Young Writers Society

Home » Forums » Resources » Ask an Expert

Foreign Languages and Dialogue

Post a reply
User avatar


Gender: Female
Points: 816
Reviews: 4
Sat Feb 04, 2012 12:55 am
yllufituaebroken says...



You guys are always who I come to when I have a writing dilemma. :)
So one of my newest concerns is with language. I'm writing a book that takes place in Paris. There are French, German, and English speaking characters. However, some of the French speakers can understand English while some of the German speakers can understand French and so on. I had initially written all of the dialogue in English and only translated it into French or German to infer urgency or to direct attention to curtain situations. My question is should I, as a writer and a reader, assume that even if the dialogue is written in English that it is still meant to be in another language, or is it alright to assume that all of these people can speak English and do speak English a lot of the time?

I should also mention that all of the primary characters are part of a kind of overseas special tasks unit. This means that they deal with the same kind of dilemmas that our FBI might deal with and they would have to be able to communicate with people from other nations easily.

I realize that this is a simple decision that I as the author should be able to make, but for some reason it just feels bizarre switching back and forth between French and English dialogue.
"In the city lights, that's where you'll find
a beautiful soul and a broken mind."




User avatar
187 Reviews


Gender: Male
Points: 1062
Reviews: 187
Sat Feb 04, 2012 4:46 pm
Blues says...



Hey there!

I have a bit of experience in this subject here. I'm writing a novel that's set in Egypt, so while a lot of the characters speak English, there are one or two that primarily speak Arabic.What I do is that sometimes, when Omar (a bilingual) says something in Arabic, I write it. I only add a few words of the foreign language here and there in appropriate situations.

You could use English as a Lingua Franca between them so that they all talk in English for communication purposes. Or, you could add here and there "He said, in German." Eventually, it'll be pretty clear who is talking in what language, usually. For example, X is French and doesn't know German or English. Sooner or later, we'd usually know X is talking in French. It's really your opinion, but if you want it to be simpler, make English as a Lingua Franca.

Either way, you'd probably write all the dialogue in English, and maybe slip in what language you're speaking in here and there. It should only be mentioned sparingly though. It can also add in some great disasters if one guy can't speak the language of the other in an emergency, though highly unlikely.

A few snippets of language like, "Comment allez-vous?" or "... et on sorti au cinéma pour l'anniversaire de ma soeur..." would really give us a feel of the setting.

I hope I helped! Do PM me any questions you might have.

-Mac




User avatar
227 Reviews


Gender: Female
Points: 13980
Reviews: 227
Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:08 pm
View Likes
RachaelElg says...



Ahmad has some good suggestions!

I'd say what you do depends on the perspective you're writing from. If you're writing from an omniscient perspective, that gives you the flexibility to have more of the actual language in, as you can translate it outside the dialogue for the reader. If you have a limited perspective, then it depends on the character. If the character only speaks English, then that complicates what they can understand. If the character is fluent in all of them, then you can weave them in and out.

If the reader knows the setting and who the characters are, though, you might not have to explain. Also, if you mark every time they say something in French, the reader will assume that that's not the default.
If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.
—James Thurber




User avatar
937 Reviews


Gender: Other
Points: 73769
Reviews: 937
Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:41 pm
View Likes
Rosey Unicorn says...



One thing I'd also keep an eye on is double meanings. French in particular is littered with them, with "sensible" meaning both "Sensitive" and "sensible" when in French, and "pas" meaning both "no" and "steps". All of that depend son context, but you can also fit in some lovely double meanings. An example off the top of my head being "pas de danse, pas de vie". In English, this means both "dance steps, life steps" (parrot translation being "steps of dance, steps of life") and "no dance, no life."

That's just off the top of my head, but if you run across dialogue that has particularly good double-meaning in another language, mention the double meaning outside of the dialogue if possible.
You know you're a writer when you're not alarmed at hearing voices in your head, you can't read a book without analyzing it for plot & characters and you consider something you nearly killed yourself to write the most rewarding.

Guilty as charged.




User avatar
812 Reviews


Gender: Female
Points: 27777
Reviews: 812
Fri Feb 10, 2012 7:01 am
View Likes
Demeter says...



I'm not sure if this is what you were going for, but for the other-than-English dialogue bits you can put the line in italics. So, if they were speaking French (but you don't want to write it in French for obvious reasons), you can have: "How much for a pound of rice?"

And, if the dialogue bits are very long and they keep talking in another language, you can also only italicise the first line of the dialogue for the readers' convenience. And when they switch back to English, you can say something like "he continued in English" if you want.

I also like Ahmad's comment about having some simple lines in the other language.
"Your jokes are scarier than your earrings." -Twit

"14. Pretend like you would want him even if he wasn't a prince. (Yeah, right.)" -How to Make a Guy Like You - Disney Princess Style

Got YWS?