I'm writing a story and I'm having a bit of trouble with styling conversations that take place in another language. I want the reader to be privy to this conversation, so it has to be communicated in English somehow. I've considered a few styles but I'm at a bit of a block.

Here are the styles I've considered:

  1. Direct quote, in original script: Useless if the reader doesn't know the language, which in my case, they definitely wont.
  2. Direct quote, in transliterated script, translation in footnotes: I do this for the first couple of sentences to introduce the fact that they're not speaking English, but this really makes the story unreadable for large amounts of dialogue.
  3. Translated sentence, in unquoted italics: This is what I've been using since it acknowledges that the translation alters what they're saying and introduces inaccuracies/idioms/colloquialisms. However, in long exchanges it doesn't look like speech.
  4. Translated sentence, in quotes: Flows most naturally and is what the reader is accustomed to, but I'm against quoting specifically because that's not what they're actually saying.
  5. Passive speech (e.g.:"Foo asked Bar about Baz."): I'm also against this because it's hard to develop a character when it's entirely up the reader how the dialogue unfolds.

Is there a preferred style to how this is done?

  • 1
    Quoted italics seems to be the standard for this sort of thing, at least in my experience. (Unquoted italics is for nonverbal exchanges, e.g. telepathy.) The first time a character starts jabbering in the foreign language, you may want to explicitly describe what is happening: "'Pasdfwefa seaf woieh,' he said in Jabberwockese. 'Yasdfw poiu woeiu.'"
    – Marthaª
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 2:01

2 Answers 2


This is really just a comment but it's too long for a comment.

This is a complicated question and probably will either get closed as off-topic or elicits opinions or whatever. The best place to ask this question is probably Writers StackExchange where you'll get responses from people who have had to do this before. Do a search for "foreign language" first, there are quite a few questions with answers similar to yours.

Saying that I'll slip in my own thoughts here.

If the use of the language is pervasive (think Clockwork Orange and Nadsat) then it has to be written in 'english' letters and be understandable in context (or people will think your writing is completely yarbles).

If the language is used infrequently then you might get away with simply making sure the person who does speak English repeats the phrase sort of like (I'll do this in Tamil because not many people can read in Tamil) I asked him what he thought of my plan. "முற்றிலும் நாய் மலம்" he replied. I was taken aback slightly and raised my voice more than I should have, "What do you mean it's dog shit". In this case it's clear he's speaking another language but few people will even be able to guess at the noise he made saying it, but you confirm what it was he said by repeating it. To make it easier for readers you could change to a phonetic version something like mutrilum nigh malaam but now you've lost the actual script (which might be important in your story).

If you don't need your readers to understand the language, use it sparingly in the first few uses and provide a translation (either by repeating like above or as per your number 4) after that have the foreign language speakers speak in English but occasionally maybe let them use 'foreign' interjections that ought to be known to the reader (by now) just to remind the reader that they are actually talking in a foreign language.

The Writers StackExchange will probably tell you I'm talking utter chepooka!

  • Ah, I even looked for a writers SE before posting this but it wasn't in the grid. Oversegmentation has always been my biggest sour note with this site.
    – BB ON
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 22:05

I would suggest 4), with the inclusion of an italicised word or two (or a short phrase) in the other language now and again just to indicate that the dialogue is not actually taking place in English, even though you are presenting the rest of the speaker's dialogue as though it was. For example:

Martin edged towards the low mantelpiece and set his elbow on it. He stared at Qalbuza, wondering how a creature that had such bushy and luxuriant eyebrows could take itself at all seriously.

The alien blinked and stared back at Martin. "Pasdfwefa seaf woieh," it remarked, "Your neck is very spindly. Doesn't that big ugly lump of meat and bone that sits on the end of it bounce around every time you move your body?"

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