {}. Just keep the symbol and language associated with the change separate. K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series of novels series dealt with limited telepathic communications and denoted the communications with a <> and no quotes. She would later introduce characters who were full telepaths and denoted the more forceful telepathic speech with the <> and then underlying all the words inside the dialog.

This is better than italicizing changed dialog as italicizing is difficult to spot and for the readers to notice it consistently. Once the language is assigned by "Jean replied in French" the dialog can continue without having to note that the convention has changed. It also implies that the sentance is correctly spoken, which means you don't have to deal with the nightmare that is what I call "Hagrid Dialog" after the J.K. Rowling character from Harry Potter, who's dialog was peppered with deliberate misspelt words to make an accent. At times, it can be difficult to understand what Hagrid was saying... or another character who used a different set of misspellings to affect a different accented English.

As a final note, one of my favorite writing gags is that when a character with an American Accent and a character with a British Accent are sharing dialog, I denote the accent by using the British spelling of the words in the Brit's dialog. The American uses the American spelling, as does the narrator, who is basically speaking in my own vernacular.

I don't think its a bad thing to acknowledge bi-bilingualism to children as the United States does have a need for more bilingual speakers and with languages, its easier to learn young than old. One of my favorite writers in children's television, Greg Weisman, is a wonderful advocate for this and says one of his big creative regerts was not showing two Japanese characters speaking in subtitled Japanese until the English Speakers showed up, in which they switched to English Dialog. He has since made up with this in his later shows, such as Spectacular Spider-man and Young Justice (which even went so far as to make a constructed languages for Atlantean and Interlac, the latter being a one to one substitution cipher of the Latin Alphabet and English words.).

  • My question is not about how to represent foreign language, but whether I should deal with foreign language at all (in Middle Grade fiction) or go for an everyone-speaks-the-same-language-approach. Also, this question is not about educating my readers, but about what sells best. – user32754 Aug 17 '18 at 14:45
  • Well, my answer to that is don't compromise your story. If your story works best with the language barrier plot, than it requires the plot. The only person who can answer that question is you. Children at that age have enough literary skill to understand textual notations of different communications between people, so don't let that stop you. – hszmv Aug 17 '18 at 15:12
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Of the 3 options given #1 provides the fewest barriers to readers.

By having the main character from England you allow the reader to identify with this character. There is no cultural friction between the reader and the story. It is also the least interesting option with the greatest amount of competition.

Option 2 would require you to get your readers to identify with someone from a different culture, this is a challenge. But it does give you a USP. It adds a layer to the story, which will make the story less attractive to less engaged readers, but more interesting to others.

Option 3 would get annoying if most of the dialogue is in translated French. Even if you establish that "italics mean French" early on. You have the difficulty of rendering "broken French" into "broken English" at the start of the book, and the difficulty of having large chunks of italics towards the end. Large chunks of broken English are at best comical, and at worst unreadable.

I'll include 3 more options that occur to me

Option 4 (your original bilingual story) may be publishable by specialist publishers. The advantage is that there are not many others writing bilingual novels for children. In a saturated market, you may be better finding a niche than failing to be the next Riordan.

Option 5 (Switch the settings). Instead of an English boy in France, a French boy in England. The small amounts of French that he speaks can be rendered in italics, but as the story progresses he speaks exclusively in English.

Option 6 (Switch the language of narration) You could keep the story of an English boy, but make this an entirely French novel. The small amounts of English could be rendered in French in italics (or French readers might be more tolerant of small amounts of English dialogue). You would then, of course, publish in France.

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A thought: To me (though not necessarily to you) the language subplot is about being immersed in a foreign-to-self place and slowly learning to cope with, and then perhaps embrace, that place.

What if you keep that, but you don't make it about language--or, if partly about language, not about beginner mastery of the language? If your primary protagonist of the two is a French boy who has studied and mastered correct "school" English, and then lands in England and has to deal with a different culture, different food, different rules, different customs, idiomatic English, current slang, the many different accents in England, etc., you might be able to preserve some of that thrown-in-the-water feel, without ever having to present a word of French.

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