How to write a foreign language character

I love languages. I have a Bachelor’s in Linguistics, which entailed a minor in Spanish. For my last MS, I’ve taken Irish lessons online. In my current WIP, I have a Russian Soviet trilingual heroine who doesn’t want our American monolingual hero to know she speaks English. Oh, and it’s set in Paris. Hooray! (For some reason, it’s always my heroines that are the polyglots.)

It’s only natural that I run into language issues. (And/or give myself language issues.) So when Theresa Stevens posted about using foreign languages in English works today, I started to comment. . . . Halfway through my novella comment, I decided it might be better just to blog about it myself.

I think Theresa has some great guidelines for foreign language usage:

  • Length. Shorter bits are easier to absorb than longer ones.
  • Frequency. A once-in-a-while [words] will go down easier than long dialogue exchanges.
  • Familiarity. Some foreign words are just better known that others. If an Italian guy says, “Salut,” we probably all know what that means. But how many of you can parse a Polish guy saying, “Dziekuje”?
  • Common roots. Some words appear similar to their English counterparts because of shared linguistic roots. . . . So when Edith Piaf belts out, “Je ne regrette rien,” a mindful reader will see “regrette” and recognize it as a fancified version of “regret.”

I tend to think that dialogue and narration use slightly different solutions for the same issue. Here’s what I think is working for me (but I’m sure my CPs will have their own opinions when I let them read my WIP!).

In my WIP when I’m in his POV, I figure the foreign language is pretty much incomprehensible to him (and my readers), I don’t write out the full Russian or French. I have been making exceptions like the above: if it’s very, very short (Eto Lissa), common (oui), or homophonic (téléphone). I figure anything longer/less common is just a wall-o-sound to him—he can’t distinguish the words or even phonemes. (Think about what it’s like to tune in to a Spanish channel. I speak Spanish and it still takes me a minute to “code switch,” as we call it in linguistics.)

I tend to summarize the foreign language dialogue in his POV. It’s a bit harder in her POV, since she’d understand any of the three languages. Here, I do another thing Theresa mentions: trying to make it obvious from the context. For example:

[They’ve just gotten out of a car.]

Mademoiselle?” the driver called. I turned back. He stood by the still-open car door, holding my father’/s brown leather briefcase aloft. “Votre mallette?

Of course, if both characters are speaking Russian (and no one else is around), I just write it in English. I do take a look at the syntax and vocabulary of Russian, but I wouldn’t change either of those aspects to make the English weird or unintelligible.

In internal monologue, I use English as well, of course, and again, wouldn’t change the syntax or vocabulary too drastically. I actually think this can actually be more loyal to the character’s voice, and I’ve commented on why before (but I’ll repeat it here).

I think it’s entirely possible to stay true to a character’s voice without actually phrasing things the exact way their thoughts might translate. A “character’s voice” is already an artificial construct. Most people actually think in pictures, not words. And if my character is a native-born Russian, she probably thinks in Russian. Russian pictures != marketable English-language novel. Translating thoughts into words and Russian words into English ones is, I think, a bigger change than rephrasing said thoughts in English.

For example, in Russian, the stressed element of a sentence is at the beginning (“To the store I went” isn’t odd, just emphatic), but that wouldn’t convey the meaning well in English. Or, for example, if the Russian character thought “nose has not grown,” a Russian idiom, the English reader would be just as confused as we all are now. (No idea what it means.)

It’s more loyal to the character’s voice to make sure that their thoughts are as eloquently expressed (or not) in English as they would have been in their native language—and that’s pretty much always going to require some rephrasing.

What do you think? How would you convey a foreign language in narration and dialogue?

Photo by Eric Andresen

11 thoughts on “How to write a foreign language character”

  1. I had to do this with Bumpy Landings, including little snippets of Hawaiian and Samoan. My main character primarily speaks English, so that made things a little easier, but there are words he would know just from being in Hawaii that the average mainland reader would not, so it took some balancing.

    Whole scenes between non-English speaking characters would be tricky–especially if written for the English-speaking market.

  2. One of my favorite things is to write characters who speak in dialect, whether its an American dialect as in a character from the deep south, or writing someone from another country, like Ireland, whose language will have a particular lilt. I got enamored with this when I was trying to figure out how to give each character their own unique voice. I’ve come to love how a word choice or the way a sentence is structured can alter the cadence of a character’s speech or make you hear the lilt of a familiar accent. It truly doesn’t take as much as some people think. What a joy it is when it comes together and you know you’ve succeeded in making a character distinctive with their speech.

    1. You’re right, Suzie! Word choice and sentence structure are two great ways to convey an accent—and a unique voice.

  3. My next novel comes out in July. The publisher has sent the galleys to a Cree editor, while I sit nervously by and wait. Apparently, I’ve done the edits, I worked with a editor this past summer. But if the Cree editor finds a mistake, does that mean I’ll be sent my ms back to work on it? Hmm. It doesn’t matter. I hummed and hawed before inserting Cree, Michif and French into the dialogue, but it felt crucial to the story. Even my editor agreed. I hope I didn’t make a mistake. Your post sure would have helped, Jordan. Thanks for making it easier the next time.

  4. I’m curious, where did you take Irish lessons from? Also, where is a good place to start learning other languages for a better grasp on sound and syntax? I don’t currently know any foreign languages, but want to learn some for my current WIP and future projects. I’ve been using random words in dialogue to show the characters speak a foreign language, but feel a little silly since I can’t even pronounce half the words. Thanks for the post and help!

    1. That’s a secret I love to share! My library is one of many that have signed up with Mango Languages, which offers online (and mobile) language learning courses! I studied Irish as well as Russian this way. If you’re not that lucky, I would recommend the resources at–they have some great recommendations by language as well as general language learning resources, including free ones.

      When you don’t speak the language (and sometimes even when you do!), translation can be tricky. One example: I was once talking to a friend in Spanish about my vision and I mentioned my “contactos.” She corrected me: in Spanish, they’re called “lentillas” or “lentes” (lenses). For my purposes, I was able to find the Irish phrases I needed in an online Irish-English translation forum. My Russian I had checked by friends who spoke and studied the language and had lived there.

      And if you want to hear pronunciations, Google Translate is an okay place to start. I usually end up searching for “how to pronounce X” to find recordings of native speakers too!

  5. My writing goes beyond fiction. How would you write a forign language character, main or supplimentary if the languages involved are not found anywhere on earth?

    1. Sounds like you’re referring to speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, etc.), which is a genre of fiction. Largely, you would follow the same process, except that you would want to know as much as you can about the languages you’re making up. What does the sound system sound like (harsh, guttural, lilting, garbled, etc.)? How do they compare and contrast with one another? What does that add to the characterization of that culture?

      If you’re familiar with Star Trek, think of Klingon. This invented language has become very popular, so that die-hard fans can actually converse in it. The Klingon culture is very harsh, strict and war-like; the Klingon language features a lot of plosives and guttural consonants.

      With invented languages, you can only use a few words or a phrase at a time, and usually only to convey that the characters are not speaking the “main” language. (Other than, of course, world building terms, like the indigenous plants, places, etc., etc. that won’t have English equivalents.)


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