The main character I have in mind for a story in a fantasy setting will be in foreign lands for the entirety of the book. She will have a basic grasp of the spoken language, so her dialogue will use limited vocabulary and simpler grammatical structures.

I'm writing in first person, and I don't want the whole book to use a limited grammar and vocabulary, so I want the protagonist to narrate in her native tongue.

1) How do I make it clear that my character is narrating the story in a different language from the one she speaks?

2) How often do I need to remind the reader of this throughout the novel?

Ideally I could fairly early on have the character comment about being able to understand what another character is saying well enough, or say that she feels like she can speak the language enough to get by, even if she isn't great at it.

Will the obvious difference in fluency between the dialogue and the narration be enough to remind the reader what's going on throughout the whole novel, or do I need to occasionally sprinkle in more explicit reminders?


2 Answers 2


How do I make it clear that my character is narrating the story in a different language from the one she speaks?

You already have the answer. Of course, it's well and good that you say it outright at the start of the book, stating that your protagonist is in a foreign land and even though she does understand the language, she doesn't master it. But throughout the novel,

--> sprinkle in more ... reminders <--

Do this. Why? Because it's realistic. Make your character ask others to repeat things, make her ponder on the words she hears, make her, occasionally, mistake some common language structure or manner of speaking.

You already said that her dialog will be limited to simple grammar and limited vocabulary, and that's good. If you wish, you may make her grow more accustomed to the foreign language as the book goes on. The essential part is, tho, make her fail now and then. Make her raise an eyebrow when she's not sure she heard it right, and make her tongue slip on certain syllables or sound.

Take inspiration from real languages: an italian speaking english has often an hard time pronouncing "th-" sounds, while an english speaking italian often messes up "gn-" and "gl-" syllables. (To be fair, those are examples I'm drawing from my experience, not at all a valid statistic).

Also, you're right about keeping the narration style different from her limited speaking vocabulary. Making the way she thinks and see the world different from the way she talks will underline the fact that she's not a proficient speaker of the language.

How often do I need to remind the reader of this throughout the novel?

A more tricky one. The point here is that you don't need to explicitly tell people, "hey, remember when I told you she's in a foreign land?" because if you do the first part right, nobody will forget that.

The idea has to be etched into the very novel so much that everyone accepts it and take it as granted. I'm not a strict fan of the "show, don't tell" rule, but this is a case where it safely applies: if you're doing all of the above, you won't need to remind anyone anything from the first chapter onward.

Of course, some readers may forget the whole deal if it isn't the main topic of the novel. But that's expected. Those who have a keener eye for details will like what you are doing.

  • I'm definitely going to have my character get better at the language as the book goes on. Slightly complicating matters is that she's probably going to learn foreign words that don't have an equivalent in her native language, like technical components on a sailing ship for example. I might italicize these in narration, or just brush the problem aside. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 20:55

Since you're telling the story in first person, you can say outright that the conversation is not in the language of the narration. Something like:

I understood StrangeLandian, but I spoke it badly. I should have learnt it better before I decided to travel.

To make it not boring, blend the mention of the fact the MC doesn't speak the language well with introduction of other story elements - why she's there, etc.

As far as reminders go, make them natural. The MC might stumble upon her words, her internal monologue can be something like

How do you say 'strawberries' in StrangeLandian?

She might even make mistakes:

I knew by their response that I haven't said what I intended to say, but I hoped I haven't said anything too bad.

Difference in fluency is definitely one way to remind the reader that the character is speaking and thinking in different languages.

Other tools can be more subtle - your character might compare something to the way things are at home, something might appear strange to her, she might not understand a situation, or she might be homesick.

Be aware that stilted dialogue will grow tiresome after a while. Your character might start out not speaking the language well, but she should become more proficient as the plot advances. That's not unrealistic - if you immerse yourself in an environment, you learn the language pretty quickly, even if you retain an accent. When that happens, it doesn't matter so much to the reader that the narration isn't in the same language as the dialogue, since there's less of a barrier between the character's thought and speech.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin uses none of the tools I've just spoken of. Her MC is sufficiently fluent in the languages spoken on Winter. Occasionally there's mention of other characters speaking slower for the MC's sake, or of him struggling to understand when a lot of people are talking at once. But one tool that is used more than once, and serves best to remind that a different language is spoken is the mention and continued use of a few terms for which there is no parallel, no translation into English. There is no word for kemmer in the English language, because the biological function does not exist on earth, so the Gethen word is used. Other times the MC explains how there's no word for an Earth term, and what words he uses instead to explain it.

So, for your story, consider what words, what concepts would be missing in each language. Each time those come into play, it serves as a reminder that a different language is being spoken.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.