Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 50 Using Another Language in Your Manuscript (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)


First I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate 50 articles having been written for The Story Reading Ape’s blog in this self-editing series!

Celebrate for #50


Ok, now onto business. Yes, yes, I know, that was a short celebration, but we have work to do! 🙂

Please note that this article’s suggestions are mostly for authors who have decided to self-publish. If you intend to shop your manuscript to an agent or publisher, they will ultimately decide how to treat your foreign language. But you are certainly welcome (and encouraged) to implement any of the suggestions for clarity before querying.

I’ve worked with fantasy and science fiction authors who generated an entirely new language for their story’s world. I’ve even edited some of those invented languages for consistency, since standard rules need to be created and implemented for pluralizing nouns, conjugating verbs, etc.! In other instances, authors have used an existing foreign language (such as French, German, or Spanish) in their stories. The question comes up: How do you distinguish two different languages being used when you want your readers to understand both?

There are several ways of doing this. The first is to write the foreign language (in italics) for the first one or two sentences, with the translation in parentheses, and then, whenever you switch languages, you add something like, “Sky continued in Spanish.”

This example was translated with Google Translate, so forgive me if it’s not correct! 🙂

¿Por qué siempre me molesta cuando estoy trabajando? (Why do you always bother me when I’m working?)” Sky demanded. “Yo le he dicho, déjame en paz! (I have told you, leave me alone!)”

As you can see, if you continued in this manner of word-for-word translation, it is very cumbersome and can be difficult for the reader to follow. For a character who only appears briefly, though, it would be fine. But to avoid having a main or supporting character’s dialogue being difficult to read, additional dialogue spoken by the foreign-language-speaking character could include a word or two within a sentence or paragraph, as long as it’s clear to the reader by the context what you mean.

And then you drag mi hermana into the problem, too,” Sky said. “My sister does not deserve to be treated that way.”

Another way to indicate a foreign language is being spoken when, in fact, you are writing it in English, is to use some sort of visual marker to indicate the foreign language. You could encapsulate the English text that was supposedly spoken in a foreign language in a consistent visual marker. You can use square brackets [ ], curly brackets { }, angled brackets < >, a pair of colons :: ::, a pair of pound signs # #, or perhaps tildes ~ ~. Another idea is to indent those sentences / paragraphs in a consistently different manner than the rest of your text.

Whatever you decide to use, be sure to introduce it properly the first time you use it, so the reader will know what is going on. Or you can add an author’s note at the beginning that says something like, “Foreign-language dialogue will be represented by { } symbols outside the quotation marks.”

The last way is to incorporate short sentences in the foreign language, without translation, but use surrounding action and/or other characters’ speech to make clear to the reader what the foreign language speaker said:

Gobbledy gook, more gobbledy gook. Gobbledy gook blah blah blah,” Pieter said.

Franz nodded. “Yes, moving in at night would be best.”

Did you notice that the word repeated frequently in this article is “consistent”? Whatever you choose to do, be sure you implement it consistently.

If you’ve seen, or written, foreign languages displayed in another format, please be sure to share them in the comments!

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!


Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing




20 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? – 50 Using Another Language in Your Manuscript (A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing)

  1. For some reason I get the impression an article presented earlier sparked this one. ::Grins::

    I know when I’m dealing with the multiple languages floating around my world, I leave it in English and note which language is being spoken. There is one exception, in one book – and that is because the MC is trying to learn the newly introduced language for the realm he is entering. He has someone with him who is familiar with the language (though not always the best to use as a translator, as they turn into a doggerel poet once the sun comes up). To help highlight how quickly he’s picking up the language, I present two sentences in the foreign language, then let him break it down in the word-to-word pairings through the rest of the “lesson” dialogue. After that, only a few words show up now and again, mostly used as curses or expletives when things go really, really bad for the native speaker who winds up joining the cast.

    I think this just supports your emphasis on keeping the treatment of which ever language you’re using consistently. ::Scurries off to go find what I actually came for.::

    Liked by 2 people


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