I'm writing a story about a little girl who got bit by an unknown snake species and is being treated for it. Out of the 3 snakebite victims, this little girl seems to have the best prognosis. Here is a summary of what happens in the second chapter of my story, where I introduce a foreign language speaking character.

Chapter summary:

Peter, the little girl's brother is at school and tells his dad about the situation during a break from his classes. He shows a picture of the snake. His dad, an expert herpetologist goes to the park where the snake was found and sets a lot of snake traps. Peter hears the news the next morning about his dad setting the snake traps. On the news is some live footage of his youngest sister, Lily and her mom, Paula at the hospital.

He feels too sad and worried to just stay home with his older sister Alexandra, so they decide to go to Grandma's and tell her about the situation. Grandma greets the two of them in Spanish, her native tongue. Peter knows enough Spanish to communicate to Grandma about the snakebite situation but is clearly not fluent in Spanish.

Grandma drives them to the hospital and offers Lily some orange juice. Paula declines the offer, despite Grandma's justification that it will help her immune system fight off the snake venom. Grandma doesn't know it yet, but Lily is blind. Paula says that Lily needs her rest and is worried that she isn't ready to eat or drink anything since she got out of a gravely dangerous situation of not being able to breathe.

Grandma in my story speaks Spanish as a native language, Paula is bilingual in Spanish and English, Peter is actively learning Spanish, Alexandra and Bob, Peter's dad, both understand some Spanish but aren't actively learning it, and Lily can't understand Spanish at all yet.

So there are several ways that I can think of getting across foreign language in the dialogue. First off, there is writing the foreign language directly. However, I am not a native Spanish speaker or even conservationally fluent in Spanish. Also, given that I live in the USA, I don't know how many people will understand it if I write the foreign language directly. Then there is writing completely in English and just mentioning that it is spoken in Spanish. Then there is writing a romanization, in other words writing it the way that it is pronounced instead of writing it the way it is spelt.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these 3 ways of getting across foreign language in my dialogue?


2 Answers 2


Don't, under (almost) any circumstances write a Roman-script foreign language "the way it is pronounced".

It is not helpful to anyone. If I (as your reader) don't speak Spanish, the text is gibberish to me whether it is rendered in proper Spanish, or in "the way it is pronounced". ("Romanisation" isn't the proper term here, as Spanish already uses Roman script.)

If I do speak some Spanish, it would be much easier for me to read it if it is spelled properly, for the same reasons it is usually recommended to avoid phonetic accent in English. (For more, see tvtropes - Funetik Aksent).

In fact, if I speak no Spanish, but have a basic grasp of Romance languages in general, I might understand a little of what is being said if the text is spelled correctly, but not if it is deformed.

Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to write a foreign language the way it is pronounced? When a foreign word is sufficiently well-known and you wish to use a misunderstanding for humorous effect.

You know, ooh-jar boards and cards [...] and paddlin' with the occult (Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies)

Meaning Ouija boards, of course.

Note that this section only talks of Roman-script languages. If you were dealing with, say, Japanese, you wouldn't want to use Japanese letters. Those would be incomprehensible squiggles on the page that would make no sound in the reader's mind.

Don't just insert foreign language

Your readers (mostly) don't speak Spanish. If you write in English, your target audience is English-speakers. Long passages that are entirely incomprehensible to the reader don't help anyone or anything. They take your reader out of the story and into boredom and annoyance.

You can use short interjections if they can be understood from context. For example, it isn't too hard to figure out what 'Hola' means, even if you don't already know. But you don't want too much of this in your text - use it as a spice, don't let it overwhelm the main dish.

Do render everything that is understood by the POV character in English

This is common practice. All the dialogue in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example, is "really" in Spanish. You can mention "she said in Spanish" if it isn't clear enough from context that she did.

If your POV character doesn't understand what is being said, don't provide the dialogue.

"She said something in Spanish that Lily didn't understand" is enough. Or it might be that some other character is providing a translation.


In one of my stories, I had the foreign language speakers speak in their language.

Then I had the MC translate it for the readers (as he has a partial understanding of the language). It was a conscious choice done to convey the language barrier confusion experienced by the MC.

Note the scene wasn't super long. I think this approach would be very tedious in a long scene.

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