1. How do you show a foreign term followed by its translation? Is the foreign term placed in quotation marks with its translation italicized or the other way around? Style guides favor but don't always require the foreign word to be in italics.

  2. What if the foreign word is a quotation? Would you need italics and quotation marks? If so, how would you punctuate the subsequent translation, with parentheses?

  3. Absent the obligation to follow a specific style guide, should a writer just decide on an approach that is logical, easily understood and stick with that?


  • "Cloaca Maxima" greatest sewer


  • Cloaca Maxima "greatest sewer"
  • 5
    This aspect of orthography isn't really "fixed" for the English language. It all depends on which particular style guide you're following. If you're not obliged to follow a specific style guide, write it however you like (but bear in mind that in a cursive / handwritten context you'd be hard-pressed to indicate italics). Personally I probably wouldn't bother with typefaces or quote marks - I'd just write the foreign word followed by the English equivalent in brackets. But I might put that English equivalent in "scare quotes" if it was an unusual / interesting "literal translation". Oct 30, 2022 at 21:25
  • I think you are right, FumbleFingers. (Love your user name.) In my context, I will probably go with the foreign word in italics followed by the translation in quotation marks, although I still need to think about a foreign word that is also a quotation. I'll just do my best to keep it simple and consistent. Thank you for your good thoughts on the matter, much appreciated. Oct 30, 2022 at 22:34
  • @FumbleFingers It’s trivial in a handwritten context: you underline it so that your publisher knows to set that bit in italic. If not destined for movable type, you can still do that, but you could also alternate between an unconnected hand ("printing" as young children call it) for the main text as though it were roman and a connected cursive "script" hand for the italic ("writing" as young children call it) bits.
    – tchrist
    Oct 31, 2022 at 0:46
  • I stand by my closevote (it's a stylistic choice / matter of opinion). Note that Google Books doesn't index punctuation marks and we don't know if they might have used italics in the dead tree editions, but the first 10 results all have Cloaca Maxima, followed by greatest sewer” in brackets (capitalised in 2 cases). There are 6 instances of (single or double) quotes round the bracketed element. Any or all the remaining 4 may have been italicised. Oct 31, 2022 at 1:40

2 Answers 2


How do you show a foreign term followed by its translation? Is the foreign term placed in quotation marks with its translation italicized or the other way around?

It is fairly common to

  1. italicize foreign terms (as you note),
  2. put the translated term inside paired punctuation,1 and
  3. put the translated term into quotation marks, since it is being "mentioned".

For example:

According to that book, the Cloaca Maxima ("greatest sewer") was a marvel of ancient engineering.2

What if the foreign word is a quotation? Would you need italics and quotation marks?

If you've been italicizing foreign terms and are now quoting one that wasn't originally italicized, you can leave it in regular type. If you do italicize quoted text, then it is common to include a note saying something like "italics mine" or "italics not in original".3

If so, how would you punctuate the subsequent translation, with parentheses?

There would ideally be no difference from how you'd punctuate a non-quoted translation. Of course, you'd need to quote accurately, so if the translation wasn't in the original, then that would need to be clear to the reader. For example, if you were using brackets for editorial insertions:

According to that book, "the Cloaca Maxima ["greatest sewer"] was a marvel of ancient engineering."

Absent the obligation to follow a specific style guide, should a writer just decide on an approach that is logical, easily understood and stick with that?

You should always write with your goal in mind. If you're simply trying to communicate information to your audience, then write in a way that is clear, concise, consistent, etc. Style guides help you do that. If you aren't following one, then you'll have to manage those issues yourself. (I'm not providing a fuller answer to this because it's not specifically related to the rest of the question.)

1 It may be considered as a nonrestrictive appositive (or other structure, since terminology varies), which normally gets set off by paired punctuation.

2 Paired dashes and commas are also possible, though less common.

3 CMOS says, "When it is desirable to call attention to a certain word or words in material being quoted, such words may be set in italics (underlined in manuscript). The reader should be told when this has been done." (14th edition, section 10.67)


Before I show you some concrete recommendations from reputable bodies, I’d like to present one paragraph from the third chapter of Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style to better set the stage explaining how we got to where we are with our constant interplay between roman and italic in print.

Italic and roman lived quite separate lives until the middle of the sixteenth century. Before that date, books were set in either roman or italic, but not in both. In the late Renaissance, typographers began to use the two for different features in the same book. Typically, roman was used for the main test and italic for the preface, headnotes, sidenotes and for verse or block quotations. The custom of combining italic and roman in the same line, using italic to emphasize individual words and mark specific classes of information, developed in the sixteenth century and flowered in the seventeenth. Baroque typographers liked the extra proved so useful to editors and authors that no subsequent change of typographic has ever driven it entirely away. Modulation between roman and italic is now a basic and routine typographic technique, much the same as modulation in music between major and minor keys.

Here are some of those style recommendations for modulations in the case of foreign terms.

With pen and ink

In documents written with pen and ink, you can switch into a hand that’s different from the one you’re using for the main text, such as by using an unconnected hand (“printing” in the language of schoolchildren) combined with a cursive hand (“writing” in the language of schoolchildren) for the material on which you wish to place special emphasis.

Or vice versa, as it doesn’t really matter which paired hands you choose provided they’re distinct from each other.

At your typewriter

In typewriter copy, as in non-calligraphic handwritten copy, the custom is to underline anything you would set in italic if you could. When you get your typeset copy back from the printer, it will have been converted with that understanding in mind.

On the web

In his fine book on Practical Typography, Matthew Butterick writes this in his section on italic:

Foreign words used in English are sometimes italicized, sometimes not, depending on how common they are. For instance, you would italicize your bête noire and your Weltanschauung, but neither your croissant nor your résumé. When in doubt, consult a dictionary or usage guide. Don’t forget to type the ᴀᴄᴄᴇɴᴛᴇᴅ ᴄʜᴀʀᴀᴄᴛᴇʀꜱ correctly.


The Chicago Manual of Style makes this recommendation:

[7.49] Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.

That’s muddy enough, yet that is hardly all Chicago have to say about it. Their rules 6.93, 11.6, and 14.109 also touch on this matter. Their overall directions on this remain no better than fuzzy.


As is par for the course, the Associated Press Stylebook gives ungraceful directions fit only for a manual typewriter. They would see nothing but quotation marks to enclose the foreign term followed by its definition in the body of the text with no further adornment.

I would not use the AP style guide for anything unless you paid me to. A lot.


The OED always sets “mentions” in italic, such as you find in a word’s etymology section. They then follow that with the translation set in roman if needed. Here’s the one for your cloacae maximae:

Inflections: Plural cloacæ, cloacas.
Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin cloāca.
Etymology: < classical Latin cloāca (also clouāca, cluāca) underground drain, sewer, in post-classical Latin also privy (from 13th cent. in British sources), cavity in certain animals (1651 in the passage translated in quot. 1653 at sense 2a) < cluere to purify (< the same Indo-European base as lutter adj.) + -āca, suffix forming nouns.

The Economist

The Economist Style Guide says to put the translation in parens if need be:

foreign languages and translation

Occasionally, a foreign language may provide the mot juste. But try not to use foreign words and phrases unless there is no English alternative, which is unusual. So:

  • a year or per year, not per annum
  • a person or per person, not per caput or per capita
  • beyond one’s authority, not ultra vires

(See also italics.)

translating words and phrases

If you want to translate a foreign word or phrase, even if it is the name of a group or newspaper or party, just put it in brackets without inverted commas, so:

  • Arbeit macht frei (work makes free)
  • jihad (struggle)
  • Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
  • Pravda (Truth)
  • zapatero (shoemaker)


foreign words and phrases should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be in roman. For example:

ad hoc bourgeois
apartheid café
a priori coup d’état (but coup de
a propos foudre, coup de grâce)
avant-garde de facto, de jure
bona fi de dirigisme
elite parvenu
en masse, en route pogrom
grand prix post mortem
in absentia putsch
in situ raison d’être
machismo realpolitik
matériel status quo
nom de guerre vice versa
nouveau riche vis-à-vis

Set in italics:

cabinet (French type) loya jirga
dalits Mitbestimmung
de rigueur pace
jihad papabile
glasnost perestroika
in camera Schadenfreude
intifada ujamaa

Remember to put appropriate accents and diacritical signs on all foreign words in italics (and give initial capital letters to German nouns when in italics, but not if not). Make sure that the meaning of any foreign word you use is clear. See also accents.

For the Latin names of animals, plants, etc, see spelling


Seeing that there are so many style standards, if it’s up to you then you should just pick whatever style makes sense to you and stick with that.

If it’s not up to you, you should just do whatever they force you to do.

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