20 March 2011

Using Foreign Languages in Dialogue

by Carrie Bailey

Writing dialogue challenges some writers, bores others to tears and sometimes sinks an otherwise publish-worthy manuscript. The reasons are too numerous to mention, but the right phrase, carefully crafted, may be remembered and repeated ad nauseam-often by teenage boys.

Try this. Here's four phrases...

A) "Hasta la vista baby."

B) "Please Sir, can I have some more?"

C) "You talking to me? Well, I'm the only one here."

D) "I am a Jew. Hath a Jew not eyes?"

Can you identify the character or media associated with them?

1) Taxi Driver

2) Oliver Twist

3) Shylock

4) Terminator

Without having seen the movies or read the books or plays, most people have not only heard these lines repeated, but have at least a vague understanding of the context within which they occurred. That is the power of great dialogue.

Now, we're properly convinced on the power of dialogue in every form of writing...I want to draw attention to one aspect where the most heinous literary crimes are committed regularly by well meaning writers: foreign language usage in dialogue. The mastery of writing accents greatly enhances any manuscript when done well, but accents are not the same as the use of a foreign language in dialogue. Accents and the perception of them by the listener depend on who is perceiving them.

For example:

@soulwindow from Twitter will occasionally tweet something to the effect of "I'm finna git..." Which is Southern American for "I'm fixing to get..." and translated into Northwestern American (as I speak) would be "I'm planning to go get..." 

The accent is the distinction between how the words sound and how they're spelled. Accents in dialogue are a largely sloppy and creative area of writing open to reinvention with a glorious history of being fair game for those with little concern about spelling and grammar. Its the domain where all rules are suspended and the only thing that matters is the effect.

That does not apply to the use of foreign language. This is my point. Nothing will cause a reader to drop a book faster than reading a character whose use of a foreign language fails to convince. I know. I've dropped a few paperbacks and stomped on them for this offense.

For example:

"I've got to get back to the store before nightfall," said Sam scratching the dried paint chips from his leather jacket.

"Yeah, I have to go back to mi casa, amigo. My younger boys will be waiting for me to cook them some huevos rancheros," Jorge replied.
Learning a foreign language is a beautiful thing, but not when a writer cuts and pastes the few words they know into otherwise perfectly standard English. This is a crime and an offense to reader's intelligence. It is bad writing. It is my pet peeve and worthy of having your book burned. Yes, I feel strongly about it...

There's no short cut to authentic foreign language dialogue. When it comes to writing characters whose first language is not English, bilingual characters or even regional dialects, proper research is indispensable. When in doubt, leave it out...por favor.


  1. True. I try to use only the "universal" foreign words when my "less than perfect" English speakers are on the page. (If they spoke no English, it would be ridiculous to try to write their dialogue). And I run it by native speakers as well, just to make sure I haven't messed up with things like gender.

    My preferred approach would be to tell the reader the character said it in Spanish rather than try to write it out, or to make it clear with another character's reaction or line of dialogue, or something that indicates the meaning to the reader.

    For example:

    “Sugar, tell me what happened. Nobody’s going to hurt you.” She blinked her big, brown eyes but said nothing. He swore under his breath and repeated his question in Spanish.

    “My wife,” he said. “Nancy. Where is my wife? ¿Donde está mi esposa?” He shoved the revolver into his pocket and brought out a wallet. Holding it open, he pointed, handed it to the man. “Mi esposa. Nancy.”

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. That's an excellent technique to use foreign languages without being unauthentic...

    I think I might just have to try it myself. I've so far been avoiding them :).

  3. Some of the best dialogue in books I've read are in Steinbeck. I couldn't quote from memory, but I'm sure the people just sounded so real, unforced, and each sentence was true to their character in the story. Great art. Jealous, me? Of Steinbeck, Absolutely.