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This is part of the story I'm working on:

“Imikagaw” a feminine voice called out as she put her hand on the back of the man in cape. “Usamiakusta ow ihsataw aw amas Enna “Uoyustih ag imikagaw aw nah Usira”, she continued. “Ha…”, the man tears off most of his cape and lays it on the body. “Usamihsiageno”, he said gently as he passed the body to her.

“Amas otto”, the child cries while hugging the man tightly. “Oy Usedubuojiad “Usira “Nesamekustuzik uom aw arerak “Oy Usedubuojiad”, he said gently while stroking her head.

Readers aren't supposed to be able to understand the languages in my story other than English, so a scene like this is kinda inevitable when dealing with characters with other mother tongues. Especially when the main character goes into places where these languages are common.

But would that keep readers from understanding the scene or should I have faith that readers will be able to understand the context of the scene even if they don't understand the dialogue?

What can I do in order to avoid confusion while writing this way other than give the main character a universal translator or have everyone suddenly speak broken English.

Thanks.

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  • Do you thoroughly invent a fictitious language and expect your readers to eventually "circle back" to this dialog and understand it, or this is just for show?
    – Alexander
    Aug 28 '20 at 19:38
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    I just realized the 'conlang' in this question is Japanese text, displayed in romaji and reversed. Aug 28 '20 at 19:44
  • If both people in the scene are speaking the language, it feels wrong if they don't share the story with the reader. If the characters speak it, we should hear it, be it French or Reptoid, but in English. You could maybe get away with it if the viewpoint character doesn't speak it. Have you ever seen the movie Quest for Fire? Only one character in the movie speaks, and no one understands, but the viewpoint character doesn't have a clear spoken language, so it works.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 28 '20 at 21:40
  • @Anna A. Fitzgerald indeed they are romanji japanese, i try to make my own language but it's just too much work since language have pattern, structure and consistence which is why I didn't go with random keystoke, so I decide to use languages that I knew instead.
    – calvin_0
    Aug 29 '20 at 0:08
  • I'm not sure there's much difference between doing this with a conlang and a real language, in terms of reader understanding. But thanks to @AnnaA.Fitzgerald for pointing out why this 'looks backwards' to me! Note that I don't speak any Japanese... Dec 24 '20 at 19:05
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Writing isn't like filming a movie. In a movie it's trivial to show detail. Swing the camera over the set and you're done. A one-second clip can contain tens or hundreds of tiny details depending on how productive the set dressers felt that day.

Writers can't use this trick. To describe a scene they need to spend costly words from their budget, and every word spent describing a nice vase is one less to spend on a plot twist, motivation, or character arc development.

Budget-minded authors partly outsource the creation of details to the reader. The author provides the most pertinent details, under the assumption the reader will fill in the rest. This does create a difference in vision between everyone who reads the book, but, does that really matter as long as they all understand the story?

In your excerpt, the dialogue is a detail. Maybe the language is a collection of random keystrokes, maybe it's a brainbreaker of a conlang. Either way, my eyes glaze over the same way they'd do if an author were to describe a nice vase for three whole paragraphs.

The characters don't speak the viewpoint character's language, but they still have bodies. They still move about, show their emotions and intentions with gestures and actions. And though the words they speak don't make sense, the tone of their voice still inflects depending on whether they're angry or sad.

To convey the mood of this scene, cut all those meaningless words and substitute descriptions of not only what these characters do, but how they do it. A challenge, but doable.

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  • So If I understand correctly, those scene should be written this way, right? A feminine voice called out to the man in cape in a polite manner, she put her hand on his back while speaking softly. With a hint of sorrow in his voice, he tears off most of his cape and gently lays it on the body in respond. With great care, he pass the body to her. The child cries while hugging the man tightly. He stroke her head gently while speaking softly.
    – calvin_0
    Aug 29 '20 at 0:54
  • @calvin_0 That's one way, yes. If the reader doesn't understand the language, the dialogue is for decorative purposes only. Your rewrite conveys the exact same information and emotion as the original, but with fewer words. Nothing was lost, but you did free up your word budget by 50%. Aug 29 '20 at 8:43
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I'm working on a story at the minute that heavily features a conlang, and I find less is more. Yes, I have a dictionary and grammar rules and all that, but I find it's most useful as behind-the-scenes infrastructure rather than putting it front and center like this. Instead of throwing ostensibly made-up words at the audience without context, I find it's better for characters to exchange specific phrases with easily interpretable meanings and allow your audience the agency to figure it out.

To go, "The man said, 'Tajba ukihrak sensha. Fiptsu sensha!' But MC didn't understand a word of it," is just sort of pointless. I know what it means because I wrote it, but at the end of the day it's just self-indulgence for the author, without any consideration for the reader. Showing off your language becomes a distraction rather than a supporting element. When this happens and it stops being helpful to understanding or enriching the scene, focus on other things instead: body language, and so on. When we don't understand languages in real life, we focus on the context clues that can fill in the gaps, and your characters will generally do this too.

Context is still very important even if you want to be explicit with your language. If "shii ajkliwela" and "kharala" always close a conversation, their intents become understood as goodbyes, even if their literal meanings are obscured from the audience. If you go on to ensure that "shii ajkliwela" is only used in formal settings and "kharala" among friends, you provide the context clues for your audience to understand the difference between "farewell" and "catch you later" without burying them in linguistic fluff.

This does a few useful things -- first, it saves you a lot of bandwidth as a writer because you can still add linguistic flavor to your fantasy world without having to write up an entire lexicon. Just figure out what your fantasy culture values and make up some words and idioms for those things, pepper 'em in the appropriate places, and you'll create the illusion of a fully realized language at half the budget. It's also rewarding to readers who pay attention to make these discoveries as additions to the story, little bonus goodies that aren't required for the average reader's enjoyment but enriching to the real dedicated ones.

TL;DR: For situations like the one in your example, where the observer is uninvolved, rely less on the words themselves and more on the sounds of the language, the cues and tonality that work together to convey the most important things.

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How you incorporate conlangs into your work will vary depending on whose POV you're writing from.

If you're writing from the POV of a speaker of the language, you have two options:

  1. Just write their dialogue in English like you would for any other character. Plenty of authors do this already.
  2. Write the dialogue out, but alter it to clue your reader in to it's non-Englishness.

Option 2 might look like this:

Oh, Father! the girl cries as she hugs the man tightly. It's okay, says the man, stroking her head. They're not hurting anymore, it's okay.

Italics and a lack of dialogue tags hint, without outright saying, that the characters aren't speaking the same language as the reader, that there's some level of author interpretation between what they actually say and what the reader sees. (Note: this approach will not work if you are Cormac McCarthy. Cormac, if you're reading this, you're gonna need to get more creative here.)

If you're writing from the POV of a character who doesn't speak the conlang, I'd suggest avoiding the use of sentences in that conlang in your work. You can sprinkle in some words or short phrases here or there, but full sentences like the one in your sample text are probably going to be a headache for your readers.

You can get a lot across just by describing the actions a character takes:

Josie watches as the girl runs into the man's arms, crying out for him. The man holds her tightly, strokes her hair, and says something - usedubuojiad, usedubuojiad - over and over again. She doesn't need to speak the language to know it's a word of comfort.

If you sprinkle in some words here and there, giving the audience enough context to learn their meanings, you can get away with using some full sentences later in the story (Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!, anyone?). But for the most part, you've got to be conservative with when you bust out the conlangs. A minority of readers will become invested in the language and want to know more of it/more about it, but most people just want to read a story in a language they already understand.

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