Mind your language!

As a language nerd, certified translator and writer of fiction (and in a previous existence of proposals, reports, corporate documentation, advertising and PR copy), I’ve always been interested in the power of words. Tone, style and formality as important as context.

Although multi-lingual, I write in my mother-tongue English, but when writing a story in a country where the residents speak a different language or other characters speak a different language, I drop in a few appropriate words of that foreign language. It can add to the flavour of the setting and/or to a character’s background.

However, there are many traps along the way. Overdoing it is one pitfall to avoid and using Google Translate is “The Big Don’t“.

Language traps

In French, we have several problems, one of which is the tu/vous conundrum. In English ‘you’ covers all relationships. If you want to go beyond the odd bonjour, au revoir and merci, for instance, for one character to ask if another has understood what the first one said, you need to know what the relationship is. There’s a world of difference between Tu piges? and Vous comprenez?  It’s all about context!

The other things to watch are gender and verb conjugation. Dictionaries usually give the infinitive form of verbs or the singular form of nouns. Stringing them together and, in the case of German, using the correct article and adjective cases can be tricky. Even though Google Translate can provide a (rickety) translation of large chunks of text from a foreign language into English for information purposes, when going from English into another language like French, it doesn’t know its conditional from its coordinating conjunction.

When to use foreign language in your story

Above all, you want your readers to grasp what is being said. Nothing throws a reader out of a story like something baffling or jarring that leaves them wondering what just happened. If you stick to short expressions like greetings, or ma chére, mon ami, or s’il vous plaît, very few readers will feel lost. Instead, they may well be charmed.

One choice horror to avoid is inserting the English translation in brackets after the foreign language expression spoken by a character. I have seen it and I cringe. A good writer will find other ways to show what is meant either by the context or another character’s reaction or reflection on what was just said.

If it’s a moment of high drama where a French-speaking character would say something such as “Va-t-en!” and push the other person away, that second character can reply, “No, I’m staying right here until you tell me what’s going on.” The reader will understand from the context what the French words meant.

Swearing is the other place you can use foreign words. The context will convey the distress or anger of the character saying it, but the language will hopefully not upset readers as much as if the swearing was in plain English. Bon Dieu or Bon sang should hopefully not ruffle the sensibilities of religious believers as much as the counterpart words in English. In my modern contemporary thrillers written in English I can have my French-speaking ex-military special forces heroine under great stress say “putain” which conveys strength of feeling without English readers being upset by the f-word in black and white.

Mercury in saving mode

In my Roma Nova thrillers, my characters can swear by the various gods  – “Oh, Mercury save us!”, or “Jupiter’s balls!” The worst is “Pluto in Tartarus”; both Tartarus and Pluto denote hell but Pluto is the darkest, deepest and most infernal hell and linguistically reinforces the strength of Tartarus.

The odd word or phrase in a foreign language adds a piquancy to the narrative, dialogue and atmosphere. But you should check with a mother-tongue speaker or professional translator that vocabulary, grammar and style are correct for the time and place of the story or your credibility as a competent author could be at stake.

Bonne chance!  Viel Glück!  Bona fortuna!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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