I'm an amateur writer from the Philippines. I am writing a novelette for an international writing contest. My story is written in English, but is set here, in my country, with my POV character being a full blood Filipino. My question is, is it unnecessary to use my country's dialect as my characters' dialogue? should I just make it simple and just use English for their speech?

All of the conversation between the characters in the story is technically being said in my language. After all, English is not our main language. I myself think it is unnecessary to write the dialogue in our language, and then write the English translation afterwards. But I still did it anyway.

So am I doing it wrong after all? I need and expert's opinion about this. I feel like I should just write the dialogue in English, but I need an assurance if I really should. This is my first time writing a story. That's why I am a bit anxious about everything that I do.

  • 34
    I have read several short stories written in English but set in the native place of the author and it is observed that they often pick words from their native language, and sometimes deliberately, to reflect the culture of that place. – Infinity Mar 12 at 14:16
  • 5
    @Infinity Ah, the Coco approach. – J.G. Mar 12 at 15:50
  • 6
    How do you plan to hit the US and UK markets if the dialog is in Filipino? – corsiKa Mar 12 at 16:36
  • 6
    Subtitles work well in movies - not so much in a book. What might work is to slip in a few words that can be understood from context - like a really soft Taglish - if you want to put some unique character into their speech. – J... Mar 12 at 19:11
  • 2
    I've never heard of a book containing multiple languages that were all expected to be understood by the reader. Usually there's only one language, and perhaps snippets of dialogue in another that don't make sense to all the characters and aren't meant to make sense to the reader. Alternatively, there are some untranslated words that are either understandable in context, or can be found in a glossary in the back (e. g. the Lapine in Watership Down). – DarthFennec Mar 12 at 23:34

10 Answers 10


You have read books like this, or at least are familiar with books like this:

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in Spain, and it is indicated, repeatedly, that the dialogue is in Spanish, in fact in a particular dialect of Spanish. The main character's accent is even discussed. But the dialogue is written entirely in English.

Romeo and Juliet is set in Italy. I doubt Shakespeare even knew a word of Italian. He certainly used none in the play.

And of course, there are translated novels - they are translated in their entirety, the dialogue is not kept in the source language.

Think of it like this: your audience speaks English. Perhaps only English. In such a case, anything in any language other than English is incomprehensible noise. If the alphabet you use is not the Latin one, it's not even noise - it's squashed spiders on the page, that make no sound in the reader's mind. Why would you want to fill pages upon pages with "noise" that means nothing to your reader?

You're confused because what the characters actually say is not in English. But that doesn't matter at all; your goal is not to transport to the readers what the characters "actually say", untouched. The characters don't "really" exist anyway. Your goal is to make your reader share the experience of saying and hearing those words. The experience includes understanding.

The only exception I know of to the above rule is Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace. That work was written in Russian and French, no translations provided (though those are always added in modern editions). The reason it was written like this is that the audience Tolstoy was writing for was all bilingual. Everyone who could possibly read the novel in the author's time spoke both Russian and French. Thus, the book might appear like an exception, but it supports the aforementioned logic.

  • 9
    I think 'Venetian' was what they spoke in Verona in those days. – Strawberry Mar 12 at 16:10
  • 8
    @akozi: It's one thing to have a few untranslated exchanges. It is quite another to have so much untranslated that the story as a whole cannot be understood except by someone who is bilingual. – Kevin Mar 12 at 19:07
  • 1
    @akozi Television and movies have this more than books, but the consideration is the same. You either assume your audience is bilingual (e.g. on Telemundo), provide a translation (subtitles/footnotes/in-text interpretation), or deliberately go for the incomprehensible noise/squashed spiders effect. (e.g. your main characters is in a foreign country where they don't know the language, or are visiting their Spanish-speaking in-laws and are being excluded linguistically.) – R.M. Mar 12 at 20:08
  • 7
    There's a reason why science fiction stories often have universal translators when they meet aliens. – nick012000 Mar 12 at 23:32
  • 5
    For whom the Bell Tolls is an interesting example because IIRC Hemingway used thee and thou in the dialog to indicate when the original would have been using the Spanish familiar pronouns. Meaning he deviated from usual English conventions to convey the flavor of the Spanish. – The Photon Mar 13 at 23:17

Who is your audience? What languages do they know? If it's an international contest, are there language guidelines? If it says English Only, then be at least 99% English!

Are you planning on a few loanwords from Tagalog that are really hard to easily phrase in English? That sounds fine, especially if a reader can gather enough about them from context. (Example: perhaps a word describing a particular kind of flavor/texture that your grandmother's version of the dessert has, that this restaurant version does not have sufficiently.)

Often, if you're doing it to indicate private dialog, it may just be easier to use tags/description to state that.

"Jan and her father spoke quietly, in their native language, so no one else understood. They seemed to come to a decision."


"The parents talked. Jan heard a few words, like [whatever] and [whatever]. No matter how angry they were, when they spoke in [language], the language's [tonality? rhythms? some quality] sounded perfectly pleasant to outsiders."


In general, if writing for an English speaking audience, the dialog should be in English. A few short passages in another language, with a translation or at least a summery in English can work, but often it is better to simply describe the characters speaking in a different language. If the other language is one which a significant fraction of your audience might be able to at least puzzle out a few words, including it may give some flavor.

It is not uncommon when a character's native language is different from that of the rest of the cast, to lightly sprinkle dialog with words from that character's native language, particularly exclamations, where the exact sense is not vital to understanding of the story. Early Agatha Christie had the character Hercule Poirot exclaiming "Mon Dieu" or 'Sacre Bleu" or the like every few pages, and even that was probably too much.

I recall one early Peter Whimsy story (by Sayers) "The Entertainign Episode of the Article in Question" which included about three or four pages of untranslated dialog in French, overheard by the viewpoint character. This turned out to include the vital clue -- an error in French grammar which revealed that a character was actually a male disguised as a female. Apparently Sayers expected most of her audience to have learned enough French that this would work for them. I wouldn't advise such a passage in a current English-language story.

  • 1
    Were the Poirot words used by him in his English sentences or were they just shown to point out that the dialogue was held in French? That is quite a big difference and the question is about the latter (dialogue originally held in language other than English in an English book). – Vladimir F Mar 12 at 21:29
  • @Vladimir F Mostly used by him within an otherwise English statement, speaking to a person whose native language was English. Things such as "Mon Dieu, that is a very serious development." – David Siegel Mar 12 at 21:42
  • I feel like "Mon Dieu" and "Sacre Bleu" are common enough phrases that most English-readers will have a vague idea what they mean even if they don't speak any French. They're just interjections anyhow, so they don't add any information to the sentence. Even if you had no idea what they meant, you wouldn't really be missing anything. – Darrel Hoffman Mar 13 at 16:00
  • 1
    @Darrel Hoffman Yes, those interjections were really just a way of putting a label on the character "This character's native language is French!" Perhaps a better comparison is the occasional line of Untranslated elvish in The Lord of the Rings. Those were rare, perhaps one every 6-7 chapters. Not everyone thinks those work well, either. – David Siegel Mar 13 at 16:16
  • 1
    @Acccumulation That was a typo, sorry. It should have been "Entertaining". The title was a pun, however, in that the error was in the use of a grammatical article (one that showed gender, in French). The phrase 'the article in question" was used early in the story in a different context, so that the reader was not given too easy a clue. – David Siegel Mar 13 at 19:32

If you are writing for an English speaking audience, then write in English

  • 5
    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Cyn Mar 12 at 15:28
  • 1
    how does this not answer the question? I said, if you are writing for an english audience, you would have to use english. It is understood from the story that the dialogues are translated... just like it should be understood that I answered the question. When you read the translate war and peace... are the dialogues in french and russian, as oppose to english? – ashleylee Mar 12 at 18:49
  • 4
    @ashleylee Answer came off as joking/rhetorical, and did not provide justification, instead relying on "common sense," when, if the question was asked in the first place, there is room for ambiguity. Edited answer to be clearer. – awsirkis Mar 13 at 0:08
  • 1
    So you're saying "write in the language the reader can read" – Criggie Mar 14 at 19:40

I've seen some examples in stories where the author writes the dialogue primarily in English but uses certain phrases written in the native language of the character with footnotes of an approximate translation of the phrase. That could help you give your story some individuality while keeping it available to an English-speaking audience.

  • 1
    For an excellent example of this done well, see Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. – TRiG Mar 13 at 16:49

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy is written in English, but when characters are speaking Spanish the dialogue is written in Spanish. Unusually, those parts of the dialogue are not translated, and not limited to short irrelevant sentences either, but those dialogues may span multiple pages. Now there are at least two reasons why your situation is different:

  • Spanish is relatively similar and relatively much studied by English speakers, being a Latin language like French, and English having a lot of roots from Latin or French. Filipino is not even Indo-European and an entirely different language, and rarely studied in English speaking countries.
  • Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi — McCarthy is a Pulitzer-prize winning author writing brilliant prose. He can get away with things that most authors cannot. He has Spanish language dialogue in other books such as Blood Meridian as well, but AFAIK none as extensively as in the Border Trilogy.

Therefore the other answers are correct.

  • 1
    Wow, remind me never to read that book unless the edition provides translations. I was taught both French and German at school, but not a word of Spanish. I have come upon stories set in the southern US that use a few (Latin American) Spanish phrases for colour, and that was distracting enough. – IMSoP Mar 13 at 17:05
  • 1
    +1 for the untranslated Latin phrase. I dunno if you intended for that to prove your point about not having untranslated dialogue, but it did. – F1Krazy Mar 13 at 19:54

The purpose of nonfiction is to communicate information. The purpose of fiction is inducing particular emotional/mental states in the reader, although writers of fiction often intend it to be educational as well. If you're writing for a contest, you're probably aiming for creating the most favorable impression on the judges, so you should be considering how your choices affects that. You're not writing a foreign phrasebook, and the readers shouldn't have much trouble understanding that the English dialogue represents Tagalog speech. Writing dialogue in the local language and then translating breaks up the flow of the story, and reduces immersion, so that should be avoided unless you think that reducing immersion serves a narrative purpose. Whatever interaction a Filipino would have with the story as written in Tagalog, generally speaking evoking the same reaction in English speakers means having the story all in English.

Individuals words are a more complicated issue. There are going to be cases where there isn't a good translation of the word, and it's a judgment call as to whether to try to come up with a rough English equivalent, use the local term, or try some other strategy. There's also the question of what to consider "equivalent": if X has relationship Y to Filipino society, do you look for a word that Americans (or [insert nationality here]) would use to describe X, or do you look for a word that has relationship Y to American society?

Just as part of reading a new work means being introduced to new characters that one doesn't know at first, reading a work in a different cultures means being introduced to new terms that one doesn't know at first. Even in set in an English-speaking location, there could be new terms, such as a story set in Chicago introducing the L or explaining aldermen for people from a place with different political terms. So there's some leeway there, but don't go overboard.

If this were not for a contest, and instead something that you had more control over the presentation, such as hosting it on your own website, there would be more options, such as having the dialog be in English but hovering the mouse over it gives the Tagalog.


Decide on your localisation and culturalisation strategy.

Before going further, I should make it clear that this advice is from the perspective of somebody who localises existing source material (not a writer). That is, you should apply this on top of the other good advice from source writers here.

When creating any new content, even if it will eventually reach a foreign market, it is always best to stick to the language and tools that allow you to write to the highest-quality.

As this story is focused on Filipino POV; it's likely your native language will give you the most freedom to describe and showcase the character journey. That is, you want to write this in your native language - and follow up with localisation and culturalisation.

So, what is the difference between localisation and culturalisation?


At the top level, the thing to keep in mind is that localisation is simply turning your text from your source locale into a target locale. That is generally accomplished by simply translating the text - trying to find as close an equivilent as possible in each language.

Worth noting, is that the goal is to simply make the source text comprehensible in another language. That is, even though the text is now written in English - the mannerisms and speech patterns will still be reflective of your Filipino source material.

In some cases, this may be desired - making it clear that the text comes from a foreign source. But in general, most good translators will apply some form of culturalisation to help convey a similar emotional journey in another language.


Culturalisation is the step further - actually changing certain actions and sections of your source text, to make it culturally acceptable in another market.

This could be something simple such as changing a greeting between two friends from strictly formal (Japan), to something much more casual (US). As culturally, these are the normal ways to greet in each (where keeping the formal greeting in US English would convey something different about your characters than you meant to).

But it could be something more, such as changing a main character's hobby from gambling on horses (fairly acceptable in UK) to something pretty different, in markets where gambling would specifically mark your character as having "low morality".

Of course, most good translators will apply a certain amount of this naturally, and again, most good translators will communicate with you regularly to ensure they are making the alterations you want - and not going too far/too little. But it's a factor you need to consider in how you want the story to be percieved in a foreign market.

Putting this together

What this means for how you write, is that while you are able to personally write in English - you need to be conscious that you will not necessarily be writing culturally in English.

Importantly, even when writing in English - there is no single English market. The culture in the UK, US and in countries where English is a second language - are all vastly different (even if all of them can "read" the story without issues).

To be clear though, this is not an assertion that you need to have everything culturalised and localised professionally. But only by being conscious of these issues, and how your writing will be percieved, can you be confident that your story will be percieved how you want it to be.

Again, writing in English yourself is a perfectly valid choice (and any foreign vibe it gives off may be desired for your story) - but it should be seen as a conscious decision in terms of your culturalisation strategy and not a default.


There is a convention of putting translated dialogue in angle brackets. This could be used in combination with native words when accurate exposition is important.

  • 1
    Welcome to Writing.SE. Perhaps you could consider fleshing out your answer more, to further answer OP's question? – weakdna Mar 13 at 15:34

I will add an example of literature being translated to English, on the grounds that due to language differences translation can be equivalent to writing a different story.

In translated Japanese light novels, words and phrases that don't have an exact translation, but are generally assumed to be understood by the audience, tend to be left in the story and italicized to emphasize their being in a different language. For Japanese, that means that honorifics are either left in or translated, mainstream slang such as hikkikomori (shut-in) will either be left in italics or translated, and if there is a discussion that specifically involves the Japanese writing system then the original symbols are included as reference (such as "snail" being derivative of "cow" in Bakemonogatari). Cultural reference are also maintained.

The bulk of the translated text remains in English, as that is the intended audience of the translation, with words that don't make sense in English being left in Japanese.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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