I need some help with something. Got a minute?

I’ve run into a conundrum.  It’s kind of a good conundrum – betas are loving Fire in the Woods… until they get to one point.

I partly expected the responses:

“This is confusing, but if no one else says anything, ignore me.” And “This is distracting.  Is there another way to do this?”

So, this is my problem.  Fire in the Woods is told in “First Person” (the “I” Point of view)

There is a large sequence where people around my main character are speaking another language, and she can’t understand them.  To keep the continuity of the story, I wrote the whole sequence in English.  Then I went back and translated it.

I figured there would be some people who wanted to know what they were saying, so I subtitled it.  I also figured people who wanted to stay in Jess’s confused POV would not even glance at the subtitles.  So far, this seems to be backfiring.

So, this is my question:  How should I handle this scene? I don’t want to keep saying over and over “they spoke in their weird language” or something like that, but I obviously can’t leave in all the foreign dialect.

Have you ever seen something like this done well in a published work?  Have you read a passage where characters are speaking another language, and the POV character doesn’t understand them?

I have an idea what to do, but before I do a lot of work and screw things up, I’d like to see an example of someone doing it WELL.

Any suggestions?



62 responses to “I need some help with something. Got a minute?

  1. I wrote dialogue in an artificial language called Xhovain (started out as Klingon but got changed because of copyright issues). I wrote in in the artificial language with a translation in brackets right after it. No blowback from any readers.
    This tactic kept the weirdness of the language in place but let the reader know what was said. I think its important to translate immediately and not have the reader look at a footnote or wade through a lot of text.


    As she closed, Y-I said, ‘Vitizjit kjullmanto?’ (Xhovain: ‘What do you want death-siren?’).
    She spat out, ‘kJokSuknZjoom’ (Xhovain: ‘Grovelling fool’) as she energised her weapon and made a savage upward sweep to his groin.

    Hope this helps.

  2. Perhaps you could have her get the gist of what they’re talking about through body language and gestures? I would probably keep this scene VERY short if she doesn’t understand anything, because then it wouldn’t be moving the story forward probably. Hope this helps. 🙂

  3. Well since its in first person, if the POV character can’t understand them, I am not sure you can have translations – who is doing the translations. Someone who speaks her language?

    There is a book by Mercedes lackey where the main character leaves his country and goes where he doesn’t know their language and they don’t know his. But there is a horse who speaks in his head so. . . I don’t know if that helps.

    But I have been in situations where I am surrounded by people speaking in a different language. Its frustrating and I think you pay more attention to other things – word sounds, body language, appearance. Stuff like that.

  4. Hi Jennifer –

    You seem to have a speaker frustrated by not being able to understand a conversation irrelevant to the actual story. So instead of concentrating on the conversation, why not describe the speaker’s frustration at the situation?

    Maybe the speaker took (French, German, Spanish) in college but can’t figure out what this language is? Or maybe your speaker took the specific language but does not recall enough of it to get the meaning of the conversation.

    Or maybe your speaker does understand words and phrases (translations) but misses the overall jist?

    And one other thought. Just because you spent time translating the conversation is not a reason to keep the translation. Lots of writing gets thrown away in the editing process.

    Good luck!

    Tim Tobin

  5. I didn’t read every single comment, so I’m sorry if this is redundant. You could type it out as it sounds to the POV. Friends who lived in Indonesia for a while said English Karaoke was very popular. Since most of the locals didn’t understand much English, they just kind of made up semi-familiar English or English-sounding-to-their-ears words to go in the songs. It can make for some very funny moments. Then your character can be confused AND have to hold back laughing, so you can expound on some of the emotional fluxes she feels while trying to be polite (&/or not get killed, depending on the situation).

  6. I understand your dilemma. I’m having the same exact problem in Heart Stone. Aliens meeting humans. (I think this is the problem as i’ve never actually read Fire in the woods). The wealth of miscommunication or lack of non-understanding has been exercising my creativity.

    I’ve had Kelsi s misunderstand what they are saying, she’s s ignored their “muttering.” She’s tuned them out.. let them talk, etc. It’s frustrating to say the least.. I know you are talking French to english Conversion but stil.. 😦

    Remnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon has sign language to human interpretation as does a few of Anne McCaffrey’s books. (Decision on Doona comes to mind) But these aren’t what you are looking for . If I can think of an example.. i’ll try to drag it out..

  7. If you want to be in first person POV, then you need to take us along for the ride if you want us to see through her eyes. Don’t translate it. If it’s important, bring it up later or have their actions display their intent. I wouldn’t even put the foreign words in there, or I’d minimize them. Again, if its first person, she’s going to have trouble understanding what the sounds ever are most likely. Take us along for the ride. If she’s confused, we need to be confused as well.
    Working on a new book myself that will be first person, so I can relate to some of the difficulties therein.

    • I’m so excited you are working on something new! Same world? Good luck!

      • No, not the same world, though the stories do touch at one point. Same Multiverse I guess. This is from my Kitsune series that originally got me writing and then went to the backburner when BtB ate my life up. I’m taking a step back from BtB and purging my brain of this one in the meantime. It’s actually going quite well. The couple beta reads I had of the first few chapters were all very positive, and this story is flowing much much easier than BtB. Perhaps because it’s less “personal” in a way. Knocked out about 20+ chapters and 50k in a couple weeks (was slow at work), but approaching climax now and haven’t had time to give needed focus to it due to rl. Still yeah, feels good to get the weight of this one off my brain 😀 Writing it in a journal format almost, first person, as if she were dictating her memories for a recording.

  8. Personally I would note that they spike for a long time in a language she did not understand, maybe noting if she catches a word or two. Then on my website put a page with both texts.

    • I’m definitely keeping the translated version… Especially since I put so much effort in it.

      • That’s why I’d put it in an appendix or on the web. Many readers would be out out by having it in the principal text if its more than one or two sentences long. Think of it like this, even Tolkien didn’t put long passages in foreign languages in his text and he lived for that stuff. Personally? I’d love to read the text in both languages and thus learn a bit about the languages and cultures. But most readers wouldn’t.

  9. Do your readers need to know what is being said? Then don’t translate. Keep it as mysterious to the reader as it is to the character.

  10. If the narrator understands the language, I would italicize it, which I’ve seen in several books. If not, you might just want to summarize (e.g. Tell readers they’re speaking in French but don’t tell us what they’re saying. Just explain the body language).

  11. For me, you answered your own question in your response to Julie. If “Jess doesn’t understand”, how can she possibly differentiate one word from another in order to even put the words on the page? I suggest you show her trying to interpret the meaning of the babble from gestures and facial expressions, maybe toss in a word or two that she may have picked up. Otherwise, omit the foreign language all together. Isn’t the important thing Jess’s response to her confusion, not the actual language that causes her confusion? If Jess doesn’t get it, neither can the reader. The last thing you want is confusion in your reader who just might chuck the book against the wall.

  12. I was going to go with the small inserts of foreign verbage, but that’s covered here already. I look forward to hearing about the solution…

  13. Is it possible that your POV character might know a few of the foreign words, and she can repeat, in frustration, enough to give the reader an idea of the context? If the reader really needs to know. Did that make sense? I agree with keeping the long block of foreign language to a minimum. I use foreign language in my book, but my heroine might add one or two words to her sentence, and if it’s a whole sentence, I have the person she is speaking to repeat it, or put it in a question. For instance, if her father will say good luck in Italian, she will repeat with, Good luck? Why do you wish me good luck? Or something like this. Also be careful of using an online translator, because if it doesn’t use the correct wording as it should be used, readers who can read that language will know. I check with multiple translators, like Google, Italian dictionary, Dictionary.com and finally an Italian friend.

  14. Name of the rose bored me to tears. Must have been all that Latin. I’d say keep any foreign language to a minimum.

  15. The character in my story is thrown into a foreign culture, but she has a translator help her through, for the most part. There were times when she was only with one of the characters from the other culture and it was dealt with by gestures, mostly. My 1st person character was being taught a certain task, so she had to observe every action her teacher showed her. I don’t know if that helps at all, it’s just the way I dealt with a similar situation.

  16. I agree with the others to translate it would be wrong if the narrator doesn’t understand the reader doesn’t need to either but if there are any key point which need to be understood maybe your narrator could speculate on them based on hand gestures

  17. I would avoid writing long passages in a foreign tongue as that will make the reader lost and maybe frustrated. I agree that if the story is in First Person, we – the readers – should feel as confused as the narrator.

    One way to do this might be to have like one sentence or fragment of a sentence in the foreign tongue and then retreat into your protagonist’s head to showcase her frustration – or whatever she’s feeling – at not being able to understand them.

    Just a thought and hope this helps!

  18. Best-Selling Romance Author, C.L. Lewis handles this brilliantly in her Tairen Soul series. Here is a link to one of her books in pdf. on her website: http://www.clwilson.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/TS_Lord-of-the-Fading-Lands.pdf. Read from the 1st para to the end. She also has a “Fey” glossary in the back of her books so people can refer back to certain words to know what they mean. I really liked the way the translation was done in this (and her other) books; however, with such huge chunks of text that you have in your story, I’m wondering if the reader really need to hear all of it. Is there a way you can have Jess hear the foreign language and then have her listen for several minutes as David and his dad continue a heated argument? At the end, David can turn to her and give her a brief rundown of what just transpired? She can look in his eyes, he can look in hers. There’s a beautiful passing of understanding, maybe tears, maybe a beg from Jess not to go as he explains what needs to be done? Just a thought

  19. I haven’t read anyone else’s ideas but in my opinion if the story is told in first person from Jess’s POV, and Jess doesn’t understand what the people are saying then the reader shouldn’t understand them either. leave it at that. Maybe pad it out with Jess’s frustration at not being able to understand. Other than that, I’m afraid I don’t know.
    On the other hand if the reader needs to know what was said and you can’t convey that via a character who doesn’t know…
    You could always tread the dangerous line of mixing 1st and 3rd person and sprinkle some more 3rd person throughout the rest of the novel as appropriate so this bit doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Depends how much detail you want the reader to be privy to, and not Jess.

  20. I think I would go back to basics here with the old ‘show don’t tell’ thing, so rather than tell us what was being said, show us some of the key bits in other ways, and it doesn’t have to be everything. I can’t think of any particular books right now, but there are times in movies where people speak in another language, just briefly, and it isn’t subtitled or anything, sometimes it might just be an exchange between a shop keeper and a customer or something like that, and unless we speak the language, then we don’t understand what was said, but we accept that it doesn’t matter because it’s not key to the plot. I would say that in your book, it’s fine for the reader to experience some of the same confusion as the character if we are seeing the world through her eyes anyway.

  21. I can’t think right now of a book or story where I’ve seen this done. I’ll let you know if I do. But I think it’s important for the reader to be just as clueless about what’s being said as the character. Let the character try to figure it out, pick up on body language, gestures, tone of voice, etc. It makes the tension that much greater. Imagine how you would feel, what you would do in that situation. Perhaps act it out with someone and see what bubbles up?

  22. Robert Gregory

    I think it comes down to what you want out of the story. Is it suspenseful? If so, screw ’em all – don’t translate. Like Alexandra mentioned, maybe drop hints to what’s going on language-wise through different mediums and maybe even through the demeanor of the people who are speaking the foreign language. Not sure I can provide much help more than this… It seems like a huge, tough bear to have to battle in a story and I personally hate bears in my stories! If It doesn’t just practically create itself, it will get very little effort from me lol. (Sounds lazy and maybe it is – but luckily I write for simply pleasure and not much else lol.) Anyway, yeah, if you want undertones of suspense, make it suspenseful throughout. Or, (this may not translate well no pun intended when it comes time to print, but) you could say it once “they said in their weird language” then do it in a heavier bold type each time they speak it. The reader would catch on (hopefully!) that each bold print would be then talking in their native tongue.

  23. It’d bug me too … how about making it obvious to the reader what’s being said but not to Jess … Jess’s internal dialogue expressing her confusion and the ‘foreign language’ remaining in English but in italics, or a ‘foreign’ looking font, or bolded, or something that is a visual clue/cue as to what’s going on … and is ONLY used for that purpose. (e.g. if you use italics for internal dialogue you’d have to come up with something else)

    I can’t recall exactly where I’ve seen this done, (dratted brain filing system!) but it works well.

    • That’s an interesting idea, but in first person wouldn’t it feel like they were speaking English with an accent then?

      • It would depend on how you write Jess’s reactions to it, I think. Can she be all, “WTF are they talking about in that foreign language?”
        Something else to try … use different formatting tricks to bracket the foreign conversation/dialogue ..
        **She doesn’t understand a thing we say**
        **Yes, my evil Overlord. But if she ever finds out, we’re in deep doo-doo**
        (coupled with Jess’s internal dialogue) … I had no idea what they were saying, but when I found out, they were in deep doo-doo … (assuming you’re writing the piece in past tense)

        Of course, it won’t be that obvious, but is that clearer?

        Also, I think that if the foreign language dialogue is sufficiently visually different from Jess’s native tongue,, the reader will ‘get’ it.

        Run it by your betas … or put an excerpt up here … what’s the worst that can happen? …. Bwhahahahaha

  24. Is there a another character that can tell the main character what is being said. E.g. “so-and-so told me later that they said ‘blah’ but at the time they could have been speaking nonsense for all I understood.”

  25. I agree with part of the post above – I wouldn’t translate but then could have either one of the aliens or a witness translate earlier. It’s a bit of a cliche but cliches sometimes work …..that’s why they’re cliches.

  26. I have never written a book but can imagine the scene…Is this conversation in the foreign language an important fact in the plot of your story?, because if it is, I’d take advantage of ignoring the language and create more suspense with it maybe working slowly towards a translation of the few words the character caught if only the phonetics of them and mix in some clues in the scenery, signs on buildings, newspaper headlines that would remind her of the conversation and start connecting the pieces… I went on and on and maybe your story has nothing to do with suspense…of course if it really isn’t relevant to the story but just something that makes the character uncomfortable then I’d leave it as is and work on the character’s curiosity towards the language stemmed off from this conversation… Does this make any sense? Hope this helps a bit! This was fun 🙂 thanks Alexandra

    • Thanks for commenting. This conversation is vital to the story and there is a lot of stress and anticipation in the scene.

      • I’d keep the foreign language! And take advantage of the tension it creates…of course maybe that’s because I’m bilingual and have no problem with reading another language…if I were the reader, I’d try to translate the text just to know or even maybe avoid translating and keep reading until the main character does…

  27. Julie Catherine

    The article I left you the link for has some other suggestions that might work very well for you … sorry, I forgot to mention that … lol.

  28. I can’t offer any helps to you of examples. I know as a writer, I wanted to write in the foreign language and then just italicize the English translation right after. But as a reader, I don’t always appreciate this. It’s gobbledygook to me and gets annoying if there’s too much. I guess if someone actually speaks the other language, they might appreciate snippets of it in the story, but otherwise, all your English readers are probably like me and skimming over the foreign to get to what they understand. I would say do a word here and there in the foreign tongue to ‘remind’ your reader that the person is speaking foreign, but since we’re English readers, keep it mostly in English. That’s just me. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say about it.

  29. Julie Catherine

    Hi Jennifer, I googled to see if I could find out anything for you. This is an excerpt from a website I found. (Here is the link for you: http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/cabbage.shtml)
    6. Write long passages in the foreign tongue; translate nothing. Okay, this is not a method I condone as a writer. Or appreciate as a reader. But it’s precisely what Umberto Eco does. The author of The Name of the Rose regularly includes in his books passages written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek — and offers no translations. Of course, he is Umberto Eco, world-famous author and scholar, and he can pretty much do what he wants in print — but I always find myself frustrated by his indifference to those of us who don’t speak all the languages he does. For example, he ends the introduction to his famous book with a quotation in untranslated Latin: “In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.”

    I hope this helps?

    • Thanks Julie. This is actually a great article for anyone writing a book in English that infers that the characters are speaking another language. I actually have seen one of these ideas used really well in Talbot’s Ploy by Kastil Evenshade. But in this case all he characters were speaking French. But you are reading them in English. My problem is that Jess doesn’t understand–so nothing should be conveyed but odd words and her confusion.