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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.

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  • 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, 2023 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, 2023 at 15:05

2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • 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, 2023 at 4:44
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    @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, 2023 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, 2023 at 23:00
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For starters, I would say, with narrow exceptions, write your dialog in one language. If you write some dialog in English and some in French, your book will only be comprehensible by people who know both languages.

You could give translations for everything said in the "other" language. But then why bother with the original language? Just say, "Bob asked, 'Where is Mary now?' in French." I've read many books and seen many movies set in foreign countries or even on other planets, where presumably the people do not speak English, but where all the characters in the story speak in English and it's just understood that this is a translation.

(I saw a movie made in Mexico once that included a scene where several characters travel to the United States and get in some trouble with the police. And in the movie, when the two American policemen are discussing the case, with no Mexicans present, they spoke in Spanish. I found this quite amusing. But I'm sure foreigners are disconcerted in the same way when they see an American movie where, say, two French people, in France, speak to each other in English.)

If there is some point in your story where some characteristic of the "true" language is important -- where a character uses a word that is difficult to translate, or quotes a piece of poetry or song lyrics or a well-known proverb -- then give THE MINIMUM AMOUNT of text in the original language, and provide a translation. If at all possible, give the translation in the body of the text as part of the story, not as a footnote.

I mean, absolutely do not write, "John said, 'Makakaon ako og napulo ka saging'", and expect an English-speaking reader to understand what is meant.

Second worst would be to have a footnote giving the translation. For one sentence, this might be tolerable. But if you have whole conversations with translations in the footnotes. this will be tedious and annoying.

If it really helps the story to talk about differences between languages, you could write, "John said, 'I can eat 10 bananas'. He used the conditional tense to indicate that he was capable of eating so many bananas, not that he actually had eaten that many or was about to eat that many."

But for the most part, just give all dialog in English, or whatever the primary language of your book is. Most readers who do not know French have no desire to hack through text in French and then have to read a translation. I'd only lapse into another language if it truly adds to the story in some way. 99.9% of the time, it won't. Just write in English.

Off the top of my head I can't think of any fiction stories I've read where some peculiarity of a foreign language helped the story.

I can think of one sort-of example from non-fiction: Many students of the Bible talk about how there are three different Greek words that are all translated "love" in English Bibles: agape, philos, and eros. Discussing which was used in the original in a given sentence and why can be instructive. And can help clear up puzzling translations, now and then. For example there's a well-known passage where Jesus says to Peter, "Peter, do you love me?", and Peter replies, "You know I love you", and Jesus is clearly not satisfied with this reply. This is puzzling until you read the original Greek and see that Jesus said, "Peter, do you agape me?" and Peter replied, "You know I philos you." "Philos" is a lesser form of love than "agape", so it would be like a woman asking her husband, "Do you love me?", and he replies, "Hey babe, you know I like you."

But frankly, if I was writing a novel in English, even if the characters would be understood to be speaking French (or Alderaanese or whatever), I'd make any subtleties of language be English subtleties. Because otherwise you have to explain for the non-French speakers, which is unnecessary surplussage cluttering up your story for those who know French, and probably tedious pedantry for those who don't.

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