Language Barriers

Today’s post, Language Barriers, is being hosted by Kate Warren from

Authors are pretty lucky when it comes to choosing what language they can write their story in. Just like suspension of disbelief will let readers believe there are really ghosts in a book, it will let readers believe that someone living in Ancient Rome or on a distant planet speaks fluent English—or at least the book is a “translation” of whatever language they would be speaking. The problem, therefore, becomes what to do when a character is bilingual. Many times that raises issues of both needing to show a switch between languages while not confusing readers who very likely don’t speak both languages. After all, you can’t exactly run subtitles under the dialogue like you would in a movie.

In both of my most recent Broken Line books (novella, The Copper Rebellion, and Book 3, The Paper Masque) I came up against just this problem. While Books 1 and 2 take place in their version of England, The Copper Rebellion finds protagonist, Adela, abroad in a version of France and the protagonist of The Paper Masque, Elsie, finds herself dealing with a number of Irish Gaelic speakers throughout her story. While some readers might speak either of those languages, requiring all readers be trilingual to finish the series seemed like a tall order.

So what to do then, when your characters speak more than one language? There are a few different methods, all of which depend on your Point of View (POV) character.

POV Character is Bilingual


If your POV Character in a scene understands whatever the language being spoken is, the easiest method is to use tags like “in French” at the end of dialogue to show that the characters are now speaking another language. For example, in The Copper Rebellion we find:

“Bonjour, madame…” The tallest stopped in front of her, Adela’s mind taking a moment to click over into [French]. “…how may we help you?”

Adela gave a pretty smile, silently thanking her grandmother’s insistence on learning the language. “Good day. I am Adela Wembley, and I have come to call on his majesty, King Charles, if he is in?

The reader has been filled in that they are now speaking in another language, and dialogue can continue on in English.

Note: To add credence to the switch, you can use a few words here and there of the language you’re switching from. Just try to make sure that they are either words that the reader would likely know (such as Bonjour) or words that are not important to the meaning of the sentence (so that the reader hasn’t missed anything if they don’t understand that word).

You will likely notice that I have used italics throughout the sample above after the language switch. If your character will be staying in one language more often than not, italics are not necessary (you can simply add “in French”/“in German”/etc. Italics, however, can be handy if you’re going to be switching in and out of a language quickly. For example:

There is a messenger here for you, madame,” the servant continued.

Adela recovered enough to smile. “Mr. Fletcher. What a surprise.”

Antony seemed to take everything in, bowed as his gaze began to linger too long. “Your majesty.”

Louis turned to her. “A friend of yours?

“Monsieur le duc, this is Antony Fletcher. He was a painter at my late husband’s court.” She looked back at Antony, flipped to [English]. “Mr. Fletcher, Louis Delone, Duke of Parnulle and brother to the king.”

Since Adela is speaking to Antony and Louis in two separate languages, it became simplest to establish that italics=French, no italics=English and remove “in English” and “in French” from appearing over and over again. You can determine if italics are necessary for clarity’s sake in your own writing.

POV Character is not Bilingual

If your POV character does not speak the second language being used in a scene, things get a little trickier. You see, since the character doesn’t know what is being said, there is no way for them to relate what is being said.

The easiest way to get around this problem is to have another character translate. For example:

Stringing a rope along the ceiling, Úna continued to speak to Laurence as she worked.

“She’s dividing up the room,” Laurence translated. “She says we aren’t married so we can’t sleep in the same room together.”

By having a character who speaks the second language translate, you can get a summary of what is being said across without the POV character needing to understand it word for word.

If the POV character doesn’t have someone to translate for them, try to stick to things the reader doesn’t need to understand, put in enough so that the reader can follow along, or have the POV character make guesses as to the content. For example:

Colm continued to rant in [Gaelic], switching as he turned to Gordon, “Though, like you really understand what we’re even saying,eachtrannach.”

Díul mó bhad,” Gordon returned, Elsie entirely willing to believe it was an insult just by the tone.

If someone speaks Irish Gaelic, they won’t need to be told that what Gordon says is an insult, but the rest of the audience has been told enough to pass over the phrase with the knowledge that Gordon says something insulting.

POV Character is Learning

For the most part, I don’t suggest taking the “subtitle” route, where you give lines in whatever foreign language a character is speaking and then add the translation verbatim after it. This is primarily because it can become clunky/disrupt the flow of the scene. Readers who don’t know the original language will have to skip over to find the translation meaning more “clutter” in the scene which often leads to slower pacing. It can be effective, however, if used for small stretches. I primarily use this strategy when it comes to a character learning the other language. For example:

Mon père est un soldat, comme mes frères,” Antony pieced the sentence together, doing his best to explain his family—the martial proclivity he hadn’t seemed to inherit with the rest of his brothers.

Vous ne voulez pas être un soldat?” Henriette asked quickly.

You did not want to be a soldier? Antony pieced the words together with just a little delay, answered, “Non. Not at all.”

“You really are not bad.” Henriette switched back to [English].

The extra wordiness in these instances can work well since it forces in the lull it takes the character to think of what the other characters are saying. The POV character is likely a step behind and so the “clunky” feel to the wording will suit for pacing.

All in all, when in doubt, understandability should be the goal when it comes to using two languages in your writing. You don’t want your readers to miss an important plot point just because they don’t speak as many languages as your character—or worse, to get so frustrated, they put your book down. Err on the side of caution and, when in doubt, call in a beta reader or two and see if it makes sense to readers who don’t speak a second language.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Happy December! Hopefully as everyone starts coming back down from the craziness of NaNoWriMo you’re all enjoying family time, sleep, and all of that sweet, sweet editing.

For anyone who doesn’t already know (hi to the three of you!), I tend to spend a lot of my free computer time hanging around the NaNoWriMo Forums. One of the forums, the Reference Desk, is also a great place for authors to get information they might not be able to easily research online. Need to know what a social worker in Alaska would do in X situation? There very well might be someone whose day job is being an Alaskan social worker hanging around to answer you. It truly is a great resource for any matter of questions, November or no.

So, going through posts on the Reference Desk recently, I came across a post asking about recovery times from a stomach wound. Namely, they had a character they didn’t want to die, but did want to suffer a sword wound going clean through their stomach in a crusades-era setting (doesn’t specify which crusade, but sometime between 1000-1200 A.D. presumably). And so, after outlining what they wanted to happen to the character and asking how long it would take to recover from that wound, the poster ended up with a resounding, “They’re not going to recover” phrased in a number of ways:

“They better have a saint on hand to perform a miracle”

“Magic, time travel, and divine intervention would be the character’s only hopes.”

“From right away to three or four agonizing days. That’s assuming that “heal” and “die” mean the same thing.”

“About nine months, after which your reincarnated body is ejected from the host you are going to have to learn to call ‘mommy’.”

A little snarkier than the NaNo Forums tend to get, but a fair enough point. Finding the responses amusing on my end (my apologies to the Original Poster if they found any of the responses mean, or are upset I found them amusing) I ended up reading a couple out loud to my historian husband. Being him/us this got us into a debate about ancient health care.

Now, since I’ve recently been working on projects that take place in historical fantasy worlds, I’ve gotten very used to hearing about all the little quibbles my husband has with “Hollywood” history (things movies do for plot reasons, or because the writers don’t know any better, that perpetuate things that are widely debunked by historians at this point). For the most part, it’s very helpful to have (I’ve gotten lazy by being able to go “Honey, what kind of guns would they have in the 15th century?” and have him rattle it off without me having to look it up) but this particular debate went something along the lines of this:

Husband: “I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. They helped people with crazy injuries back then. It’s not like they didn’t have any medical knowledge or something.”

Me: “They didn’t have antibiotics.”

Husband: “No, but some battlefield techniques were already highly advanced.”

Me: “People would still die from a wound like that today. It’s not saying ‘Look at those people who don’t know anything’ It’s saying, ‘If you run someone through the stomach with a sword and pull it out to leave all that acid and blood and bile eating away at the guy, he’s most likely going to die.”

Husband: “Painfully.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Husband: “But ‘most likely’. People did survive crazy, crazy injuries now and again…”

And then he trailed off into a number of examples that he of course knew off the top of his head about people surviving being stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot any number of ways while at war, because he somehow keeps a fully-indexed encyclopedia of facts in his head. It really should be studied by science.

Anyway, while, yes, I will fully admit crazier things have happened in real life, this argument got me thinking about the old Mark Twain quote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

And that, really, is the crux of the original NaNo poster’s problem. While maybe, had this character the author is writing been real, they could have been that one in a billion to survive through some absurd act of god. The chance is so small, however, that writing about someone surviving that wound would shatter just about every reader’s suspension of disbelief. In this case, saving the character would still be an act of god, but only insofar as the author is acting “god” over their story. And so the real difference between the two is that authors are held to a higher standard as far as what is believable. As creator of our story worlds, we can say the sky is green or people can fly or rabbits talk, but only on Tuesdays and as long as that is established, the reader will for the most part go along with it.  When using things based in reality, however, having things so improbable they’re nearly impossible in your story seems as though the author is suddenly using their ability to turn the sky green just because they can. And that’s jarring.

So, sadly, while you generally have god-like powers over the characters in your stories as an author, fiction still sometimes finds itself held to a higher standard than even reality when it comes to the improbable. And so, for our NaNo poster, that character is either going to either have to have a new wound or die for there not to be an outcry.