Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing About Characters That Speak Different Languages

Ever have a character in your story who doesn’t speak the language in which you are writing? Perhaps you only have one or two characters that speak a different language or maybe your entire cast of characters speak in a different tongue that the one in which you are writing? So how’s the best way to go about incorporating authenticity in your narrative while still maintaining the linguistic flavor of the character(s) you’re trying to portray?

I maybe be raised American, but I love to write stories about people all around the world. Nonetheless, whether I’m writing about the French, Italians, or Chinese my narrative will of course be in English. I often find myself doing a balancing act of incorporating borrowed words from a given language while still trying to make my character easily understood in the English language in which I write.

I’m curious whether any of your write similar stories and how you cope with characters who maybe not be speaking or thinking in English even if that’s the language in which the story is written. How do you find a proper balance between authenticity and clarity? What subtle details do you include to give the character the “feeling” of one linguistic identity while still making it understandable in English?  


  1. I've never tackled a completely different language. At least not yet!
    There is a balance though. I've read books where the author went the extra mile to give the characters an authentic Southern twang and it was way too much.

  2. In the story that you're reading of mine of the Characters is Italian. He's fluent in English so it's not a problem for him to speak coherently, but he often slips into his native tounge. Luckily, Chrissie can understand him :D

  3. My main character speaks both English and Welsh (Holding onto the Welsh is a matter of real pride with the characters and the people of northern Wales). It's written in first person and in English (obviously), but sometimes I use the Welsh in dialogue and internal thought. I set it off with italics and then usually find a way, either through context or someone else interpreting, to explain what was said.

  4. I've never attempted this before. I'd probably screw it up somehow. The YA novel I've drafted and the one I'm working on now both feature Texas gals. I agree with Alex, as there can be way to much twang in writing. Living in Texas, I can say we don't all speak like hicks, but words such as "y'all" and "fixin'" are very much a huge part of the lingo around here. I think staying true to the language is the key to being successful.

    Great post!

  5. What a great post, Mark! I haven;t written fictionmyself yet but some of the characters swimming in my head are from other countries so I know I will face this challenge eventually. I've read some books where it just comes off as pretentious...but in others it's so well done I can;t imagine it being absent. I have the great fortune to work in a very diverse environemnt so I can imagine times - modeling what I see at work - where the dialogue could be in a different language: swear words in a foreign language (prudently!), when two foreign characters are talking to each other, when the foreign word is such a close cousin to the English word that there is no confusion...presently I am reading "Some Danger Involved" by Will Thomas and he is doing a terrific job in incorporating Yiddish and some French. Super posts and super comments from everyone else! And if I've learned anything from your posts, more great comments are on the way!

  6. I haven't written in a different language beyond using a few odd words. I heard they need to be italicized, so I try to stay away from them as much as I can. Too confusing for me!

  7. For characters who speak another language I play with dialects. These aren't easy to get right or consistent. It's certainly a challenge.

  8. Hello Mark:
    This is surely a knotty problem to conquer in an authentic and yet, for the reader, an easily understandable way.In books where we can recall characters who speak in a different language, there are only ever odd words or, at most, phrases used in the foreign language which, given the context in which they are written, makes them easily understood.

  9. I've come across this to, and I either get around it by making sure it's at least somewhat understandable in context, the MC is also confused by it, or I say something like, "she said in German."

  10. I do that a lot. I'll generally pop a phrase into google translate and figure that's about as good as I'll be able to get. If its an alien language then I just don't try to do any made up stuff. Although, I'm not entirely sure I've ever tried to do a truly made up language before. I hope I never do. I know there is an online community of folk that do just that sort of thing. They make them up out of whole cloth complete with sounds, syntax, grammar, etc., I don't think I could ever take something that far.

  11. My first book, which is shelved, was written about an Egyptian, who finds herself in an unusual situation. She is thrust among non-natives and there is a language barrier. Not easy to write.

  12. Interesting post!

    I've written a few characters that spoke other languages; I usually just make them fluent in English (or whatever it is the other characters are speaking).

  13. Haven't tackled this one yet...though I think that it is really neat to have this in a story.

  14. I try to incorporate small details, like the way they pronounce certain words, the way they dress, how they adhere to their customs and habits and I also let few stray words enter the conversation. If I can't achieve all this then I just make them fluent in English :)

    Research is the key to getting it right.

    Btw, was wondering whether you got my emails?

  15. Oops, pressed the publish key too fast.

    Mark, you can email me your entire MS 'The Long Defeat'. I would love to take a look at it :)

  16. That's a challenge. No way will I try to duplicate a particular accent or dialect. It's so easy to do it bad--kinda like Kevin Costner in Robin Hood.

  17. I wrote a novelette in a dialect that was very similar to Jamaican patois (and I'm not a speaker) with my MC being an non-patois speaker. That was fun. I used wiki and a couple of language sites to help me.

  18. Alex – I think subtlety and moderation are definitely key when using elements from other languages and dialects.

    J.A. – Hmm, I’ll have to keep my eye out for that. Glad to know I’m not the only one trying to write stuff like this:)

    L.G. – Wow, how rad is that! Shakespeare spoke Welsh you know. I wonder if there are any borrowed words in English from Welsh, as that would really help spice it up too.

    Candy – I’m sure you wouldn’t mess it up. A few “Ya’lls” would probably be enough to key a reader into a character’s background without further ado.

    Jim – Sounds great man, glad to see your continued interest blossoming like that:) Keep up the diligent work!

    Emily – I think they need only be italicized if they aren’t borrowed words, i.e. a French word that’s used in English like “rendezvous” would not require italics that way “oui” might.

    Lynda – It definitely isn’t easy to get right, especially if the dialect is in a different language altogether.

    Jane/Lance – It’s definitely something that may require suspending disbelief a bit to get it to work, but I think readers can be understanding if it enhances the narrative.

    McKenzie – Yup, I’ve done the same thing as well. Prudent advice.

    Rusty – OMG, do I use that Google translator like crazy. Doesn’t substitute actually taking language classes, but it helps for little stuff.

    Miranda – Wow, that does sound unusual, but neat!

    Eagle – Yes, if they speak some English that helps, but when all the characters don’t speak English that gets a bit more complex.

    Kelley – My thoughts exactly:)

    Rachna – I try to do the same myself. And yup, I responded to your emails, hope that helps.

    Donna – What do you mean…all Robin Hoods don’t speak with an English accent (except in Men in Tights) ;)

    Deborah – The nuances of patois are fascinating, but difficult to put on the page, I’ve read Jamaican writers who use it, but it can be very difficult to pick up for a non-Jamaican audience.

  19. Popped over via the Origins blogfest--I sort of know what you're talking about. Writing historical fiction set in Viking times, I'm constantly referring to Old Norse and making sure I'm not using modern terminology. Takes a WHILE....but I hope it'll be worth it in the end.

  20. Nice to meet you Heather. Sounds like a cool story, I'd like to read it someday:)

  21. This post brought Firefly to mind, with the characters often lapsing into Chinese during heated moments. No translation was ever given, but viewers could get an idea as to what was being said by tonal inflection and scene context.

  22. A tip for those representing speakers of English as a second language: research "transfer problems" from their native language to English. Accents occur because there are sounds in other languages that English doesn't have, and vice versa--for example, a Korean speaker saying a p/b instead of f/v, which can have a funny result if the character uses a word incorrectly that create a scene. Other transfer problems occur syntactically, where the word order will be changed. Many languages don't have definite or indefinite articles like English does--so a very simple omission of "the" or "a", or even inserting them where they are not supposed to be, can create the foreign character's voice on the page -without- resorting to very stereotypical (and annoying) spelling to create accents: because zis iz exactly what a speaker of le French sounds like, ness pah?"

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