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So I'm writing a story during the course of which my main, first-person-POV character learns another language, one used heavily in her surrounding. This generally works, but I regularly get stuck on dialogue for other characters when my narrator can understand some but not all of what they're saying. I have two main approaches I use, but both seem to have real disadvantages. Any ideas?

Approach 1: Paraphrasing

A stream of words followed. My best guess was that she was talking about how much she liked the food, but given that I could only understand one word in four I couldn't dismiss the possibility that she was explaining how her day had been, complaining about the noisy neighbours, or proposing marriage.

I sighed and intoned the words that had been among the first things I learned in class. "Slower, please?"

or

"And I thought you-" The rest of the sentence was obscured by grammar (this language made talking about things one didn't believe true unnecessarily complicated, in my opinion) but I thought I got the gist. He'd thought I was an honest person, and now he was deeply disappointed in me.

This is great for getting across how the character is actually experiencing things, but the fact that there's almost zero direct speech has (in my opinion) a distancing effect that makes this hard to manage for more than a few paragraphs here and there.

Approach 2: Italicised foreign words

"She can't make it, she told me earlier today. She has Verpflichtungen-"

"-obligations," Sarah translated,

"-in town which will beschäftigen her until late. She wants to meet up another time," Andrea added while I was trying to disentangle the unfamiliar word.

This is a lot easier to keep up for a whole conversation, but I worry that the readers will get annoyed at the onslaught of italicised foreign words. It's also not really a great depiction of what she's experiencing, because it's hard to show things like her only grasping bits and pieces of what's going on, guessing to fill in blanks, or trying to untangle unfamiliar grammar - in this particular example, I think my character is coming off as more fluent than she actually is.

(Note that although I used German for the sake of the example, the actual story uses a conlang so at least there will be no readers who know the language to worry about!)

Does anyone know of any other good ways of showing native speaker dialogue through a POV character with an imperfect grasp of the language? Or am I stuck combining these two approaches and trying to avoid scenes with lengthy foreign-language conversations until she's a bit more fluent?

EDIT: To clarify:

My problem is not that I want to include foreign words but still have the readers understand the dialogue. In fact, I'd happily do away with the foreign words entirely.

My problem is that I want to show a piecemeal, patchworky understanding of what is said - putting a percentage on this is difficult but let's call it 40-60% with outliers in either direction. I can manage this well for short scenes via the paraphrase demonstrated above, but I'm not happy with its effect in longer conversations.

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    Personally I love the paraphrasing :) – DM_with_secrets Apr 30 at 16:52
  • Depends on what % of dialogue is understood by your character. – Alexander Apr 30 at 18:17
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    Edited my question with more info :) @DM_with_secrets , personally I like the paraphrasing too, I just find it gets weird if there's a longer conversation with lots of dialogue and back and forth. – Tau May 1 at 7:31
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I understand both of your approaches. Write your story in a way that the readers travel along with the main character. If he/she doesn't understand the language in the beginning, let the reader experience the same. As the plot moves, introduce the foreign words. The readers will automatically get the gist of the meaning for the foreign words.

My suggestion would be: if you still face a difficulty in writing the story with foreign words and conveying their meaning to the readers, then introduce a new character. May be a translator or a tourist guide who travel alongside with the main character atleast for the some time while the main character learns the language. It will really engage the readers.

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    I edited the question as this doesn't really seem to address my problem! The issue isn't that I want my readers to understand what the foreign words mean - I don't really want the foreign words, to me they're a necessary evil. The issue is how I, as you put it, "let the reader experience the same" when my POV character partially understands the language. – Tau May 1 at 7:29
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I've read books that had short pieces of dialog where the narrator only understood a few words, and the writer expressed it with ellipses. Like:

I could only make out a few words that she said. "You must ... door ... soon ... telephone ... purple."

(I just made up that example. The real examples I've seen were less incoherent, but I don't remember the exact quotes.)

Ellipses can mean pauses, so this could be misleading. I've also seen cases where the writer included words indicating incomprehensibility, like "blah blah" or "mumble mumble". Like:

Then she said, "Are you blah blah door blah blah today?"

Personally I think that sounds like you're trying to be funny, and it doesn't work for me outside of a humorous context. But if the first time you did this you said that the narrator only understands a few words, I think you could put any "filler" in and it would be clear to the reader. Like:

I only understood a few words of what she said. "Are you xxx xxx door xxx today?"

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    Ironically, I don't think the ellipsis would work in the context but "mumble mumble" or "blah blah" has potential! There's quite a bit of humour in the story and my character has a very particular voice. I might be able to use this when she's frustrated at not being able to understand people properly, although it'd be a bit much to do continually. – Tau May 2 at 19:15
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Add Distance

You will often be told "show, don't tell." This is not always good advice. If a scene is going to be boring and tedious, summarize; just tell the reader the important things and move on with the story.

She told me something about doors, the fate of the universe, ultimate peril, and maybe the color purple? I wasn't sure what they had to do with each other. But that's all I got out of several minutes of her desperately gabbling at me.

This has the advantage that you don't need to use any more foreign words than you, as the author, judge to be important.

Have the character parrot back what she's hearing

If it's absolutely necessary to reproduce the dialogue in something like real-time, use a gimmick, like the 1st person narrator repeating what she thinks she's hearing. Think R2D2 or Chewbacca from Star Wars, only with less confidence on the part of the person parroting. This may be easier if there's a third person present for your narrator to be interacting with.

"She says that if the purple door is opened, then... Verushta? Wait, isn't that the end of the universe? Erik, can that be right? But does she mean the door opens to a universe that's ending, or that our universe will end? Wait, let me ask her. Um... Verushta curum, uh... sirriv ereth thenn?" I listened to her heated reply. "Yeah, she means our universe will end. I think."

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Somewhat embarrassing to end up answering my own question with a frame challenge, but here we go:

There was one scene in particular giving me trouble, where I wanted to show both the protagonist's slowly increasing language skills and the circle of friends she'd built up around her before shifting the conversation to something plot-relevant. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I was trying to do was contradictory: at the level I envisaged the character's language skills, she simply would not be capable of participating in the sort of back-and-forth banter between friends I was envisaging. Following it would require a lot of concentration and guesswork which she wouldn't be able to keep up for longer periods.

So I ended up really shortening the dialogue I'd intended on, paraphrasing much more, and switching back over to the protagonist's native language as soon as the plot-relevant things came up. That's probably the best solution for characters with a really limited understanding of the language - and it's worth keeping in mind that they won't be able to follow longer dialogue in the first place.

I did end up writing another scene where her comprehension was a lot better but still imperfect. At that point the two techniques I described in the question worked fairly well, along with:

Making the POV character talk more

More of a trick, really: I found that writing "spoken by non-native POV" dialogue was a lot easier to pull off without breaking the story flow or annoying the reader than "heard by non-native POV" dialogue. And if you do that, you actually don't need that many reminders in the dialogue of other characters - the POV character's dialogue alone makes it clear that this character is not comfortable with this language.

"How dare you! Do you even know who I am? Who my friends are?"

It was a shame, no, a true outrage that I didn't know the word for crybaby. I'd have to make do.

"I don't know. But I think knowing of most important thing, yes?" I made sure to put as much insolence into my shrug as I could. Body language was crucial when it came to foreign languages, I'd found, and it would be such a pity if the man didn't understand me. "You are person who thinks her friends are more important she. When you are here, I am here, but friends are not here."

I knew communication had been successful when the man blanched. "I... I apologise."

Showing a misunderstanding

To be used sparingly, but it can make a nice change: write what the character thinks she's hearing, then make clear it can't actually be right.

"Would you like to go to the frog tonight?"

Say what now?

"Oh, please come! We go to the frog every week, it's such a good time!" Maria chimed in.

What sort of bizarre ritual was I hearing about here? Why would visiting an amphibian be the highlight of someone's week?

"I asked Joel, he owns the frog, he says there'll be a new band playing and the dance floor is open again."

Or possibly that word did not mean what I thought it meant.

(examples may be a little odd as I wrote them for this post, but the techniques should hopefully be clear.)

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