I am writing novel where the main character has small conversations in non-English language. This would really pull the reader into the environment.

When and how often to provide translation.

So far, I italicize foreign word and put translation in parentheses. And I have glossary at end of novel.


Don't provide translations like that.

For single words (or short phrases,) make sure that the reader can understand the foreign words from context.

If the character has to have a (short) conversation in a foreign language, have it clear from the context what the character will say or ask in the foreign language then make it clear from the character's reaction to the foreign language reply what was said.

This kind of situation often comes up in science fiction. It happens in encounters with aliens, but also in the use of words that are common in some far future setting but which don't exist in our language. The characters just use the words naturally, and the readers are expected to figure it out from context or by having the characters discuss the subject. Say, one character says the sub-atomic fasarta isn't working and a second character cusses and says it'll have to replaced because the ship's engines won't run without it.

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  • What about italicising it so that readers can differentiate. For instance, Mama means Mother in English but Mama means Uncle in other language. – Marium Mar 4 at 15:25
  • A glossary is sometimes included in such novels. Not so much in short stories. – JRE Mar 4 at 15:25
  • Yes, I plan to write novel. – Marium Mar 4 at 15:27
  • It should be clear from context which "Mama" you mean, unless you are intentionally playing the ambiguity as part of the story. – JRE Mar 4 at 15:27
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    Watch the original "Star Wars" movie. See how Han Solo interacts with Chewbacca. No subtitles or translations, but you do know what Chewbacca said. – JRE Mar 4 at 15:31

This would really pull the reader into the environment.

Would it, though? I'm unconvinced - if anything I can see it having the opposite effect. Having chunks of dialog that the reader (presumably) wouldn't be able to understand is more likely to be exclusionary IMO. It's one thing to do this as a mechanism when you're in a POV that isn't intended to understand a given statement and you're using the narrative device of that POV's not understanding to illustrate a divide, but if I understand you properly you're intending that the reader be able to understand what is said and that this is going to be a relatively common thing.

This can work in visual media like T.V. and movies because they can make use of subtitles, so the viewer doesn't experience any lag in understanding what's being said. Doing that in text doesn't work because the reader has to read the foreign text then the translation; if it starts happening frequently, most readers will just skip over the foreign text and go straight to the translation. Either way you're chipping slightly at the immersion.


Marium turned to his mother and spoke rapidly 'Madre! L'anatra di gomma fiammeggiante parla di senso! Forse dovremmo ascoltarlo.'(The flaming rubber duck talks sense! Maybe we should listen to him)


Marium turned to his mother and spoke in rapid Italian 'Mother! The flaming rubber duck talks sense! Maybe we should listen to him'

The second quote effectively communicates to you that the character is speaking to their mother in Italian but they don't need to understand Italian to be able to read the text unimpeded. And anyone who can doesn't have to skip past redundant translations just to carry on with the story.

If you're just dropping the occasional word or short phrase you need to make sure that the context is good enough to provide a decent clue as to what is being said - and translations or glossaries are poor substitutes for where you've failed to do this. Here you can be making gains in terms of drawing the reader into the environment, e.g:

Marium turned to his mother and spoke in rapid Italian 'Madre! The flaming rubber duck talks sense! Maybe we should listen to him'

Even though we've told the reader the character is speaking in Italian, the use of Mardre! reinforces it and evokes the notion to the reader of the rest of the sentence "sounding" Italian - without them having to actually understand the language. "Madre" is close enough to "Mother" that with explicit mention of "mother" when he turns, most readers will (correctly) infer its meaning. Perhaps most importantly, if they don't manage to infer that meaning, they aren't going to struggle to understand what's going on in the story.

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    This is something to think about. So far I use short words, and half sentences. – Marium Mar 4 at 17:00
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    Your answer is extremely helpful. It will help me be mindful as I am writing this for my fellow Westerners. – Marium Mar 4 at 17:33

What I would do is, something like this; "Aloha!," she greeted. or "Davvero!" he swore. If you can't do that, then maybe just write the sentence in what ever language, then in italics write it in English. I hope this helped you!

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Exploit the Medium

I have often seen creative use of fonts and formatting to evoke text being in a different language or to express that the voice of the character is particularly unusual.

For example. the character of Death in Terry Pratchett's Discworld franchise always ᴛᴀʟᴋs ɪɴ sᴍᴀʟʟ-cᴀᴘs.

Pratchett also explicitly describes the voice as "like tombstones slamming together" and cast Christopher lee to voice him in the movies.

I've also seen italics, different fonts, placing the text in different colours or even wrapping in blocks of a different colour background on the page.

With "Black Speech" style translations I've encountered unicode exploitation to produce text that looks a bit like this:

H̳̘͍̙̝̮͑͂̔ͩ̆͑̓e̎ͨ̍r͖̠͎̥ͤ́̊eͨ͌ͧ̋̇̅ͧ'̼̳̱̯̼͛ͣs̩̼͈̥̺̟ͮ̈ͣͤ ͙̞̤̹ͅͅa̽̍ͧ̽ͤn͇͑ͣ̇̐ ̼̹̣̱̝͕̺̉̚e̗͉̬̳͑̃͊̾̓͆x̞̭͙̜ͭ̄a̮̯̽̃ͤ̿ͭ͂ͬm̩̖̹pl̞ē͇̭̗̜͔͕̺̊ ͚̭̭͉͉̹͉̈́̈͗o̜̲̜̪ͮ̎ͬ̍̿f̣͎͕̬͕ͯ̃̐ ̮͌͌͋ͥsͥͨo̯͙̝̞̪̞̊͌m͖̤̖̠̣̘ͪ̊ͪ͒ͭ̏ͅe̲͇͈͈̝̦̣͒͆͊̑̋ͬ ̻͇ͯ̑̀u̩͇ͤͬͫ̓̉̏̓n̬̬̹͊̽̿̏̈́ͧ̚ḭ͎̜̲̺̜̣̅͋͗̏ͯͨ̎c̰̦͖̻̍́̍̋ȯ͎͎̜͎͒ͫ̀̈̑̓ḋ̺͛e̦̳͈͗̃ͫͪ ̰̭sḧ̥͚̜̬̻̻́̋͌ė̜͇͔͕͗̏̊̇ͤń̯̈̐ͭ̒̂̑aͮṇ̳̜̖̲ͦ̾͒ͪͤ͂i̞̱̘͙̩ͯ͆͂̂͌͋g̱ͫ͗a͉̦n͈̺̪͍͚͛̈́̎̆̚s̖͕

Great for evil cultist chanting.

Basically, you can write english and use formatting to imply that it's definitely not "normal" or at least not english as spoken.

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I have another perspective

Don't get it wrong!!!!

I am a native french speaker, and I have read countless of English books with character spouting "french" full of grammatical errors, wrong vocabulary, and usage mistake....now that I think about it, I have never ever read french used correctly, even by anglo-saxon authors who studied French or lived in France...

Always assume that some native speakers will read your book, and unless you are a native speaker of that language yourself, you will make mistakes that will make you look like a silly codger

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