I'm Brazilian and I'm writing a book in portuguese. However the story takes place first in Europe, i.e. Italy, Portugal, and London. Of course this requires of me some research about the culture of these places. After that it is going to take place in Brazil.

Besides that I have a little doubt about how to describe the language two characters would be speaking in, mainly if they speak multiple languages. SHould I always mention in which language the characters would be speaking everytime they change places? Should it be implied depending on the country the characters they are?

There are also somethings that make sense only in certain languages, like rhymes and contextual jokes. Should I write that it both the main language of my text and the specific language the character is speaking? Would not that become burdensome to the reader mainly considering that most of the readers won't be polyglots?

Example (in which English is the main language, but the character is saying something relevant in Portuguese):

And then the man said:

-Não se preocupe porque sempre chove quando menos se espera. (Don't worry because it always rains when it is least expected.)

Mark did not know what the man was saying. He only know it was Portuguese. He knew that "Não se preocupe" meant "Don't worry", but what about the rest? He hadn't the chance to ask, for the strange man couldn't be seen in front of him anymore...

Do you have some examples of stories following this pattern?


  • 3
    Have created a multilingual tag. I'd love to see more questions about this, to fulfill the site's potential for being multilingual. Aug 25, 2012 at 22:25
  • Both answers were good. But could not choose both. I agree that from times to times the writer must rely on knowledges and curiosities of the reader, not treating him like a baby, and some other times explaining deeper things. I like the idea of italicizing the words in another language that seem relevant to be exposed, but not writing full dialogues in different languages.
    – ClayKaboom
    Aug 29, 2012 at 11:30

2 Answers 2


In general, it's my opinion that a story should pick a language and stick to it. Even though many people speak multiple languages, having a book in more than one language means you're limiting yourself to a subset of possible readers.

Ask yourself: What purpose does it serve to the story and characters to quote them speaking in more than one language? If a reader speaks (for example) English and Portuguese, there's no reason for them to see a translation immediately following. If they speak only one or the other, then they'll see text that makes little sense to them.

However, of course the characters would be speaking in more than one language, and that should be conveyed. But there's no need to double up on the dialog; quoting the occasional word or phrase should be sufficient to get this across to the reader.

You can also add color by mentioning, from time to time, misunderstandings from accents and translation problems. You can even describe double meanings that result. (For example: "He said the word "misunderstanding", but in [language], that word also meant ‘sabatoge’”.)

  • 1
    All this said, I'm sure that someone, somewhere has managed to write a book or a story contrary to all the advice I'm giving here, and found a way to make it work. If this imaginary multilingual story exists, I'd love to read it. Aug 25, 2012 at 22:23
  • I guess Thomas Mann must get your hackles up.
    – Robusto
    Aug 26, 2012 at 3:40
  • @Robusto - I've never read anything by him. Can you recommend one of his works that uses multiple languages well? Aug 28, 2012 at 2:11
  • 1
    Try Der Zauberberg, which is written in German and French.
    – Robusto
    Aug 28, 2012 at 10:52

Ditto Neil's reply. A lot to be learned from a master of migrancy literature, Salman Rushdie. While The Satanic Verses is written in English, the narration itself, not just the dialogue, utilizes Hindi, Arabic, and Urdu. Jokes within the text rely on the reader's understanding of multiple languages, but the plot doesn't; Saladin Chamcha is called "Spoono" in reference to the Hindi word chamcha, meaning spoon; Zeeny Vakil uses Saladin's own name to insult him--when he is obsequious, he is a chamcha, a yes-man. But at no point does Rushdie require his reader to understand these little colorations, and he does not embark on the thankless task of translating dialogue.

When he hits one of those words that doesn't quite translate, he reproduces it in the original language ("Proper London, bhai!" or "Baba, if you want to get born again"). In some cases, this is because his characters are migrants, who have adopted this type of mutt-language. This is how they are actually speaking to one another. In other cases, in which his characters are clearly not speaking English, but the text is produced in English, there is a curious transaction between author and character--the author primarily has a stranglehold on the character's word choice (he is, after all, translating the character's voice), but when no translation will suffice, the character is allowed to "speak for herself"--the word she actually used, baba, comes through. Since it's just a word, the English reader can use context clues to devise the meaning, as with any unknown English word that might appear in a text.

This style could help in some ways to reproduce rhymes and contextual jokes. In some cases, such as reproducing a poem, I would probably opt for the original completely. Characters that don't understand the language can act as a proxy for the reader in the text--let them ask what it means; it's a simple trick that doesn't sound as expositional as other methods. But it is just that, a trick. You can't let the whole text rely on translation and explanation to the reader as if she is a child.

I'd recommend reading The Satanic Verses side-by-side with this guide from Washington State University. The guide signals every instance of this linguistic cohabitation in the text--very quickly you'll be able to see precisely how Rushdie is doing what he's doing.

Good luck!

  • love this answer as I re-read years from my original question :) JUst didn't have the chance to properly thank you :)
    – ClayKaboom
    Jul 6, 2020 at 15:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.