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I’m writing a story where alien races are in constant communication with humans, but I don’t want it to be awkward or have to use language tags like “...he said in x language.” Maybe I could have a conspiracy event where the evolutions of all the languages converge at the point of first contact, so they are equivalent and there’s a sense of conspiracy or master Design. This kinda seems like I’m trying too hard though. Any ideas are appreciated!

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    Your question isn't a duplicate of this one, but the answers to this one may be helpful: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/51718/…
    – Sciborg
    Sep 3 '20 at 23:55
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    This might be more of a question for worldbuilding.stackexchange.com
    – Philipp
    Sep 4 '20 at 9:18
  • How do you want your aliens to communicate? Realistically it is unlikely an alien species would communicate as we do: through sounds and body language. They may have a different spectrum of sound frequency, they may be able to change their skin colors like an octopus, they may be sending out complex smell signals, etc. The most realistic way (provided both parties have made an effort to communicate) is the built up of an interface. Would this fit with your story? In cas ewe can elaborate on that. Sep 4 '20 at 10:39
  • Also relevant: WHAT are the two civilizations / individuals talking about? It's one thing if you have to convey theoretical physics, a whole another issue if you are trying to translate to aliens our literature. Imagine trying to convey the Iliad scene in which Priam tries to retrieve his son's body to an alien who may have no sense of love for relatives (maybe they are vat grown) nor cult of the dead (they just eat them). Sep 4 '20 at 10:52
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You should first think (even if you don't explicitly tell it to the reader) how such communication will happen.

Some possibilities:

  • Humans and aliens have the same language
  • There is a universal translation device human<->alien
  • Aliens have learnt all human languages and are able to communicate in any of them
  • Communication actually happens through computers. Your human write into their computer, which translates it into a format that the alien computers then translate into their language. This adds another layer of confusions. It's not only aliens and people misunderstanding, but also the way the multiple computers involved handled it (and no one really knows better to understand it).
  • Aliens have learnt one human language (Russian, Polish, Flemish...). The fact that all alien trade uses its language has made it also the de facto universalterrestrial language between countries (currently a place held by English, previously by French, even before by Latin...).
  • The aliens are telepathic. Humans actually understand what they want/mean but it doesn't have words attached. This would probably be the hardest to write.
  • Aliens can communicate only with some humans which are specially suited to receive their mental waves. This creates small and highly-valued cast of people that work as alien translators.

After you think how you want your alien languages to work, you would then design your world with that. Unless you want to "write" the alien language gibberish to the reader, most likely you should be transparently writing it on the reader's language.

Continuously stating “...he said in x language.” does not make for a good writing, IMHO. You should mention at the beginning of the story (or when your characters will start talking with aliens) how does the communication work. The reader then knows that they talk in "Classical Greek because X", and you can then spare from from stating it every time. You would only need to if that changed for some reason, such as the alien revealing that he understood all the remarks human were doing in from of him (thinking he didn't understood a word of their mother tongue).

You can even shadow the translators themselves:

Joe Doe enters the room where three aliens awaited him. Their own translators were in a corner, which were quickly joined by Doe's translator. Both parties silently evaluated each other while the translator negotiated the neutral language they would use for the interaction.

Joe: Our government decided it is not interesting in selling you the unobtanium

Alien 1: That's stupid, you don't need it for anything, it is radioactive and dangerous for your flesh

Joe: Still, we are not selling any piece of our land

The conversation actually goes through two sets of translators, which may be talking on a language none of the real parties actually speak (e.g. Esperanto). But those in the conversation are Joe Doe and Alien 1.

You have multiple ways to show to the reader how they works, for instance:

  • Since the started, one of the biggest hurdles was to communicate properly between the completely different societies and languages used by aliens and humans. This seemed to have been finally solved in the last decade by XYZ, yet ...
  • The main character illustrates the reader through teaching a different character:
    • The corporal had arrived to the space station the prior week and had never met the aliens before (...)
    • Joe small daughter was very excited on hearing the her daddy would be meeting with the aliens. Are they so ugly as in TV? How will you understand them with those loud noises they do when talking? See, honey, I will actually be wearing headphones that will cancel such noise and translate it into English...
  • By showing what is happening:
    • Doe hated the big helmet that would feed him with the alien language, and translate his words back into their smell-based language. It was big, heavy, restricted his head movements and partly obscured his vision.
    • After much quarrel with the other parties, they relinquished and accepted not having any interlocutor present. Joe Doe would be the only Blefuscudian at the ≪really important and secret≫ negotiations. The narrator then proceeds to describe how Joe proceeds to the room where that intimate meeting will take place, which is actually crowded by translators, alienpsychologists, technicians overseeing the well functioning of the devices...
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  • Unless the story is about communication, I don't think you need to be as explicit as this, and certainly not as verbose. For instance, "the big helmet that would feed him with the alien language, and translate his words back into their smell-based language" can be shortened to "the unwieldy translator helmet". And even that would be an easy cut to make if it doesn't affect the plot and you need to tighten up the story to keep the reader interested.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 4 '20 at 11:13
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Set apart the text:

If I felt the need to indicate an alien language was being spoken, and that everyone was speaking it or at least understood, I'd set the alien languages apart in the print. I'm not an English major or an editor, so it's how I would do it:

  • Psychic: She opened her mind to him, thinking, "I know we can't be physically together, but that doesn't mean we can't be intimate."
  • Grey Alien: Sussuzien's membranes shook. {Now look what you've made me do. I can't replace dead humans. They're expensive.}

If there is constant code switching, then maybe separation is important, like:

Bill looked scornfully at the alien. "Don't you speak English? I thought your people trained their ambassadors."

"Of course we do," it said. [Do humans bother to do the same?]

[Naturally,] replied Bill.

Otherwise, don't parse it out. If everyone is speaking a common language, just have them speaking it. Don't put up the extra wall, but just have it be a conversation that just happens to be in Reptoid. If your book is about people speaking French, you wouldn't feel the need to specify they are speaking French unless it was germain to the plot.

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    This is a good idea, but make sure that it is made obvious what's going on the first time you use it, especially in SF where this kind of convention is often used to indicate non-verbal communication (eg telepathy).
    – occipita
    Sep 4 '20 at 8:30
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Depending on the language you could just... not.

For example take Chewbacca in Star Wars. Wookies can't make the sounds for Basic, and he spends the entire multi-movie span yelling what sounds like animal noises. But Han and several others speak Wookie and you the audience can get the gist of what he's saying based on their responses and Chewies tone. This can be represented in writing with something like

The Glavian's pseudopods began flashing in rapid white and red circular patterns. "Alright, alright," Your Protagonist replied, "No refunds, I get it."

If you have multiple POVs you can treat the languages as English after a throwaway "Protagonist A understands Glavian" for whoever speaks them, and unintelligible jabber/arm-waving/light-making for whoever doesn't. Readers are smart, they'll figure it out.

Alternatively you could go the way of Watership Down, by Richard Adams. In it his rabbits speak Lapine, but the reader mostly reads their conversations in English. For words of Lapine that have no specific english equivalent (Hraka, meaning rabbit poop, or Silflay, to eat outside) he at first provides fairly unobtrusive footnotes and/or sets them neatly in context. You might run across them once every few pages. By the end of the book, you get a character saying "Silflay Hraka U Embleer rah!" and without any footnotes or explanation the reader can translate that to "Eat shit, king Stinker" with no trouble. I personally like this way as it lets the reader follow along easily while still providing "flavor" to show that the speakers are of a different mindset than the reader.

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  • Other famous examples of this approach include the astromech droids (e.g. R2-D2), and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.
    – F1Krazy
    Sep 4 '20 at 18:46
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I think there are two parts to this: how the languages work in universe, and how you represent that out of universe.

By "in universe", I mean what is the fictional explanation for how these characters are communicating. This is part of your world-building, and unless communication is the key theme of your story, you may work out much more about it than you ever tell the reader - resist the temptation to include an "info-dump"! As other answers have suggested, there are lots of ways this might work:

  • The aliens studied human communication and greeted us in English, or Esperanto
  • Humans studied alien communication, and did the equivalent
  • A trade creole developed during first contact, and became the lingua franca
  • Telepathy
  • Machine translation
  • Simultaneous translation by trained interpreters (as is used in real-life in places like the EU and UN)

Having thought about that, you can then decide on a convention out of universe, i.e. how are you going to represent this to the reader.

If everyone is actually speaking the same language, just represent that in English. Similarly, if all the characters in a particular scene speak the same language, you might not bother mentioning if it's English or Betelgeusian or Tradelingua, because it doesn't make any difference. What you need to mention is characters in mixed groups slipping into a different language, either deliberately to talk behind someone's back, or accidentally in a stressful situation.

If you have regular sections where people are talking and not understanding one another, you can have a convention for marking the different languages. This is often done by varying the punctuation (e.g. using brackets rather than quotes) or typography (e.g. using italics or a different typeface). You need to explain what's going on sometimes, but the difference reminds the reader that there are two sets of people "talking past each other".

Some of the in-universe explanations also have consequences that would crop up regularly - delays in translation, or struggling to find the right word. Mentioning those occasionally can enrich the world for the reader (the classic advice of "show don't tell").

An interesting example is ''A Fire Upon the Deep'' by Vernor Vinge: between chapters, there is "flavour text" (not essential to the plot) in the form of messages which have been sent through a kind of interstellar internet. Each message includes a "translation path" of the languages it's been translated through to get to whatever language we're supposedly reading it in, and the text becomes more garbled as the source languages become further removed.

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    THIS ANSWER! SO MUCH! Come up with an in-universe explanation and write consistent with that (i.e. keep a record of who can understand/communicate in whose language), but don't think you need to mention that in every conversation. Mention it maybe at the first alien encounter, and mention when someone doesn't understand, and leave it at that. "What did he say? I don't speak Minbari!" or whatever could be enough, with maybe "Jana shot him a confused look" reactions occasionally. Otherwise, you can basically ignore it unless you WANT to deal with it for story reasons.
    – uliwitness
    Sep 6 '20 at 21:46

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