Using foreign languages in your writing

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed two instances of what are clearly dodgy Google translations in published books.


While I am admittedly very pernickety about such things, I do think it’s really important when using a foreign language in your writing to make sure you’re getting it right. For the readers who understand it, a mistake can feel really jarring and take you out of the story, as it spoils its authenticity. Plus, it feels kind of disrespectful to let errors go unchecked – you have an editor and proofreaders to check your English, after all, so why not your German, Tagalog, Swahili, etc?

This all got me thinking of other mistakes or oddities I’ve noticed in the past, both in English-language writing and in French, Spanish and Catalan books that use English. Here are, in my view, some of the things to do and to avoid.

(Please note! I’m addressing writers incorporating languages that they don’t speak to a good level here, not bilingual writers or authors who write in a language that isn’t their mother tongue.)

Be realistic
I once read a book where the characters – French kids who spoke very good English – would struggle to find the English for words like ‘apple’ or ‘sun’, but knew advanced vocabulary relating to architecture. I could see why the author did this: it was a middle-grade book, and an English reader is obviously more likely to understand ‘pomme’ or ‘soleil’ than the French for ‘gable’ (‘pignon’, if anyone’s interested). Still, I think even a young reader could pick up on how unrealistic this is.

Don’t repeat yourself
Or rather, your characters shouldn’t repeat themselves. I quite often see things like: “Ernesto smiled. ‘Está bien. It’s fine,’ he said.” Why would Ernesto state this twice?! Either go ahead with the Spanish – people will get the gist – or stick to English. If you really, really have to translate something, I think it’s better to remove it from the dialogue. So: “Ernesto smiled. ‘Está bien,’ he said. It’s fine.”

Don’t translate everything
As a follow-on from the above point… you don’t have to translate every single thing. I’m currently reading Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You, in which the character recites a haiku by Bashō with no translation. It doesn’t really matter if the reader doesn’t get it – 95% of people will have a phone beside them, so they can look it up if they really want to. As long as it doesn’t derail the story in any way, I don’t think the writer should have to pander to those who don’t understand.

Easy on the italics
I’m sure some editors would disagree with me here, but I don’t think you need to italicize every single word. For one thing, it can highlight the so-called ‘exoticism’ of items or words that, to your characters, wouldn’t be exotic. For example, I recently read a book in which a girl Peruvian-Canadian girl was eating ceviche. Surely to her, it’d just be ceviche. English has always absorbed foreign words, anyway, so there’s no need to do this. Plus, there’s the question of who the audience is. Using italics can seem like an assumption that your reader won’t be familiar with the word, which may not be the case, and that those who are familiar with them are ‘other’. (There’s a good blog post about this here.)

Accents matter!
As I’m sure most people know, in many languages accents are not optional! Changing or omitting an accent can sometimes alter the meaning of the word, and even if it doesn’t, it’s like a spelling mistake – you wouldn’t want that in English, so why in any other language?

Watch the capitals
This is something I see a lot in French and Spanish books when referring to English songs or films – writing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as The good, the bad and the ugly, for examplebut just be aware that other languages use capital letters differently, both in titles and generally. Look up the rules or ask a native-level speaker if you’re not sure.

Again, don’t use Google Translate!
While automatic translators have come on loads, they are, as this article explains, still pretty far from being able to provide quality literary translations. Context and nuance are so important: Google could give you a perfect translation of a conversation between a parent and child, for example, but it’ll sound odd if the adult is addressing the kid as the formal ‘Sie’ instead of ‘du’. (I may be underestimating Google’s abilities here, but that’s just an example of what a machine might miss.)

Get a native-level speaker to check
If you’re just using specific words, a reputable dictionary should be fine. But for full sentences, it’s always, always best to get a native-level speaker to check. If you don’t know any who you feel comfortable asking, try Reddit, Twitter, the Duolingo or WordReference forums… there’ll usually be people who are more than happy to help you out.

For examples of writers, both native and not, who in my view incorporate other languages into their English writing really well, check out The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DiazThe Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, or Mother Tongue and The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew. Feel free to leave a comment recommending others, too!


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