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Friday, October 17, 2008

Flavoring Your Fiction with Foreign Words

On one of my favorite YahooGroups for writers (, two of our members, PeeWee and French-speaking Brenda are talking about using French phrases in PeeWee's new novel. It made me think I should talk a bit about using foreign words in your writing but especially in ficiton.

Some things you can do to make the process work well are:

1. Don't use so much of a foreign language that English speakers won't be able to easily translate (without your doing it for them which is kind of condescending).

2. With that in mind, you can judiciously place a French (or language of your choice! Ha!) within your English sentence, so that it can be intuited.

An example might be, if in English it would be logical for someone to swear at her antagonist and the author used French for the swear words instead of English, the reader would probably guess that the character gave her antagonist whatfor, though she might not be able to translate the exact words. The idea is for the reader to get the gist of what is being said, not necessarily be able to parrot back a word-for-word translation.

3. You can also be careful to use cognates (words that look and sound like English. It's easy with French because we borrowed so many of them from back in the days of the Norman conquest) so that English-speakers can intuit them.

4. You can also judiciously repeat a foreign word in context so that eventually the English reader sort of picks up on the meaning. Hosseini did this well in the Kite Runner with Pashtu (and maybe a couple of other languages, as I recall). Studying his methods is a great way to learn how to do it.

5. Another way to use a foreign word for a common one like "Goodbye." When the other person says, "Goodbye" in English the reader will know that is what the first person was saying. It's even easier for the reader if the English is spoken first, then the foreign language.

6. We can also use words that everyone probably knows anyway, even though they aren't cognates. Both French and Armenian use "merci" for thank you and English speakers know it, too. It doesn't take much of a foreign language to give your dialogue the flavor you're looking for.

And the most accepted way to format your foreign phrases or words is to use italics.

I know you've probably read books where the translation is done for you. That usually interrupts the forward motion of the story and the author may have chosen to do it that way because she simply didn't know any other way. Now you do. Are there tips for using foreign languages in your copy I've missed? Please comment!

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at


JanetElaineSmith said...

And DO NOT depend on online translators. You can end up with some really weird things. For example, a Spanish translation from came out as "Excrement." There was no way the woman in that carriage, when she fell on the floor with her petticoats flying up over her head shouted "Oh, excrement!" LOL! If you want to test something out, try putting in the English words you want to translate to whatever language, then copy the foreign passage to your clipboard and re-translate it the other direction. It is amazing how different it can come out from what you originally put in in English.
Janet Elaine Smith, author/marketer/editor
Promo Paks: Nearly Free Marketing Tips for Authors

Brenda said...

Excellent points. I agree. And the foreign person might have a pet phrase he/she uses in the native language as part of his/her mannerisms - repeated throughout the novel when the situation calls for it.

Pee Wee said...

This is good Carolyn, thank you. I will try to get the Kite Runner. Your suggestions are what I'm talking about. I have an Irishman as a charsacter and have had no problem with throwing in a word here and there, however, he is not a doctor that is apt to have mastered the English language. The Irish accent was easy for me. The Frenchman is not easy. Still, my main Character is in Paris and in need of a doctor. I want him to speak just enough to remind the reader that he is French. I've even thought to use the phrase, "How you say?" Something like that. I think more than the actual words is the way of saying something. Backwards or whatever. I'm having a hard time explaining myself. But what's new.

The Kahills of Willow Walk

Soon to come--featuring the Frenchman.
For the Love of Willow Walk
a sequel

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice. I passed on a link to your blog to a client who isn't convinced.
A non-English word or phrase can also be used to establish a character's background even when he/she isn't French, German, etc. For example, an American who spent many years living in another country might have a pet phrase from that experience.

Jozette said...

Thanks Carolyn. I needed a way to use a little foreign language in my dialogue without it reading like a school text. This is a great help.

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