{DISCUSSION} Foreign Languages in Fiction

Should characters use their native language in fiction?

Before you start jumping on my case about this question, please read first. I don’t mean this question in the sense that we should reject a character’s heritage or culture or anything that makes them who they are. Rather, it’s a question regarding how their native language is portrayed in a piece of fiction.

Naturally, writers come from every background. Therefore, characters come from every background and like many people in the world, many stories do not take place in English-speaking countries. The characters are not native English speakers. And yet the stories are still told in English, but the writer does not want to lose the authenticity of the character or their background because that has a direct impact on who they are as a person.

But how do you implement a foreign language into a piece of fiction for English speakers?

Some of the ways I’ve seen this done is by simply throwing in words from the character’s native language. This is the easiest method. You just replace certain words – generally pretty simple words that still have a direct connection to the character’s heritage. Sometimes the writer will go as far as to also offer up the English word for people who are not familiar with the character’s native language. However, I find this to be… redundant.

I completely support using foreign words. I think it’s important to do so, but I really do not understand why writers would use the character’s native language and then IMMEDIATELY follow that with the English word. You know what that does? It makes it a foreign language class. By adding both languages, you are actually taking away the impact of the word in the native language. At least, that’s what I believe. And I have to say that, when you actually know the foreign language being utilized in the story, it feels like the writer is just repeating the same thing twice. That does absolutely nothing good for the story.

Another method is to simply state in the narrative that the character speaks another language. You put some dialogue and then add ‘they said in X language.’ I mean, this is a bit cheap. The writer therefore doesn’t have to know the language they are making the character speak, but they don’t confuse readers either. Of course, they may very well run into grammatical, speech, and linguistic differences between languages. These could inevitably make the story seem fake to anyone who understands both English and the native language of the character.

Is there a right way to do this? Not really. At least, I don’t think so, because too many people in English-speaking countries (where these books are published as far as I have seen), do not speak a second language. As such, they will never understand the words if they are just offered up in the character’s native tongue. But they can try. I think this comes down to whether you’re a good writer or not because a good writer should be able to find ways to use the native language of the character while also making it interesting to the reader – not repetitive or explanatory.

But what do you think?
How should foreign languages be utilized?
Leave your thoughts below!

And check out my discussion from last week:
Publication = Real Writer”


26 thoughts on “{DISCUSSION} Foreign Languages in Fiction”

  1. I think that choosing how to represent another language often depends on what effect the author wants. Gloria Anzaldua doesn’t translate her bilingual writings, and this can reflect the strangeness she is feeling. In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she’s an outsider because of her language and now her language is disorienting the readers, making them feel like the outsiders. But I could see how a fantasy world where the characters are assumed to know each other’s languages might not bother to represent/translate them as it is assumed the language barrier is not an issue for them. Though it could be fun to use different languages, anyway, and explore how they represent meaning. But maybe not all authors are interested in that sort of thing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely think it depends on what the author is trying to say/do, but I don’t find this so much in fantasy as contemporary or historical. Real life fiction with real life languages are used and treated differently than fictional languages. Clearly not everyone understands every language and so using another language can be difficult and disorienting even when that’s not the intention. It would make sense if there were words that didn’t translate into the language the book is written in because that’s vital to the culture, but other times it’s like… they just thrown in foreign words to remind the reader the characters don’t speak English. :/ It feels… cheap.


      1. Yeah, I see what you mean. A random word every now and then doesn’t really seem useful! I’d probably prefer everything be in the same language and readers just remember that different languages are being spoken in that case.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One technique I’m fond of is to write the character’s dialogue in English, but preserve their sentence structure. Many languages tend to express themselves in different ways, some will say “the name of the place” rather than “the place’s name”.
    And in some cases there may be a word that can’t be easily translated into English. In that case I think using a non-English word would be justified, particularly if it’s used regularly, to the point where it becomes part of the audience’s vocabulary.
    In some cases I’ve also seen stories that will look for English words that have similar sounds to the language in question, or even have their roots in that language (since English itself is a blend of both Germanic and Latin languages).
    A lot would also depend on the story and the audience. In some cases foreign terminology could prove a distraction, while stories with a strong emphasis on cultural relations would be enhanced by the additional layer of translation. For example, Codex Alera frequently roots the story in a conflict of understanding, which is exemplified by how characters struggle to properly translate what characters from other cultures are actually trying to say to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment made me think of Tolkien’s language in LotR. Even though he’s using modern English, his sentence structure and word choices give the feeling that he’s writing in an older language, so much so that you can find people who seem to think that Tolkien is writing in Old English or something!

      I think Tolkien’s translation choices when representing other languages is interesting, as well. Most characters speak Westron, so there’s not much of a language barrier. But he’ll show Elvish and the orc tongue without translation sometimes because the Hobbits can’t understand it. So the readers can identify with the Hobbits and feel whatever they may be feeling in that moment–confusion, delight in the mere sounds, etc.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is an interesting choice. I apparently need to get my butt around to reading Tolkein, but I like that some are translated, others aren’t because of who the story is told by. That makes sense and is a very good tool to utilize while story-telling. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I think the sentence structure could be a very useful tool, but you have to be careful because some languages are more lenient in their structure than English and when written in English the way they appear in their native tongue, no longer have the same meaning. (German is known for this.) Other languages literally don’t use half the words in the English language and will make the character sounding illiterate even though they are extremely smart (makes Japanese a smidge difficult for me.)

      I’m not really sure I like the idea of same sounding words, unless the character is meant to be screwing up. Because otherwise it’s not going to make sense to the reader or the characters. But that’s just my opinion.

      I found similar situations to Codex Alera when watching Star Trek: Enterprise because Hoshi had to learn all these new languages from scratch. It caused a lot of difficulty for her since she had little to no frame of reference for most of them, but everyone relied on her for translations and communications among species. (I would totally want that job, but I just love languages. ๐Ÿ˜› )

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good topic. Iโ€™m writing a book in English that has some Native American words scattered in, some French and some old timey US (shecoonery, wrathity, calico ladies). I pop a word in and do not either expect my reader to know the word explicitly but I do expect given the context of the scene that theyโ€™ll get the gist of it. I certainly donโ€™t explain what it means in English! Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Iโ€™ll let you know when itโ€™s published and I get feedback ๐Ÿ˜

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hahahaha! I look forward to hearing the results of your ‘experiment,’ Jessica. ๐Ÿ™‚ I actually just wrote a future scifi last night and my betareader was like: “Maybe you should write out NPC and IRL because not everyone knows them” and that is true, but because the story was about VR gaming, it felt necessary. And I would imagine people would understand the words based on the context or based on their background knowledge in gaming/internet whatnot. If they don’t, they will probably miss the entire story’s point altogether.

      P.s. I think it’s really cool that you intend to integrate Native American words. You don’t see too much of that nowadays, but I think we should. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. i think it depends on the book, setting, etc. For instance, if it is set in a foreign country and it is assumed that everyone is speaking that language, it sounds silly to add random years in that language if you do dialog in English (well, things that make sense – you will say ‘piazza’ and not plaza or square, etc.).

    If it is set in a foreign country but the main characters are English speaking, they will run into people who will speak only the language of the country. It needs to be in that language. At the same time, even in France where they supposedly frown at you for not speaking French, I found that after I said ‘bonjour’, 95% of the shop keepers would answer me in English, coming to the funny times when I would be speaking French and they English. So there, if the people are talking to the character, a few words in that language, but mostly English, but talking among themselves, it needs to be in the language.

    Set in the US, most foreign people try to speak English 100% so I see no reason to have them speak the language unless it makes sense – they are calling home, they cant’ figure how to say something so use their language, etc. To have them speak Spanish to your English speaking character for the sole reason to show they are from Mexico at a time that a true Mexican would use English doesn’t make sense.

    Anyway, just my opinion…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was a character in a non-English speaking country who didn’t speak English, but the entire story was told in English (because writing) and then random words in their native tongue were thrown in. Some made sense and had purpose. Others were just useless, like the author was trying to flaunt their knowledge of the language or whatever.

      At the end of the day, you do need to make sure the reader understands what’s going on and being said. However, you shouldn’t just thrown in words in the character’s native language for the hell of it or as a reminder of where the story is taking place. That’s just dumb. And really annoying to read. :/

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it’s a nice idea!
    I enjoy the occasional spanish, italian or german words. Cuz i actually understand them ๐Ÿ˜€

    I read a book recently with long french sentences. That got old pretty quickly – i had no idea what they are saying. Kept showing it to my french friend, but she wasn’t always available. Same goes for arabic… like… i had no clue what any of the things meant, and the author didn’t even try to explain it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norrie, you are the 2nd person to tell me about an author who threw in sentences or paragraphs in foreign languages. Like… who does the author think they’re writing for? If these books are from other countries, then they likely weren’t originally in English and those published in America should never assume readers are bi-lingual because 95% aren’t. (Though I wish they were.)

      I am with you, though. I sometimes enjoy foreign words being thrown in, but it’s not always done right. :/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting question! The book I’m reading now takes place in France, and the author throws in the occassional French word, usually oui or merci that she thinks I should already know. Personally, I find that kind of silly, because to me it implies that those words are being spoken, you know, in a different language than the rest of it. I see why she’s doing it, but I just don’t think it’s necessary. But really I don’t fuss about it as long as they don’t provide entire sentences or paragraphs in a foreign language and then not provide a footnote or SOMETHING explaining what they said. I’ve seen that before and it makes me mad because then I’m missing entire sentences or paragraphs of dialogue!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What?! Someone wrote an entire paragraph in a foreign language and then just gave you the cliffnotes? That’s literally the DUMBEST thing I’ve ever heard. If you want to write in another language, then write in another language. Don’t screw with people. UGH!

      I see the foreign words more in narrative than dialogue. So it’s not like they are speaking in 2 different languages.

      Liked by 1 person

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