03 Mar How to represent multiple languages in writing
Writing coherently in English can be hard enough as it is, but writing multiple languages in a text comes with a whole new range of problems. Whether you’re writing a novel in which the protagonist’s native tongue is something other than English, or you just want to throw in a few famous historical quotes at the start of each chapter, there are many excellent reasons to include foreign languages in your writing, but there are just as many pitfalls in doing so. Addressing topics that range from grammatical correctness to cultural sensitivity, this is a brief guide on how to best represent non-English languages in a book written for Anglophones.
The latter part of this article will be geared more towards novelists, but it may still be useful to anyone considering using multiple languages in their writing.
First of all, you need to be aware of the basics when it comes to formatting language changes. When they appear in a sentence that is otherwise mostly in English, it is conventional to italicise single foreign words or short phrases. That said, bear in mind that many words of foreign origin have become part of everyday English; the words ‘café’ and ‘schadenfreude’, for example, have been incorporated into the English language and thus do not require any special treatment, although there is some subjectivity involved in deciding which words warrant italics and which should be left in roman.
When longer passages appear in a foreign language, some people italicise the entire section that is not in English to clearly set it apart from the English text – it is a clear sign to monolingual speakers that no, they haven’t suddenly become illiterate, these words simply belong to a language that they don’t understand.
Some writers even italicise portions of dialogue written in English to signify a change of language without alienating the reader by actually changing the language of the text, allowing the writer to understand all characters who cannot understand each other. This approach can work very well, but it must be done consistently in order to pay off; you don’t want the reader to mix up language changes with inner monologues or anything else that might be put in italics.
What you should avoid is separating foreign words by putting them in quotation marks, unless there is some other valid reason to so (for example, if you are quoting someone else, or referring to the word or phrase itself rather than its meaning, as seen a few times in this article).
Sometimes, much like making air quotes in spoken conversations, putting things unnecessarily in quotation marks can convey an element of irony or sarcasm, and it might come across like you are mocking the language being quoted. If the switch in language occurs within dialogue, then it can be helpful to separate the two languages using dialogue tags, allowing the two languages to occupy separate sets of quotation marks and avoiding the ever-awkward quote within a quote.
You could also consider adopting foreign punctuation marks when writing the corresponding language, such as the guillemets (« ») in French, but bear in mind that they often come with their own sets of grammar rules to follow.
Spelling and transliteration
When it comes to spelling foreign words, you should generally stay as faithful as you possibly can to the spellings in the original language or specific dialect that you are using. This means double-checking your spelling is correct, even if you’re a fluent speaker; it’s especially important you get non-English parts right yourself, since proofreaders likely won’t be able to correct them for you if they’re not already familiar with the language in question. And don’t think you can get away with omitting accents and variant letter forms that aren’t used in English, as doing so can completely alter the meanings in some instances. As someone who has spent a lot of time translating medieval texts, in which spelling often seems to have been an afterthought, I assure you that leaving out accents can cause a great deal of confusion.
Old English – god or gōd (‘good’)? Old Norse – vin (‘friend’) or vín (‘wine’), viðr (‘tree’/‘wood’) or víðr (‘wide’)? Don’t even get me started on Old Irish. You shouldn’t rely on readers deducing the right meanings for themselves when you could avoid the issue entirely with proper spelling. Make sure you use exactly the correct symbol as well, not just any weird-looking letter that looks vaguely similar; although ‘á’, ‘à’, and ‘ā’ may mean equally little to you, they are not interchangeable, and mixing them up might throw off your readers.
Of course, many languages do not use any of the same letters as English and are written in a completely different script, which poses a greater problem for those wishing to include them in English publications. In such cases, unless you are writing specifically for a bilingual audience who can read both scripts, you will probably have to transliterate the foreign script into the Latin alphabet (that being the group of letters used to write English along with countless other modern languages).
Most languages have their own unique conventions when it comes to transliterating them into Latin letters. Take Japanese, for instance; many students in Japan are taught how to write their language in rōmaji (literally ‘Roman letters’) as well as in their native kanji and kana scripts.
When to translate
With all these rules and complications to keep track of, you might feel it would be easier to simply avoid writing in different languages wherever possible, and to be fair, in some scenarios this can be the right call. For example, let’s say you’re writing a character on a trip abroad with no other English-speakers around, and they ask a random local bystander for directions. This bystander has no greater significance to the story, and their exact phrasing is unimportant as long as they get the necessary information across, so in this instance there is no real need to write out the dialogue verbatim in quotation marks.
Instead of wasting time writing out a dead-end conversation in another language that readers might simply skip over, it makes more sense here to relay or summarise the exchange in the narration as reported speech, meaning all the foreign communication is done ‘off-screen’, so to speak. You might also do this if two people are conversing through a third-party interpreter, as there is no point in writing each line of dialogue out twice (once in the original language, once for the translation), unless the interpreter is doing a particularly poor job.
In short, as with anything else in your writing, when thinking of including a section in another language, you should always ask yourself what purpose it serves; if including it doesn’t add anything except more work for you and your readers, consider finding some other way to work around it.
Now let’s say you’re writing a character who speaks English as a second language, and you want to reflect this bilingualism in the way they speak. What kinds of words should you switch into their native language to do this in a natural and convincing way? Well, to an extent it depends on the language, as the grammar differences between languages are not always conducive to code-mixing (that is, switching languages mid-sentence). However, interjections are usually a safe bet, since by definition they don’t follow conventional sentence structure rules. Exclamations like ‘Aha!’, filler words like ‘Um…’ – these are the kinds of words that people are most likely to fall back on by default when speaking in a language they’re not fluent in.
Sometimes people don’t even think about these interjections as proper words and assume they are universal utterances, or they simply let them slip out on autopilot. And because they so easily fly under the radar, readers can usually get a clear enough sense of their meaning from the context without need of a translation, provided they are used at appropriate times and punctuated properly. You can try to work in a few phrases like these from the character’s native language to give them a more distinctive voice (although perhaps steer clear of very stereotypical or old-fashioned phrases, like the French ‘sacrebleu’ or ‘zut alors’, in favour of more common phrases still in popular usage).
Other than interjections, sometimes people resort to another language when they cannot remember the translation of a certain word, or the specific word that they want to use doesn’t quite have an exact parallel in the language they’re conversing in. Such words could have a very specific meaning, use or connotation, or just have a certain je ne sais quoi about them – this how words like the German compounds ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘wanderlust’ worked their way into the English language, as they referred to a very specific yet common concept for which there was no word in English previously.
Using language switches like this can provide a unique bit of insight into the differences between the two languages and the character speaking, but it requires sufficient familiarity with the languages in question to know the intricate differences in vocabulary to begin with. Lastly, some people tend to use slang from their native languages, and especially profanity – although be extra careful using obscenities and ensure you fully understand their potential connotations, as you don’t want to accidentally use a slur or say something deeply offensive without knowing.
Representing other dialects and cultures respectfully
On a related note, is it ever a good idea to spell out different accents? Some authors like to write out very thick accents (be they foreign accents or different regional accents within the same country) with unusual spellings to reflect their pronunciation – think of Hagrid’s thick West Country accent in the Harry Potter books. Doing this can make for a stronger and more exact depiction of an individual voice, helping different voices stand out and feel distinct, and when done well it can help to define some of the most memorable and iconic characters.
However, the decision to spell out any specific accent is by no means without its risks. If done poorly, inconsistently, or in excess, it can make dialogue much harder to understand, especially for people with reading difficulties such as dyslexia, adding an unnecessary barrier to comprehension. Even worse, an extremely poor execution could be perceived as insensitive, in poor taste, or even outright offensive, as people may feel the writer is mocking the way they talk. The very worst cases might even be accused of being discriminatory, as it is inherently quite arbitrary which accents receive special treatment, since there is no universal ‘standard’ or ‘neutral’ accent. If one accent is spelled phonetically, this begs the question – why weren’t all other accents treated the same way?
It’s up to you whether you want to try your hand at spelling out different accents, but many writers manage well enough without, and there are alternative ways to emphasise different accents. If you wish to convey that a character is not quite fluent in English without presenting them in a stereotypical or borderline incomprehensible way, for example, then you could try adding some subtle quirks or slight technical mistakes to their dialogue. These could include a slightly atypical sentence structure, adding minor grammatical inaccuracies like using the wrong tense, or just using a slightly unusual word for the context. They may not even be mistakes per se, but small clues towards the fact that the many intricacies of the English language do not come naturally to them like they do to most native speakers.
The key is to be subtle enough that the dialogue is still easy to understand, and to make it easy to see why a foreign speaker would make each mistake – the kinds of mistakes a character makes should reflect how they would express the same idea in their own language. For instance, many languages do not have a separate simple present tense (‘I go’) and continuous present (‘I am going’), so it is easy to see why many foreigners often use one when most native speakers would use the other.
And remember, as always, consistency is crucial; the same character should usually continue making the same kinds of mistakes in their speech, and you need to not make similar mistakes outside of that person’s dialogue in order to clarify that these quirks make up a deliberate aspect of that character’s voice, they’re not just recurring mistakes by the writer. (Of course, all this only applies to writing characters who are not fluent in English, so these tips cannot always work as a substitute for spelling out accents; it should go without saying, but plenty of people are fluent English-speakers despite having a thick accent.)
But ultimately, as important as language can be, it only comprises a relatively small part of a person’s cultural identity. If you want to convincingly depict characters of different nationalities and cultures, you should try to represent other cultural differences in their dialogue and actions; look for ways to work in various customs and ideologies that people have had ingrained in them by the environment and society in which they were raised.
By the focusing on the things your characters say and do rather than just the way they speak, you can explore their connection to their culture(s) in a deeper and more organic way. Don’t rely solely on translation alone and miss out on a golden opportunity to flesh out your characters and make your writing stand out.
Post written by Dominic Pattison