Writing Foreign Language Settings and Characters
January 16, 2018
By Anna Wahler
A great writer can make a reader forget that their settings are only made of words, their characters are only fiction–and even what language they’re reading in. If you’re writing a novel set in a foreign country, then even if you’re writing your story in English, it’s assumed the characters will be speaking the language the inhabitants of that region spoke. I’ve had a long interest in foreign languages, and I’ve shared my tips below about exploring the linguistic side of your characters’ lives.
Do you speak the language?
Knowing another language is not a prerequisite for writing a story that takes place in a foreign country, but it is still something you should take into account. If you do speak your ‘target language’ then you have a few bonuses on your side. So Long as We Live is written in English, but the majority of the characters speak Polish. At first I was reluctant to add any bits of Polish at all, but I had a few beta readers say that they were disappointed seeing a novel set in a foreign country without any nods to the language the characters would have spoken. Some readers of course will have different points of view, but on my next round of revisions I slipped in some small phrases. I did my best to make sure that the meaning was still clear however. Phrases in another language aren’t there to muddle the reader, they’re meant to give flavour, and can be a nod to people that may also happen to speak your ‘foreign’ language. Don’t use them to give away anything that would be crucial to understanding plot or character development.
If you aren’t familiar with the language, my recommendation would either be to skip including foreign words in your manuscript, or to seek the help of a fluent speaker. If you try to translate on your own with a dictionary or online translator, you may end up with mistakes that would look awkward to a native speaker.
Additions in your setting’s language
If you know the language your characters will be speaking, including words and short phrases can be a great way to slip in some additional detail. But add too much, and you risk confusing the readers more than you may want. Therefore make sure your phrases are used for maximum effect and aren’t just there to clutter up the dialogue. Here are some personal recommendations of things I think would be easy to infer, and therefore would give detail without detracting meaning:
- Currency names
- Certain geographic terms such as the word for Place, Castle, Street
- Names of foods, especially when also accompanied by a short description
- Terms of endearment or generalized nicknames
- Simple greetings
Also, if there are themes or words that you find to be untranslatable, but which also relate to your story, don’t assume the reader won’t want to hear about it. As long as you don’t give a linguistics lesson, it can be interesting to briefly describe a phrase, idiom, or word with a special meaning.
Many writers choose to use italics to set apart words in foreign languages, just to give instant identification that this word is unique.
If you are including additions from languages such as Arabic or Hebrew, which don’t use our alphabet, be aware of standardized forms of phonetic translations, and stick to one set of rules.
Watch out for bad puns
If you’d rather not include foreign words in your story, you’ve probably made an equally popular choice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep it in the back of your head that your dialogue and your characters’ inner thoughts aren’t in English. It’s a good idea to be aware of word plays and puns that only work in English. For instance, the classic joke, “Dad, I’m hungry.” “Hi hungry, I’m Dad,” tragically wouldn’t make any sense in most Slavic languages because of the way these languages use adjectives and nouns. Yes, I’m a huge nerd and attempt to translate the weirdest things for no apparent reason. If you want to make word-plays, you may want to save them for stories written in their own languages. If not, finding a word play that works in both languages could be very interesting.
Language as part of character-development
You should also be aware of language as just one more component in the creation of your protagonist and any other detailed character. Just as you should make it your business to know their goals, fears, passions, and weaknesses, you should acknowledge that language has a significant impact on thought. This is where it can come in handy to have even a generalized knowledge of the language your character speaks. However, if you don’t, it can still be a fun exercise to listen to some music or watch a film in that language. As an outsider, you will have a different ‘ear’ for the language than a native speaker, but you can still make note of what sort of impression it gives you. Did you notice that it took many words to say something that could be said with only one word in English, or vice versa? Many of these subtleties will not be directly translatable to your dialogue, but keeping them in the back of your head can be a great character-building exercise.
Also think about whether or not your character is bilingual or not. What languages have they learned, or have attempted to learn in the past? At what time in their life did they learn them? How confident or fluent are they in their second language(s)?
You may wish to write a scene in which characters who speak two different languages attempt to communicate. If either character has a variable degree of fluency with another language, you’ll have to pay attention to how they express themselves. It’s important to make sure that, unless they’ve been studying hard, characters shouldn’t suddenly jump levels of fluency. How rapidly a character is able to pick up another language can depend on their age, as well as what their native language is. Even when a character has attained fluency, certain factors such as fear, anger, or just a really bad day, can cause them to forget words they would otherwise know, and can be a good way to show them in a high-emotional state. Linguists have also noted that most people tend to swear in their native languages, even if they have been living abroad for years.
Some people also appear to have a better ‘head for language’ than others, although motivation and practice can play as much of a role as any inborn skill. As a rule, children can pick up foreign words much faster than adults, but adults may have stronger external motivations or pressures to learn. You can also think about how similar the language the character is trying to learn is to their native language. A native Polish speaker could learn Russian or Czech relatively easily, since both are in the Slavic language group. Likewise with French and Italian, as both are Romance languages. However, were a French speaker to try and learn Japanese, there would be many more differences in alphabet, grammar, and syntax than any other European language.
If your characters speak English in the story, but encounter a non-native speaker, this is also a chance in which you can add some detail. A Japanese speaker trying to speak English will make very different mistakes than a Russian speaker, based on the setup of their native language.
All stories are made up of language, and the language in which your characters argue, converse, and swear is something you should make note of early on in your writing process. Many writers and readers are also lovers of language, and can enjoy learning a little more about the culture you’re writing about through the ways they express themselves.