The Vengeful Polyglot

When Being Called a Fangirl isn’t a Compliment: How to Use Foreign Language(s) in Your Fic Appropriately

Posted on: April 8, 2011

One of the greatest parts of being part of fandom is coming into contact with such a diverse group of people. There are people representative of all origins, all walks of life, and all skill-sets – truly a sampling platter of what a variety of people there are in the world. One of my favorite things, personally, is meeting people of different cultural backgrounds, and people who speak foreign languages. It’s fascinating, especially if it’s a language you’ve been interested in studying. It’s especially wonderful if you can help each other – I had a German pen-pal I would beta for and swap English tips with in exchange for her teaching me some really nifty German swear words. People of different origins from yours can be great assets as friends and serve as a wealth of interesting information.

Being that fandom is so diverse, especially in terms of what language we all speak, understandably there is a semi-prevalent use of other languages, secondary languages, in fanfic. However, sometimes this is done less-than-ideally and so I’d like to offer some tips about how to incorporate foreign languages into a fic in an appropriate manner.

First off, two of the most important things to consider when thinking about including a secondary language into your fic, regardless of the primary language you’re writing in, are your intended audience and the canon characterization of your main character.

In terms of audience, do you expect most of your readers to understand the language you’re interspersing with the primary one? Does the site you are publishing on have an international focus, and/or are most of the users of said site multi-lingual? If not, you should think long and hard about using another language, especially if your intent is to translate only sparsely and to use the secondary language very often. Encountering large blocks of un-translated text in a language the reader doesn’t know can be jarring and frustrating for them, and can even sometimes make them feel stupid – that’s something you never want your fic to do. Remember that you are writing to a specific audience depending on where you publish and in what manner you publish; keep your audience in mind when you write, especially when considering dealing with language in a print-only media such as fanfiction – language is everything when the entirety of your product is read. There isn’t any other context, such as imagery, to draw conclusions from about what is going on. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other important consideration is the one I think is usually over-looked: the characterization of the character you’re currently thinking of having speak another language. Why would your character be speaking in this other language? Even if your character is foreign-born or has some other means of knowing another language in the source material, do they actually use words from their other language often in canon? Do other characters understand them, if they do? Always take care to think about these things before using another language in your character’s dialogue or thoughts; explain why the character is using these words which the reader may not be familiar with, and always take pains to translate or otherwise make their meaning known. There are some exceptions to this which I’ll mention later on, but by and large it’s a good thing to keep in mind. Don’t forget to consider the characterization of other characters, as well – do they understand what is said, or think that this use of other vocabulary which they may not be knowledgeable about is odd?

If based on your audience and your character’s behavior in canon it seems like using another language in your fic would be well-received and add something to your story, there are still a couple of decisions you need to make about how you want to react to the setting of your story. Where is your story set? Is it set in a place where the primary language your story is written in is not spoken? If so, don’t automatically decide that peppering your description or dialogue with the language spoken there would be a good idea. Generally in that case, the “spoken” language used in dialogue is implied to be the one typically spoken in the specified locale, regardless of the language in which the fic is written. The actual language “spoken” is irrelevant – state it in your description, provide context, and the reader will assume that when characters speak it is in the “intended” language (unless specified otherwise) even if you’re not writing in it. There’s not necessarily a need to put in various words from that language into your fic. For instance, if entire story is set in Japan, why throw in Japanese words when all of the dialogue is theoretically in Japanese? This can be confusing for the reader, at times.

There are times, however, when adding another language to your fic can add depth and vitality instead of just confusion. There are two main situations in which I believe incorporating another language can allow your fic to be more realistic and immersive for the effort.

The first is when describing interactions between two characters who actually don’t speak the same language, or when a character is abroad in a place where they are not familiar with the native tongue. In this case, the reader won’t be thrown out of the mood of the story by the inclusion of another language because the element of confusion set up by doing so is part of the mood. In this instance (and this is likely the only time you will ever hear me say this), it is sometimes best not to directly translate! Sometimes it is better to have the character act as confused as you would if someone started speaking at you in a foreign language, or to have the character try to puzzle together what is going on from context, maybe arriving at the right conclusion and maybe not. The point of deliberately including this uncertainly into your fic is to have the character feel confused so the reader doesn’t have to – that way the other language fits in the story, misunderstandings and all, and the reader won’t be thrown for a loop; the character’s confusion excuses their own and allows them to continue reading without feeling stupid.

The other time using another language can be fitting, if the language is already deemed canon-appropriate, is while your character is swearing, name-calling, using endearments, or some honorifics. Used sparingly and translated directly (or made incredibly clear by context) by characters who, in canon, might use them, these are okay exceptions to use in fics. I don’t recommend using honorifics except when the “theoretical” language your story is written in is Asiatic in origin; in this case it is generally non-disruptive and can add a lot to characterization, not to mention it is, for whatever reason, incredibly well received by the community. Otherwise, if your character is fluent in whatever language they are supposedly speaking, it can be implied that they are using the correct honorifics – just use the ones provided in the primary language you’re writing in and your readers will understand just fine. Every language has a way of speaking rudely or politely; you don’t need to stick in bits of another language to get that across, just go for the approximate equivalent in the primary language you’re writing in.

What I have found to be the golden rule of incorporating a secondary language into a fanfic is, as I’ve already stated: always translate. Your readers will thank you for the added clarity, trust me. Everyone likes to see exotic words where they are appropriate, but we hate having to guess what they mean. I would also seriously recommend that if you are planning on putting text in your fic in another language, that you translate in-text instead of using footnotes or other non-incorporated means of explaining what is being said – having to scroll up and down the page every five sentences is very trying for a reader and kicks them out of the flow of the story.

On the topic of translating, please don’t use online translators such as Babelfish. They are very rarely correct, and if you simply must use one, only use it for one word at a time, if that. Additionally, don’t just translate a sentence word-by-word and then stick it in organized like it would be in the primary language you’re writing in – it won’t translate correctly. Most languages have rules about sentence construction, and they’re usually not the same as the ones used in the language you’re writing in. The second unwritten rule of using another language is if you aren’t fluent yourself, ask someone who is, and don’t just guess. Guessing never turns out well for anyone. Always run the secondary language bits in your fic past someone who can beta in that language to make sure there are no problems.

Of course, like any guide on writing, there are exceptions to some of the suggestions I’ve put forth. Generally, it’s completely fine to use foreign words in your fic if they are names of people or things. You are, in fact, strongly encouraged to do so. It’s considered rather rude, for instance, to change a character’s name because it doesn’t “fit” with the primary language of your fic unless it’s impossible for the name to be understood otherwise and the alternate version you are choosing is supported either by canon or the community at large. The names of things, places, foods, etcetera, are named in that language for a reason, and usually indicate the country of origin; translating them (to a level more than, say, Romanization) would not make sense. These things have beautiful names, use them and enjoy them. No one will call you out for saying “duck l’orange” in your fic, that’s just what it’s called. Don’t sweat using another language in that way.

Last but not least, as with most things, go for quality over quantity. Even if it is appropriately used, too much of a good thing isn’t a good for anyone. Use your secondary language sparingly and to its greatest effect – a good beta can certainly help you out with choosing which places make the most impact.

So finally, good luck to you in all of your multi-lingual endeavors from your friendly, neighborhood language enthusiast!


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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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