8 Ways to Show Foreign Languages in Fiction

There are many ways to add depth and interest to a story. One of my favorites is using terms and phrases from a foreign language; they can lend your story a more immersive experience into a culture or region. This applies both to cultures based in the real world and ones you’ve created.

Whether you’re using an existing language (like Spanish or German) or one you’ve constructed yourself, the vast majority of your readership isn’t going to understand right away. They don’t all speak Russian, let alone Na’vi or Dothraki. Thankfully, there are many clever ways to show the meanings behind these terms while keeping things flowing naturally.

Read through the scene you want to insert your foreign language into, and be sure to take note of your narrative voice and what information your character has access to. That information will help you decide which method is best for each situation.

1. The most common method is to allude to the meaning of the foreign terms through the surrounding dialogue. Usually, this is part of a back-and-forth exchange where one character’s foreign question or statement is responded to in English, using contextual clues that leave little ambiguity to their meaning.

“Ti amo, mio marito,” she whispered.
He held his wife close. “I love you, too, honey.”

2. Another popular method is to explain the meaning in the narrative. Just like with dialogue, you use contextual clues to show the reader what it means. This can either be given bluntly or subtly hinted at, as long as it gets the point across. However, with this method, the meaning is more or less paraphrased in lieu of an exact translation.

The sorcerer waved his hand before the wall, calling on the ancient spirits. “Venardi ama doya!

3. A less desirable (but still viable) option is to have these terms listed in a glossary or dictionary in the back of the book. Not all fantasy books have a glossary—not all need them—and I don’t recommend adding one just for a handful of phrases, unless you think there are enough other strange fantasy terms in your book that warrant using one.

So lek þi’tla (so LEK thee-till-ah) — (Tl’ysian): “By the wind’s word.” Adds emphasis to a statement, implying “The wind said it, so it must be true.” Also used to show truth and honesty, much like “I swear it to be true.”

4. You could also—if it fits the story—have a character there to translate. This one is straightforward, but should be done properly to keep from feeling forced or like an info-dump. Try to keep things natural.

The prophet waved her arms wildly and shouted into the crowd. “Alydali bursa chrisael!
A local woman must have caught the confusion on my face, because she leaned over and whispered, “She’s telling everyone that she won’t take no for an answer.”

5. When you have a heavy amount of a foreign language and no viable way to imply its meaning naturally, you could always leave out the foreign words and write it in English, explaining through the narrative that the character is speaking in another language altogether. After all, not every instance has to be written out exactly.

In his native tongue, the witch doctor chanted to his gods and prayed for clear skies. It was rough and guttural, a language that had been out of use for centuries beyond the edges of this village. I considered praying with him, but I wasn’t sure the old gods spoke English.

6. If the character has no idea what is being said or done, has no idea what the language is supposed to be saying, or has nothing to clue them into it, then you can use that to your advantage as well. Sometimes, these are the most fun.

Hattie listened to the sorceress’ words, trying to make out anything that seemed familiar.
Sa hasa sha na pala. Joya na sa sha pala.” The sorceress rocked in her seat, eyes still shut tight, muttering more words that sounded like gibberish.
Whatever she was saying, hopefully it would help. For all Hattie knew, the woman could have been cursing her to hell.

7. Maybe, along those same lines, your character isn’t fluent in the language but does know a few words. That could also give you just enough of the language to clue in the reader without being a direct info-dump.

She tried to keep up with the fast pace of the ritual, but her limited knowledge of the Ashanti language left her more disconnected by the minute. She was able to catch a few words here and there—staff, sacrifice, mercy. It all sounded very mysterious.

8. Finally, there is the less used option, which I wouldn’t recommend personally. It’s mostly used in children’s stories or with just the right omniscient narrative voice—one where the narrator knows what it means and gives a translation immediately after the text.

Bidamo jolantis!” the witch cried out. Her words roughly translated to “kill the beast!” and the entire mob surged in agreement.

In the end, as long as the reader can infer the meaning or you show the character’s thoughts on the strange language, it will seem natural to the story. If you’re still stuck on which method to use, try to put yourself in the character’s place. What would you do? Are there any methods you like that I didn’t list?

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8 Comments on “8 Ways to Show Foreign Languages in Fiction

  1. What about when you use a phrase or word you made up, but everyone around DOES know what it means – just the reader has no idea?

    For example, in my story, because I have a race that is so long-lived, I came up with counting ages by 10s, 100s, and 1000s – daka, senu, melu – but everyone up until probably chapter 15 (not sure off the top of my head) would know exactly what these words mean because we meet only this race for a good portion of the book.

    So how do I explain this without info-dumping or, as some have suggested, just using the English (because it’s fantasy and I want some made up words in there and it’s my story so I can do whatever I want…grumble)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see a few options you have. Let me ask you some questions that might help you figure out your preference. 🙂

      First, when you use daka, senu, and melu (kudos on those by the way, I can see the subtle influence from decade, century, and millennium) is it obvious you’re talking about years? Do you have things like, “Two senu have passed and you still haven’t grown up!” The reader might not instantly understand that it’s basically saying two hundred years, but they’ll easily understand that two of a period of time has passed, and that it’s a time period long enough that someone should have matured a bit. Things like that are subtle and are more than enough to carry your reader through until a more detailed explanation is available (or until they’ve had enough context to figure it out themselves).

      How often are you using these words and terms? Just like any language immersion, sometimes frequency plays a big part in learning it. If you have characters constantly throwing around these words, then you’re giving your readers a LOT of context for them to pick up on a meaning. Especially if the terms aren’t the *focus* of the sentences but only enhance it. If you’re only using them a few times here and there, it might be simple enough for your reader to garner a basic idea of it for now, then it’ll all click into place later on. For example, in Harry Potter, the reader had heard the word Muggle seven times just in chapter one and, aside from guessing by the little surrounding context, was left in the dark until Hagrid explains it to Harry halfway through chapter four. That’s quite a bit of time and quite a lot of mentions, but once we hear him say “It’s what we call non-magic folk” suddenly we realize…we already kinda knew that. 🙂

      Another option is to just not overthink it too much. If you know you’re going to explain it better at some point, and none of the uses of it until then are super plot-enhancing need-to-know situations, then you can always just leave it be. After all, we the readers have come into your world completely unprepared. We are bound to see some things that we don’t understand right away, but the longer we’re in your world, the more we pick up on. Just like being dropped into the middle of a foreign country. With a little patience, everything makes sense. Some of your readers might be a little frustrated at first with not having a clear definition handed to them, but if there’s really no better way to explain it yet, then make them wait. It can be done, and done well. 🙂

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      • Yes, I believe I’ve made it very obvious I’m talking about age.

        It’s used with *some* regularity, but I’d have to count it up to see. One of my critiquers picked up on daka right away, comparing it to deka in Greek – so it’s one of those things that some will pick up on quickly and others won’t.

        I do have a situation where it could be explained, but I don’t think I actually outright explain it. So, I could probably take advantage of that scene and give the definition of these words, even though it would be quite a ways into the book. It could still be a “oh, yeah, I guess I’d figured that out. I’m right! yay!”, though for others it will probably be more akin to “grumble… why didn’t you just say that right away?”

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    • Also, you can use your surroundings to help out, too. “The tree must have been there for a full melu but it still stood strong. The history it must have witnessed.” Obviously that’s just a random example since I don’t know how your narrator works, but you get the idea. 😉

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      • That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to see how I can work that in. I might have a situation where I could compare 7 daka to 1 senu – I have a Veru who “dies young” at 7 daka, and I could have someone say something like “so close to a senu… just 3 daka shy” or something to that effect.

        I also have a situation where my MC references herself – I’m almost 3 daka, just 3 more years – or something to that effect.

        I could look for places to drop in more clues without it becoming baseball-bat obvious.

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