Advice: Translating Foreign Language for the Reader


Anonymous asked: Do you have any resources for using minimal foreign language within dialogue and translating it for readers?

Translation in fiction shouldn’t rely on end notes, footnotes, or brackets, which disrupt the flow and pull readers out of the story. Instead, you need to find ways within the story to get the meaning of the dialogue across to the reader.

1) Narrator translates for the reader through the character being spoken to:

“C’est la vie,” said Marie, which Sarah knew meant, “That’s life.”

2) Another character translates for the character being spoken to, and so to the reader, too:

“C’est la vie,” said Marie.

I looked at Amelia and she translated for me. “She said, ‘That’s life.’”

Here is an excerpt from Andy Weir’s The Martian as an example. This takes place after the translator (Su Bin) has already been introduced:

Welcome to Jiuquan,” Guo Ming said. “I hope your flight was smooth?”

Su Bin translated Guo Ming’s words as Teddy took the second best seat in the observation room. He looked through the glass to Jiuquan’s Mission Control Center. It was remarkably similar to Houston’s, though Teddy couldn’t read any of the Chinese text on the big screens.

“Yes, thank you,” Teddy said. “The hospitality of your people has been wonderful. The private jet  you arranged to bring us here was a nice touch.”

My people have enjoyed working with your advance team,” Guo Ming said. “The last month has been very interesting…”

Notice that once it’s established that Guo Ming’s words are being translated to Teddy, it’s no longer necessary to state that Su Bin is translating. When we see the words in italics, we understand that those are Guo Ming’s words as translated by Su Bin. This method is handy for two reasons: 1) It gets you out of including any actual foreign dialogue, which is good because if you’re not fluent in a particular language, it can be easy to misuse it, even with phrase books and online translators/dictionaries. 2) It flows a lot better and is more concise than having to continually state that something was translated or said in the other language. 

3) The first-person narrator translates for the reader:

“C’est la vie,” said Marie. That’s life.

“I’m sorry things turned out this way,” I replied in French, my tongue twisting around the language I hadn’t spoken in years.

Marie responded in French and I translated the words in my head. “What more could have been done?” she had said.

A couple of side notes:

Italics, as in example #3, should be used very sparingly. They should not be used in long conversations or blocks of dialogue.

If you’re writing in first-person or third-person limited and your point-of-view character doesn’t know what was said because they don’t know the language and no one translates for them, then your reader shouldn’t know, either. Only in third-person omniscient can the narrator translate for the reader when the point-of-view character doesn’t know what was said.

Here are some more resources for people considering including foreign languages in their writing:

Using Foreign Words in Your Fiction

Guest Post: Using foreign language in your story – the balancing act! – SFWA

Anne Korkeakivi on How to Handle Foreign Language | Word Craft – WSJ

Say ‘non’ to phrasebook foreign language in fiction | Books | The Guardian

Answers to Writing Questions – Character – Gotham Writers Workshop

formatting – What’s the best way to show a foreign language in a manuscript? – Writers Stack Exchange

fiction – Using a foreign language that uses a different written alphabet – Writers Stack Exchange Fiction University: How to Use Foreign Languages (Real or Imaginary) in Your Novel

To italicize or not to italicize? Authors speak up on the use of ‘foreign’ words in prose (Part II)

How to include a foreign language in your novel?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.