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This question already has an answer here:

I have a Korean character in the novel I'm working on, and it is fairly important to the plot that she has some dialogue in Korean.

Korean isn't a language where you can say what you see, if you understand what I mean. I'm undecided between a few approaches:

  1. Completely leave out the Korean and just write her dialogue in English (although it might affect the scene slightly).

    Her eyes seemed to carry the same playful light that had emblazoned her smile. "Do you really want this?" The woman asked in a light-hearted tone. It was a question the would possibly change the latter's life depending on his answer.

  2. Write the dialogue in Hangul and then write it in English. e.g.:

    Her eyes seemed to carry the same playful light that had emblazoned her smile. "너 정말 이걸 원해?" The woman asked in a light-hearted tone Do you really want this? It was a question the would possibly change the latter's life depending on his answer.

  3. Write a Romanized version of the language. This could possibly come off as confusing or incorrect, or maybe offensive? e.g.:

    Her eyes seemed to carry the same playful light that had emblazoned her smile "Neo Cheongmal igeol wonhae?" The woman asked in a light-hearted tone. It was a question the would possibly change the latter's life depending on his answer.

The character's dialogue contributes to the plot in a few scenes. What are the advantages of these different approaches?

marked as duplicate by Sweet_Cherry, Galastel, iiRosie1, user34178, Thomo Jan 1 at 23:52

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    Do you need to have this part of the dialogue as a direct dialogue at all? [see Indirect speech][en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indirect_speech] – NofP Dec 21 '18 at 23:31
  • It's a great question. I haven't seen books in English that use other languages in a non-Roman script unless it is a single word or short phrase that is used as a graphic (it's from a painting or a statue or the aliens left in written in the cornfield). So my guess is transliteration is the way to go. – Cyn Dec 22 '18 at 21:29
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    I hear you on thinking this is a duplicate. I'm gonna say it's not though. Because this question feels to me more like a followup to the other. One that says "okay, sure, but what if the language I'm working in doesn't use a Roman script?" – Cyn Dec 26 '18 at 4:23
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    @Sulli I edited the question to make it more specific to Korean, but I don't think I went far enough. If you could expand on "Korean isn't a language where you can say what you see" it might help keep the question open. – Neil Fein Dec 28 '18 at 16:36
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The answer will depend on your narrative view. Do you write from an omnisicent viewpoint or from the limited view of one of your characters?

  1. Omniscient narrative viewpoint: You want the reader to understand what the other characters cannot understand.

    a. Paraphrase the dialogue in text, e.g. Jacky told Heather in Korean that she wanted to eat. Heather only looked at her in confusion. "What did you say?"

    Here, only English dialogue is represented as direct speech.

    b. Translate the dialoge but label the language: "Do you have something to eat?" Jacky asked Heather in Korean. Heather only looked at her in confusion. "What?" she asked in English.

    Here, all dialogue is represented as direct speech, with the foreign dialogue translated into English. All dialogue must be labelled with the respective language.

  2. Limited narrative viewpoint: You don't want the readers to understand.

    Write a Latin transliteration of the Korean, e.g. "naneun baegopeuda," Jacky said. Heather only stared.

    Represent all spoken languages in the writing system of your readers. Do not write Korean letters in a text written in Latin letters. By writing in Latin letters, you give your readers an approximation of hearing Korean without understanding it: they can read the Latin transliteration, but won't understand, just like the other characters.

    Represent all written languages in their own writing system. For example, if your characters encouter a book in Korean or read Korean street signs, represent them in Korean writing. They don't hear that text but see it, so show the reader what your characters see (or describe it, e.g. strange circular characters).


James Clavell's novel Shogun shows very nicely how the protagonist learns a foreign lanugage, and dialogue shifts from Latin transliteration (2.) to translation (1.b.) as he begins to understand.

  • Indeed the second point was done great in an Outer Limits episode (I don't remember the title) which involved humans and extraterrestrials. Whenever it showed the events from the view of the humans, the extraterrestrials spoke gibberish. Whenever the viewpoint was that of the extraterrestrials, they spoke perfectly normal English (well, I suppose they did; I watched the German synchronized version, where it was perfectly normal German). – celtschk Dec 30 '18 at 17:59
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Personal preference, don't write the Hangul. Since I can't read the characters themselves, it takes me out of the story. I do like the inclusion of the Korean words in Anglicized lettering, but that's a stylistic point.

In either case, the real work is being done by the translation. If the character understands the words, then it's fine to just italicize, or even to simply skip the quotes.

Do you really want this? It's clearly translated. In general, fewer words is better. If you're writing a hundred-thousand word book, don't waste any of them.


Coy playfulness lit her eyes and emblazoned her smile. "Neo Cheongmal igeol wonhae?" The words lilted, light-hearted.

You really want this? His answer might change his life.

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From a reader's perspective: When I come across words I don't understand I scan ahead to the words I know. So I'd actually prefer the Korean stuff to be in a distinct alphabet. That would make it easier to skip ahead quickly to the English. Transliterating makes the Korean dialogue look like English words.

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