I’d like to know how to express that certain portions of dialogue are being spoken in a foreign language. So far I have handled this using italics, but my concern is that large sections of italics would be jarring to the reader. My protagonist is a linguistic anthropologist, so this features heavily in the story.

Thank you for your time and consideration!


Hi JK,

I’m going to assume you’re writing the words in English and then italicizing them to indicate they are actually being spoken in another language. Let me know if you are actually putting foreign language words into the text.

The issue with italics is just that they’re harder to read, and after a while this becomes tiring. The alternative to using italics is just to say a foreign language is being spoken. That would be the default method if it’s only occasional, and it doesn’t require italics in addition. The reason to use italics is that if it happens a lot and is frequently interspersed with English, narrating the language change can become tedious and repetitive. Just using italics takes away that burden.

If you really have whole conversations in a foreign language, I would just narrate when the characters switch languages, but mostly leave it at that. Let readers assume they are still speaking in the same language until the end of the scene, unless you say otherwise. Also, if you’ve established that a character can only speak a certain language, the assumption will become that they are speaking it for every line of dialogue they have. However, you’ll need to remind readers when there are language barriers between characters. If one character is speaking a language that another character in the scene can’t understand, make sure readers know that. If you have the same characters with a language barrier for the whole story, after a while readers will just remember, but it will take a little time.

If for some reason you have lots of back and forth between languages that would be hard to narrate, and it’s important that readers always know whether the character is speaking English or another language, you might see if you could trim down your dialogue a little so you don’t have whole paragraphs of text in italics. Most lines of dialogue should be pretty short, and therefore not too hard to read even if italics is used.

Best wishes for your story!


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