Q&A

How Do I Indicate That Something Is Being Spoken in Another Language?

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I’d like to know how to express that certain portions of dialogue are being spoken in a foreign language. So far I have handled this using italics, but my concern is that large sections of italics would be jarring to the reader. My protagonist is a linguistic anthropologist, so this features heavily in the story.

Thank you for your time and consideration!

-JK

Hi JK,

I’m going to assume you’re writing the words in English and then italicizing them to indicate they are actually being spoken in another language. Let me know if you are actually putting foreign language words into the text.

The issue with italics is just that they’re harder to read, and after a while this becomes tiring. The alternative to using italics is just to say a foreign language is being spoken. That would be the default method if it’s only occasional, and it doesn’t require italics in addition. The reason to use italics is that if it happens a lot and is frequently interspersed with English, narrating the language change can become tedious and repetitive. Just using italics takes away that burden.

If you really have whole conversations in a foreign language, I would just narrate when the characters switch languages, but mostly leave it at that. Let readers assume they are still speaking in the same language until the end of the scene, unless you say otherwise. Also, if you’ve established that a character can only speak a certain language, the assumption will become that they are speaking it for every line of dialogue they have. However, you’ll need to remind readers when there are language barriers between characters. If one character is speaking a language that another character in the scene can’t understand, make sure readers know that. If you have the same characters with a language barrier for the whole story, after a while readers will just remember, but it will take a little time.

If for some reason you have lots of back and forth between languages that would be hard to narrate, and it’s important that readers always know whether the character is speaking English or another language, you might see if you could trim down your dialogue a little so you don’t have whole paragraphs of text in italics. Most lines of dialogue should be pretty short, and therefore not too hard to read even if italics is used.

Best wishes for your story!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As someone for whom writing out accents and dialects and trying to use Google translate to put sentences in another language are a pet peeve (I despise it, I really do), I can only agree with Chris here. It’s not necessary to keep the whole text in italics, which are tiring to read long-term. If you slip in a word in another language, you might make it italic to show that (but do that sparsely, you’re not writing a person speaking English and lapsing into their native language every now and then, after all – even if you do, it’s not that common for people who speak a different language from their native one well to inject words from their native language in regular dialogue).

  2. Dave L

    One technique is to use brackets:

    “Do you speak Common?” I asked
    “<I am sorry. I do not understand you.>”
    “<Ah>” I switched languages. “<You speak Bracketese.>”

    <In comics frequently the words in a word balloon will be in brackets w/ an asterisk*>

    *Translated from Bracketese

    • Cay Reet

      Comics usually don’t have much extra text explaining situations, so they need another way to show that a different language is spoken.

      In case of one character not understanding another one, the easiest way would be a sentence like ‘I asked him again, but he simply shrugged and shook his head, he clearly didn’t understand I word I’d said.’

      In case the viewpoint character can understand the language the other one is speaking, it would probably be something like
      ‘”I’m sorry, I don’t understand you,” he said in Bracketese.
      ‘”Oh, that’s not a problem, I speak your language well enough,” I answered, relieved I’d once taken a correspondence course.’

  3. Innes

    I have dyslexia, and long sections of italics can be really hard to read for me, especially on a screen like a cellphone or an e-reader, so like Chris and Cay I would encourage you to narrate language, as in ‘”[dialogue],” she said in German.’ That sort of thing also makes it easier for people using screen readers or audio books to enjoy your story, since italics and other format shenanigans don’t always translate to those types of media.

  4. Kevin

    It can be helpful to remember that in real life different languages use different marks for quotations. Spanish and French, for example, use Guillemets <>. Chinese, Japanese and Korean often use angle brackets 「 」. I have seen some novels use these different marks to effectively indicate which language was being spoken without requiring any additional page space or awkward fonts.

    As another note, it’s probably best to avoid italics to represent different languages. The industry standard is to treat italicized text as non-spoken thoughts and publishers can get pretty picky about their standards.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem there is that you assume the reader will know all those different marks. If they don’t, they’ll completely be at a loss when it comes to guessing the language. Since novels have a certain length anyway, spending a few words on establishing the language spoken doesn’t seem that horrible to me.

      • Kevin

        True. You’d need to initially define what each language was before you could rely on quotation marks as indicators. Honestly, the few situations in which I have seen these marks used to maximum effect were all dialogue heavy parts of a work where you wouldn’t want to slow the pacing down with any unneeded words. Also, it assumes the use of contemporary, human languages. If you want to write in elvish you’re probably not going to be able to get away with using elvish punctuation to indicate it.

        • Cay Reet

          As mentioned in the answer by Chris, it’s usually enough to indicate the language spoken a the beginning of a dialogue or when it’s changed during the dialogue, which isn’t much additional text. You need to make clear who’s speaking throughout long passages of text every now and then anyway, anyway, so you can use that to indicate a change. Otherwise, people will assume that the dialogue continues in the language last indicated.

          • Rakka

            Using different dialogue markers is, however, a good way of making it continuously visually clear what language is being used. It’s way less clunky than spelling it out in narration, especially if characters switch languages midstream or the conversation is bilingual, or you just want to have character slip into another language without hanging a lampshade on it.

          • Cay Reet

            Personally, I find different markers I have to keep the meaning of in my head for one story alone (since there’s no publishing standard for them) more of a bother than half a sentence dropped here or there about language changes. That’s my personal opinion, though, and might vary from person to person.

          • Rakka

            As for me, I assume that the language being spoken is something the characters usually do, and the narration popping up to say that it was retroactively something different gives my brain a record scratch that’s most unpleasant.

  5. Sekkiera

    In my scifi story, I have one specific instance of a character switching to their native tongue (which they haven’t used in a long time) that I’m oddly proud off (Let’s say the language were German, because it’s the example I’vee seen in the comments above — Even if it only makes partitial sense in this context):

    Character A: “[Insert Text]”
    For a moment Character B sat frozen in his seat, then he blinked. “Well,” he said, and aimed for nonchalant, but worry still shone through. “That was no earth language.” He shifted, and shifted tone as well. “German, Charcter A? Someone must be getting desperate.”

    If the language shift is significat, use that. Have a character remark on it, or mark something else remarkable that goes along with the language shift (“I don’t care,” he said, and it took her a moment to grasp that the rough, heavily accented German had been spoken by the same man as the much softer tones of english poetry had been before.’)
    Or, maybe, note another character’s reaction: ‘Character C, still standing behind A’s back, clenched his jaw. He hated it when they switched language; hated not knowing what was going on. Still, B spoke with confidence, igboring A’s discomfort. “I think you’re right.”

    And if there is nothing remarkable about this shift – Then do you really need it?

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