In many, many English-language novels I've come across characters who speak other languages, most often French for whatever reason.

In many cases, such as with Ulysses and Lolita, this is a simple matter, because the author was multilingual. He simply wrote the characters himself.

But that can't always be the case, because even someone who speaks French, English, Spanish, Russian, and Hindi might want a character who constantly references his Japanese heritage.

There must be time when authors want to include characters who speak languages that the author does not.

How is this dealt with? Do they perhaps write the content of what is to be said, and then find another professional to help them?

  • 3
    Eg. In Arabic, a native might write (but not often say) the following lit. "As if birds were above their heads." to mean that a group of people are together and dead silent, so as to not scare the figurative birds. In English, I imagine you'd say "They're walking on egg shells.".
    – Mussri
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 14:13
  • 3
    @Mussri I think you're on to something. If OP's character speaks Arabic, for example, OP could include Arabic idioms (translated into English) as a way to show that s/he is speaking in Arabic -- without the need for actually using Arabic. OP would still need to double check with a native speaker, but I think the approach might work very well. You should form this into an answer.
    – JAM
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 18:10
  • 1
    UTF-8 is the first step.
    – Derfder
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 at 18:58

3 Answers 3


Mix and match between all the following methods.

  1. Research. If you're going to be using a language extensively, then you'll want to have at least an elementary grasp of the words you'll be using. So learn a smattering of the language; understand the words you've written at least at a surface level; also read as much as you can about idioms, social norms, etc., to get the "voice" correct.

  2. Use an expert. Get translations from somebody qualified. These should be checked and proofread just like the rest of your book (because you will eventually be read by somebody who understands the language). If you can, get the translations looked over by several competent readers. Be sure to ask them if nuances such as phrasing and connotation are what they should be.

  3. Fake it. Not recommended, but you can fool most of the people most of the time.

  4. Avoid it. Even if your character speaks, say, Klingon, that doesn't mean that all that Klingon needs to be transcribed. Use a couple of words (ones you know or learn or seek out...), but otherwise, write in the same language and always, and clarify that the speech is translated. "Today is a good day to die!" is a lot more effective in prose than writing "HeghluʹmeH QaQ jajvam!". And if your protagonist doesn't understand the language, then why should the reader get "extra" knowledge? Consider: "The Klingon shouted out something unintelligible; all his fellow warriors looked at him with sudden shock, and began edging away slowly." We get precisely as much as the character knows, and we don't want to give away extra information to readers who happen to know the right language.

  • 4
    ...do you know Klingon. Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 15:55
  • 4
    ...dear god no.
    – Standback
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 20:46
  • 6
    But he knows how to use Google. :-) Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 14:50
  • Shakespeare apparently knew Klingon, or at least had a cracking good interpreter.
    – nijineko
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 1:49

Hmm... Let's see how I can't be of help, shall we? Try this:

  1. Read famous works that are translations from source materials in the language you want to add to your manuscript. See if there's a phrase that caught your eye and see what it looks like in the original work.

  2. Look up common expressions and idioms in 'the foreign language' from websites that teach them (mostly dedicated for light travelers but should work). Use literal translations with those but be careful they don't have too obscure cultural concepts. Eg. It's not always obvious to a westerner that 'gifts/wrapped presents' take the place of flowers (as a consolation to families of/respect for) the deceased in some Eastern countries. (See 3.2)

That's what I can say on this;

But on adding the result to the MS, one should

  1. Decide on the source language and the target script:

    1. The script of the source language may differ significantly from that of the manuscript language. For example: Adding phrases in Devanagari script to text predominantly in Latin script.

      • If that's the case, decide on which you want: To transcribe the foreign phrases; To include them in the original script; or To transliterate them.
    2. Transcribing the foreign phrase seems to be the best option. As including visually different scripts -different in direction of writing, in the general form of glyphs, or in type (2)- can be jarring and is discouraged.

      • Only use sounds found in the target script, don't add any (or too many, if you must have a few) sounds that the reader can't pronounce, even if the character is fluent in the source language. Similarly, don't use diacritics too much; aim for a maximum of 'Tolkien-level'.
  2. See if the scripts (source and manuscript) differ significantly in type -one is an alphabet, the other an ideographic- and never, never, include the phrases in the source script.

    • In certain languages -especially Chinese/Japanese, from what I've seen- you may use phrases in a closely related or a very common script. Latin being the best example of an almost universal script that I've seen often used in non-mainstream Japanese works (manga, mostly).
  3. Decide on what s/he wants to include of the foreign language, is it simply the fact that it is used by a character? Or do you want to reference the culture that comes with it?

    1. To reference the culture of the language's home country, I'd imagine the best way to be through the narrative, not dialog. Through the characters' moves, hobbies and way of life.

      • But to reference the culture behind the language (we could consider Shakespeare/Rock'n'Roll/... to be 'culture behind English') then you can translate the idioms. Notice that you essentially bring the idioms along with the character and give them to a machine translator (not really, the point is to have a literal translation).
    2. Don't overuse or misuse this. The reader will look up (or you will include through narration or dialog) what the translated idiom meant, but s/he'd hate to have to read then translate every sentence to his/her cultural concepts.

      • Eg.1 Arabic: "As if birds are on their heads." ** English: "They're walking on egg shells."

      • On Eg.1: In the previous example, both idioms could (but not always would) mean that a group of people are very silent, or very careful for some reason. Because of the desert-origin of the Arabic language, people would look out for birds, especially predators, and thus would fall silent when travelling so as to not scare the figurative birds. The English idiom I believe is fairly clear.

      • Eg.2 English: "Like hell you're gonna have this one!" ** Arabic: "The moon's closer to you than this!"

      • Eg.3 English: "Thank you, Mr. Obvious!" ** Arabic: "Like who struggles to describe water and ends up with... 'Water'!" OR "Like you found the lost gem!" (But in a sarcastic tone, I'm not sure I can capture that with an English word; an example of an idiom that will not work properly.)

      • Eg.4 English: "This's just the top of the iceberg." ** Arabic: "Greater is what's hidden."

      • Also notice how such expressions would differ from dialect to dialect. The Arabic idioms I used are usually seen in literary works, rarely in the 20+ regional dialects. The English idioms I used are quite common in films.

  4. For quick translations of phrases in languages different from the manuscript language (but in a suitable script) then one can

    1. include the translation in italics immediately following the line of dialog that needs it.

    2. enclose the foreign phrases in quotation marks different in appearance to what the manuscript language uses.

      • Eg. Use " (double quotation marks) for English (here, MS l'g) and , (angle quotation marks) for French, Arabic, or transcribed Chinese (here, possible foreign l'gs).
    3. make sure the formatting is consistent.


Research, research, research. I can't state it enough. Research is the key and the backbone to writing a successful knowledge. If it's a language you can handle phrases of on your own after simply looking up the grammatical rules, go for it! If not, I suggest you find an expert.

If it is a simple language (aka a well-known language) such as french, Spanish, or another language with an English-looking alphabet, you may use it sparingly. I don't think you should overwhelm your reader with entire paragraphs in a foreign language. Simply saying, "John slipped into French..." and throwing in a few key words in the language should be sufficient. Tough languages, where the reader would not recognize the alphabet at all, should be avoided if possible. If you absolutely must have a Japanese-speaking character, tell them that he's speaking Japanese and then through in a few words that have been translated into English characters. Try not to confuse your reader, or they won't want to continue in the book

I hope I've been helpful and have a great time writing!

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