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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