EDITING 101: 50 – Using Another Language in Your Manuscript…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

Using Another Language in Your Manuscript

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!

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Identifying Your Book’s Goal’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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