I am writing a story in English and my main character is bilingual and of a different culture. The characters and narrator uses common words in the familiar language (e.g. Spanish). Do I need to explain what the words mean or assume the reader will figure it out from the information presented? Also, I read that the foreign words should be italicized is this correct?


Until then Lola and her mami had lived with her abuela. Lola loved her abuelita, she was her world.

Abuela refused to allow Hector to live in her house so, even though her grandmother tried to stop Alicia from taking Lola, her mother moved them into a single-story studio apartment.

4 Answers 4


This depends a bit on the frequency of new vocabulary. If you stick to a very few commonly used words, you can just use them, especially if the number is just a handful of new words per chapter. Those readers who do not know these words do not have to go through too much trouble to look them up in a dictionary once in a while. Otherwise, with many Spanish words, I think you have to explain or translate most of them when they first occur, since you cannot expect a reader to check the dictionary all the time. Sometimes the right context allows the reader to guess the words' meanings easily, and no wordy explanation is required. Maybe print a list of vocabulary at the end of the book.

By the way, your example has not worked for me. I was able to guess that abuela refers to a person, but couldn't guess its exact meaning, even though you also used grandmother in the text. "Until then Lola and her mami had lived with her abuela - her grandmother" would have worked better for me. I have zero knowledge of the Spanish language and know very little of their culture in general.

Italics signal to me that the author wants me to pay attention to a specific word what seems to conflict with the intent to demonstrate that a bilingual person naturally mixes languages to some degree in typical everyday conversations. Maybe you could only use italics each time you introduce a new Spanish word, and not afterwards.

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    To me what makes the example confusing is that it uses 'her abuela', 'her abuelita', 'Abuela', and 'her grandmother' so close together - it's not clear that her grandmother is the same person, and the other variations just sound a bit awkward. If it was cut down to (her) abuela everywhere, I'd cope without the translation, as long as it didn't matter that it might take me a while to figure out what it meant. Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 11:09

Italicize? Don't do it!. The linked clip shows how multilingual words (and people that use them) would seem if the words were italicized. I stopped doing any of the sorts after seeing it! But you are right, some guides and other resources suggest you should do it. As a multilingual, I think you should fight for not having to do it! :D

And you don't need to explain. In most cases, it would look awkward. But you do need to make sure the target audience understands.

When writing a scene in a multilingual text one language is likely the main language of that particular scene.

Sometimes there are people that don't speak that language in the scene. They can then be used to explain words you want to use, if you feel they need to be explained... these people may have a rudimentary understanding of the language and can make a guess the reader may or may not be able to make.

It doesn't have to be too complex. Maybe someone curses and someone else says, "Mind your language, please?"

In this scene, words that don't belong to the main language will use the "non-book language" e.g. if the book is in English and the scene is in English, then some words from e.g. Spanish can be used.

However, if the scene is between two people that speak Spanish, it should of course still be written in English... however, there may be a special effect when people speaking Spanish include English words... which also happens.

If it can be done...

Adding English to English doesn't really make that much of an impact unless you can find something typically English someone would use... I recommend experimentation and research.

I think this is a question of voice and vocabulary, but thinking about a Swedish-English equivalent I'm not seeing it immediately. However, I'm sure research would give me answers, for instance asking English-speaking people in Sweden about typically Swedish things they notice might give me input on how to write Swedes in English culture.

Although I should probably be one of those swedes in an English-speaking context I suspect if I wanted it to be genuine.


I would suggest that you pick one term for her grandmother and use it as a proper Name for her from the MC's point of view. Similar to how one might call a female parent Mom despite the real name. IRL, my father's parents both divorced and remarried before I was born, and while I had 3 sets of grandparents, I would use different names to refer to each: PopPop and MomMom (Paternal grandfather and 2nd wife), Granny and Granddad (Paternal grandmother and 2nd Husband), and Grandma and Grandpa (maternal grandparents).

Similarly, it's possible that your character would refer to this grandparent as "Abuelita" or "Abuela" when discussing that specific woman or talking to that woman, but would refer to their relationship as "grandmother/grandparent and grandchild/grandkid."

Gramatically your example needs work. The word "mami" should be capitalized as it refers to a specific individual (a mother) by a common term for a person of that relationship. As far as Lola is concerned, her mother's name is "Mami" and her grandmother's is "Abuelita." If you have to describe the relationship, it should be in English and should be an improper noun:

Lola's mother is Alicia, whom she calls Mami.

Lola's grandmother is Abuelita.

Please note that I do not speak Spanish and have a vague Latin background. I know Romance Languages have different suffixes that denote subject or predicate use of the word, so I don't know if "Abuelita/Abuela" is changed based on the character being the subject or predicate of a sentance. That said, since this is being used as a name in English (which doesn't change suffixes based on where a word appears in a sentance). It should be consistent.

It should also be pointed out that it's okay to give the actual legal names of the parents, but your MC as the view point character and your narrative voice, should refer to them by parent terms whenever possible. Your story should only use legal names if A.( It's in dialog and said by a person who would refer to these people by a legal name OR B.( It's a formal situation where the view point character has to identify them for a specific formal situation.

This includes the narrator who is effectively Lola's internal voice.

Some situations where you can drop the names:

"Alicia, you look divine," Lola heard Hector say as she went up the stairs.

"Carmen Ramone is my Abuelita... my grandmother...," Lola said to the police officer.

Edit: As a final note, as someone with no Spanish language skills at all, I was able to pick up on Abuelita being "grandmother" without the word being defined. Use context clues like having Abuelita tell Lola about when Mami was Lola's age how she would get into all kinds of trouble and how Abuelita would ground her so many times (or put in time out/ spank/ whatever discipline a parent would use on an unruly child).


Take a look at Junot Diaz or Juliana Delgado's Fiebre Tropical. Both of them pretty much just include the Spanish word and leave it to you to figure out. I don't remember if Diaz ever included a glossary.

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