Language in books

The ways authors represent foreign languages in their books are interesting. In some cases, they use a different typeface to indicate that a character is speaking a foreign language. The typefaces used sometimes resemble the alphabet normally used to write the language in question. This enables the readers to follow what the characters are saying, while being aware that the other characters in the book can’t do so. In other cases, authors write in the languages themselves and either find some way to provide a translation, possibly as a footnote, or just leave both the readers and the other characters in the dark.

If authors can be reasonably sure that their readers will understand text in another language, they don’t need to provide a translation. This is the case in Welsh and Irish books which often contain snippets of English.

Quite often authors ignore language differences, unless they’re integral to the plot. Somehow characters are able to understand one another even though they speak different languages.

How do authors portray foreign languages in books written in languages other than English?

This entry was posted in Language.

7 Responses to Language in books

  1. jdotjdot89 says:

    I once read an interesting book that was written in English, but from the perspective of someone Chinese. As a result, all of the English in the book was, from the characters’ point of view, Chinese. Then the Chinese people move in with some Americans, and they have to speak English–and so English in the book is differentiated from the “Chinese” by being in italics. So it was quite strange–regular English was Chinese, italic English was English.

  2. AR says:

    Was it by Laurence Yep?

  3. Declan says:

    That is encountered when Irish is encluded in Englich plays, as happens in Translations. Except English is not shown to be any different to translated Irish and it takes a lot of concentration to work out which language it is in.

  4. Podolsky says:

    In Israel knowledge (although incomplete) of English is so widespread that words and sentences in English are found rather often both in newspapers and in books. Quite often English is written in Hebrew letters, which makes one guess, since Hebrew script leaves out some of the vowels.
    Somebody came across ‘duty free’ written in Hebrew letters and asked me what kind a fruit it was: free was written exactly like the Hebrew word PRI which means ‘fruit’.

  5. parkbench says:

    Well, in the case of Japanese, there’s an entire alphabet almost entirely reserved for loanwords–

    ケーキKeeki (Cake – english)
    アルバイト Arubaito (Part-time job – German)
    パン Pan (Bread – Portuguese)
    パソコン Pasokon (PC/Computer – Portmanteau of personal computer, English)

    The majority of these loanwords are from English. But I’ve seen cases, especially in more farcical situations (ie, anime/manga) where entire sentences are spoken in English with this script.

    I also remember reading Tintin as a kid, and the arabic/chinese characters, even if they spoke occasionally in French/Spanish/English (whatever translation you’re reading), they would be stylized to represent foreign speech.

  6. Andrew says:

    In The Stainless Steel Rat series of scifi novels by Harry Harrison, Esperanto is spoken by the citizens of the galaxy, which I think is neat. Usually, the first sentance is spoken in it, then the conversation is in English. Or the characters will use it to obfuscate what their intentions are.

  7. Rita Mentor says:

    In English and American films and TV-shows when the actors do a foreign accent, they almost invariably fail to do anything about their native intonation. Some actors just use a “foreign” R sound and that’s it. Hah hah, I’m not buying it 🙂 And zat eez a fact.

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