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.
Find Jessica Dall online at her website jessicadall.com
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