What did you say? Foreign languages in English books…

I was looking over feedback from beta readers for my current WIP and came across a question that has simmered in the back of my brain for a while now.  I thought I’d share…

For those of you who have read my latest release, “Blue Notes,” you’ll remember that the majority of the dialogue actually happens in French.  And yes, I speak French and I lived in France, but I would never dream of writing a book in French.  That would be frightening and really embarrassing.  (Understatement of the century.)

In “Blue Notes,” there are French words peppered throughout the narrative and the dialogue.  So, for example, Jules and Jason might be discussing something (in French), but the dialogue would be written in English with a French word or two included, as in, “Would you really show me that?  Vraiment?”  Which led me to a ton of questions about how to write a story where the reader is reading English, but the dialogue is really a translation from a foreign language.

“Blue Notes” was my first novel, and I was so distracted with everything else involved in my first big project that I never really took the time to think about those questions.  With my third novel (my WIP, “The Melody Thief”), I’ve tried to step back and really consider the answers.

The Melody Thief” is in the same series as “Blue Notes.”  “Thief” takes place in Milan, and is the story of Cary Redding, an American cellist, and Antonio Bianchi, an Italian attorney.  Cary is fluent in Italian and, although Antonio’s English is very good, they speak Italian to each other. 

So how does a writer cue the reader in to the fact that the dialogue is in Italian, even though they’re reading it in English?   What works best?  I’m pretty sure there’s no right answer here.  It’s a balance, like everything in life, art and the universe.  And no matter what you do, there will be someone who isn’t wild about it.  Here are some general ideas (not all of which I’ve chosen to use):

First solution:  Include some foreign words in the dialogue.  So, “I want to stay with you.  I love you, Cary,” might become, “I want to stay with you.  Ti amo, Cary.” Or, “Sogni d’oro.  I’ll see you in the morning,” instead of “Sweet dreams.  I’ll see you in the morning.”  You get the idea.

Second solution: Remind the reader through the narrative that the dialogue is in a foreign language.  As in:  “It’s great to see you again, Francesca,” Cary said in Italian.

Third solution:  This one is a bit of a hybrid.  The struggle to remember a word in a second language becomes part of the action.  As in:  “When you called, I was doing”—Cary struggled to remember the Italian word—“sit-ups.”

Fourth solution:  Make it part of the plot, as in, “Cary loved to hear Antonio speak in Italian.” (Well, the original is a bit racier than that….)

Fifth solution:  Have the speech pattern mirror the language that is supposedly being spoken.   I have to admit I hate this one.  Can you imagine reading an entire  book in English with German word order?  Example:  “I have to the store been,” instead of “I went to the store.”  Ack!  French, by the way, doesn’t differ that much from English when it comes to word order.

Sixth solution:  The worst of the bunch, in my opinion… The accent.  How many times have we watched movies where there are French people speaking to each other in English with French accents?  Double ack!  If they’re speaking French in reality, why vood zay sound like zees?

I have had beta readers ask me, “Would they use this expression in French?”  Most of the time, I’ve been able to say, “Yes, they would.”  Many of our expressions are the same.  But is it a problem, then, for Cary to shout something explicit during a sex scene that an Italian might not say?  Hmmm.  Darn good question.  I have to admit I’ve cheated a few times on this one by saying he shouted whatever it was in English.  Or I just don’t say one way or another.

Then there’s the issue of idioms and other expressions.  Do idioms used in “French” dialogue really have to be authentically French?  I don’t think they do.  At the beginning of “Blue Notes,” Jason tells Jules, “I don’t bat for that team,” when Jules flirts with him.  There is no baseball to speak of in France, but a Frenchman with some knowledge of the US would figure it out.  Do you as the reader want to hear the French equivalent written in English?  Not if it knocks you right out of the story, you don’t!

Ultimately, the dialogue has to be both believable and easy to read or readers will hate the book.  You know that feeling when you’re watching a subtitled film and you completely forget you’re reading the subtitles?  That’s what I’m aiming for.  I want to strike a balance so that the entire “question” about language just fades into the background. 

I want you to “hear” the sexy lilt of Italian when Antonio tells Cary, “I love you, baby.  Forever.”  Or maybe,“T’amo, caro.  Sempre.”  




  1. Hayley B. - Reply

    Very interesting post. I don’t like solution six either. That one seems popular in historical mysteries. I understand the need for it sometimes, but I don’t like reading hacked up words as accents.
    I finished up Blue Notes this week and loved the way you handled French for the English audience. I’m looking forward to the others in the series.

  2. annebarwell - Reply

    I’d love to be in to win a copy of Blue Notes – I love stories with music involved.

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