I am starting a serious writing project (a novel book from a story I once drafted as a TV show; I am not a script writer either). Furthermore I decided to write in English, which is not my native language.

Into the question: characters speak several languages and I want to reflect it in the text, particularly to provide expressive idioms and registers and quirks that wouldn't translate into English. So I don't want to say:

-- Hello, how are you? -- M. Michel greeted in French.

But rather:

-- Bonjour, comment allez-vous ? -- M. Michel greeted.

However, I don't expect all my readers to be multilingual. What would be good practices to provide the reader with both a translation and, maybe, an explanation of a few idioms or registers (v.g. using tu vs vous in French).

So far, my working solution is using footnotes with translation, and explaining mood and register in the text:

-- Bonjour, comment allez-vous ? -- M. Michel greeted formally. [1]

[1] M. Michel: Hello, how are you?

I am not sure, however, that this is a good practice.

  • If you are quoting just a few foreign phrases, you could put the translation in brackets after the speech. But if you're planning a lot of this, it could soon become annoying to the reader. Jul 3 at 8:25
  • @KateBunting, I am working on organic ways to minimize dialogs not in English, which is probably a question by itself. Jul 4 at 15:05

1 Answer 1


In my current WIP, I have a similar situation. (As in a multilingual situation where people speak several different languages.)

When two characters that are knowing the same language are speaking I do it in the main narrative language even if they are speaking another language. So, for instance, in your case, if two people were speaking French, I'd still do it in English.

I also don't comment on it with a "said X in French". I just do "said he/she" as if they were speaking English. My assumption is that if they both know the language as natives, they'd be as native in the main language of the novel as in their specific language. The experience of the reader is central here.

You may still use language/culture to influence the content and focus of the dialog to make it sound more "French", as long as you don't do "Inspector Clouseau". (Maybe for comedy, but probably not even there...)

The same goes for thoughts.

When someone that doesn't know the language hears the dialog, I'm mostly doing it in the "other language".

I've also done the first of your examples. (The "X said in French" variant, but that's when the POV character knows the used language... it is as "English" to them, though they are actively choosing another language.)

The big difference is that in my case the other language is a con-lang, so I have to do stuff that will clue the reader in on what's going on anyway. There can be no assumption of reader understanding at all... (And to be honest, my characters find it rather rude to do a lot of dialog people around them cannot understand. For obvious reasons, in most cases, everybody uses a language everyone knows...)

Your "greeted formally" could be one way, or the POV person thinking something about the person or they shaking hands and bowing or other actions that would show what's going on. Another thing would be to use foreign words in a way where action or reaction gives away their meaning. "Let's go to the xxx to buy some groceries." "I need a drink, let's go to the xxx." Or even better, just go there and show it.

If you've chosen English as the language for the novel, the expectation is that other languages will come in easily inferred phrases or insignificant ones. For instance curses, greetings, and other non-essential text.

Of course, you're always free to choose both English and French but from a marketing/translation perspective that one will be a much harder sell to any agent or publisher.

It's also ok if not all your readers will get all your language quirks. As long as it doesn't get irritating or influence the understanding of the plot too much.

Finally, don't italicize "foreign" words. This is a great video on why it's a bad idea. Instead, use italics when you want to stress some words or text. Also, look into how to do dialog. I'm not sure your format is a common one. It's better to figure that one out now than when you have 100k words to go through and fix.

  • Umberto Ecco's "The Name of the Rose". In it he uses Latin and he's also using footnotes -- It had to be your edition. Ecco didn't provide translation for the Latin parts. The book famously ends with an (untranslated) sentence in Latin. Jul 5 at 4:44
  • 1
    @CarlosMartin, my mistake (or my very special edition that I now can't find). I'll remove the reference. Thanks for the heads up!
    – Erk
    Jul 5 at 22:17
  • @CarlosMartin Well, Eco wrote those Latin sentences in a book in Italian. Those are very close languages. I wouldn't expect a writer to translate for me if they included some Old Slavonic in a Czech book either (transliterate, yes, translate, no).
    – Divizna
    Nov 28 at 23:00

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