Lola’s Ramblings: Foreign Language in Books

Posted October 20, 2016 by Lola in Lola's Ramblings / 26 Comments


Lola’s Ramblings is a feature on my blog Lola’s Reviews where I ramble on about a book related or a non-book related topic. These are discussion type of posts where I talk about a topic and readers can weigh in on the topic in the comments. Usually these posts are everything that doesn’t fall under any standard header, like tours, cover reveals, memes, challenges, recaps or reviews. Lola’s Ramblings posts are discussions of a certain topic and my point of view on them. The banner for this feature is designed by Michelle from Limabean Designs.

Sometimes I come across a book that contains some phrases in another language, this can be a fantasy or alien language, but most often it’s another real language. Either because the main character is visiting that place or meets someone from another country. I thought it would make for an interesting topic for a Lola’s Ramblings posts to talk about these sort of foreign languages in books. For this post I consider foreign language any language different than the one the book is written in.

Pros and cons for using foreign language

In general I think there are a few things that can be considered good/ positive about using foreign languages in a book: it adds to the feel or brings the setting more alive, having character actually speak another language makes it easier to imagine they are actually in another country or the character in question is actually from another country or planet. On the other hand it also can work counterproductive or turn into something negative. If there is too much foreign language in a book it can get confusing, especially when the reader doesn’t know that language. And how much is too much? I also think that for a reader sometimes foreign language can get you out of the flow of the book, especially with long sentences you struggle to comprehend. An option would be to translate the text. I’ve seen this a few times were the authors wrote multiple sentences in another language and then between brackets wrote the same text in english. But that also feels like it defeats the purpose of using the foreign language in the first place if you are going to translate it all like that and that also gets me out of the book. A better way might be to make it obvious from the context what the text means or have another characters translate it or ask for a translation, but I think this works best with short sentences. So I can see how foreign language in books can be a both positive or negative, depending on how it is handled.

My experience with reading books that use foreign language.

I’ve read quite some books where foreign languages were used and most of those it worked out well. I’ve read a few books were I found the foreign language use excessive or confusing, but most of the books with foreign text I read were done well. I’ll mention a few books I remember reading with foreign language and how they handled it. In February by Audrey Carlan the main character works for a french artist in book 2 and he keeps using french, which the main character doesn’t understand and thus she ask for explanation, which I thought worked well. This way the reader still gets to know what he says and it is in character as the main character doesn’t know french either.
Another author that handled foreign language well is SJ Pajonas in her books she doesn’t translate any of the text, but from the context it’s usually obvious what the meaning is. I don’t know any Japanese, but I’ve watched some anime in the past and that has given me a bit of familiarity with listening to the language, so while I can’t speak it, I still recognize a few words like greetings, apologies and such as those are used often in anime’s.
I also have read sci-fi books were there was some alien language involved, often with endearments or insults. For example Siobhan Davis her Saven series has a few instances with alien language and in most cases you can figure out what it means or even if you don’t know exactly what it means the approximate meaning is clear from the context. There are also scenes were it’s mentioned someone speaks in alien language, which I also think is a good way to handle it. Then the author can mention they speak in another language without having to type it all out.
I also have read one book with a very short dutch sentence, The Legacy Human by Susan Kaye Quinn. I have to admit that reading text in another language you know might the most jarring experience, but it’s also lots of fun as you actually understand the text in the other language. It was only a very short sentence, but I got a bit of a surprise when I realized someone used dutch in a book. I mean you never read a book with dutch words, so that was interesting.

My opinion on foreign language in books

Overall I am okay with authors using foreign languages in their books and even like it most of the time. I feel that using a different language can add to the atmosphere and there are multiple different ways to make sure the reader still understands the meaning, either by translating it, having the characters translate it or by using context to explain the meaning. It’s okay if you don’t know the exact meaning, as long as you get the gist of what someone’s saying. Then again I also think there is such a thing as too much foreign language and it can get overwhelming or challenging when there is too much foreign language. I guess this is another one of those things that just depends on the book and how exactly it is handled, but overall I would say I don’t mind foreign language in books and even would consider it something positive when handled well. I personally mostly read books were the foreign language was done well.

Do you like it when books use foreign language? Have you ever read a book where you knew the foreign language used?


26 responses to “Lola’s Ramblings: Foreign Language in Books

  1. I share your opinion about the pros and cons of foreign language in books. I first encountered this with Agatha Christie’s books when I was a kid. I learned some basic French words and sentences from her books and it helped when I took first year French in school. πŸ˜‰

    But I’ve also read some that were heavy with a foreign language and it was fascinating, but it took me out of the story several times.
    Sophia Rose recently posted…Dragon Detective by Mell Eight #AfternoonDelightMy Profile

    • There definitely are pro and cons with foreign language in books. It really depends on the book which of the two it is.

      That’s interesting you even learned some french language from that Agatha Christie book.

  2. Ok seriously you always come up with the most unique discussion topics, I love it.

    I actually love when there are phrases or words here and there in a foreign language if the book is set in that country or the character is from there or something. I guess that’s one of the few things that I don’t mind breaking the flow of the story for because I think it still adds something. And since I read mostly on my kindle, all I have to do is highlight the text, and it automatically brings up a translation.

    I read two books in one series that were set in France last year or so, and I swear I started learning a few words and phrases in French that were used often lol. Forget them now, of course, but it was really fun for me that there were little bits of French. It also made it easier for me to keep the French accents in my head and to get into the setting.

    So yeah, I approve of using a bit of foreign language, especially if the author is able to find a way to express the meaning in one of the ways you mentioned since I know not everyone reads on a kindle πŸ™‚
    Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight recently posted…Book Review: The Immortal Coil (The Immortal Coil Book 1) by J. ArmandMy Profile

    • Thanks! I am glad you like my discussion topics :).

      I agree that in most cases I think foreign language ads to the book, although I have read a few books were it didn’t work out and got me out of the flow of the book. That is neat your kindle has a highlight function that can translate text. Not sure if my e-reader has that.

      Another person mentioned this as well and that’s an interesting point how coming into contact with a language like that can make you pick up a few words. I watched a lot of anime when younger and even with the english sub titles I still picked up some Japanese phrases and words, not a lot, but it’s still neat how that happens.
      Lola recently posted…Lola’s Ramblings: Foreign Language in BooksMy Profile

  3. I only speak English, except for what I’d describe as ‘tourist French’ so I get annoyed if there are constant bits through the book where I don’t know what they are saying. Having charachters say oui and nod their head makes it obvious what is being said so tiny bits where everyone gets it is ok, but if I buy a book being sold as English, I expect to get that. If I buy a book that claims to be English but has lots of unexplained foreign language I feel cheated as I would never have bought it had I known.
    chucklesthescot recently posted…Book Review: Magic of the Gargoyles by Rebecca ChastainMy Profile

    • I think tiny parts of sentences in another languages are fun, as long as it’s obvious what’s being said either from the context or gestures like nodding their head etc.

  4. What a great topic Lola! I’ve had a variety of experiences with foreign language in books and I think it all comes down to how skillfully the author inserts it. I agree that it can give more life to a foreign scene/character. But it can also confuse and pull you out of the book. I know it pulls me out when I’m reading more than when I’m listening because I can read a lot more languages than I can translate while listening. So if I SEE it, I feel compelled to translate – regardless of how the author handles it. And I’m not 100% fluent, I have to consciously translate. So I’m pulled out. But if I’m listening, I don’t get a chance to get pulled out (unless it’s a language I know by ear, in which case, it’s an easy translation for me and doesn’t pull me out mich) and its smoother for me.
    Berls recently posted…Does your TBR ever make you sad?My Profile

    • I think that’s a good way to sum it u, it all comes down to how skilfully the author inserts the foreign language. It ca really make the setting or world come alive or be confusing, depending on how the language is used.

      That’s so interesting you notice a difference in reading compared to listening. I don’t listen to audiobooks myself, so I never would’ve thought of that. I don’t really have the urge to translate it, unless I know enough of the language to feel like I can translate it?

    • I mostly listed books I read in the last year as I still remembered those. As long as you can figure out the approximate meaning I don’t mind when foreign language is used and it can even add something to the book.

  5. I like it as long as not too much is used. A word or phase here and there and if someone asks the person what it means and they let them know so if they say it again, then we know…it’s better for me. I also like there to be a list of words and phrases and the meaning towards the back of the book.
    Mary Kirkland recently posted…Recipe: Ground Turkey Zucchini PattiesMy Profile

    • That’s also a good way to handle it when they have the meaning at the back of the book, then you can look it up yourself if you want to know the translation. In general as long as it’s obvious what they mean I don’t mind foreign language.

  6. I’m okay with it too for the most part. I’ve only had a couple where it was way overdone or confusing. If used I like for the author to find a way to explain what the foreign words mean. Not for basics that most would know like gracias or what not. But I read one a while back that would have full sentences said and I was like wait, what just happened here? Didn’t quite work there. But other than that I’m good πŸ˜€
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    • I had a few reads like that too were it was overdone and/or confusing, but most books with foreign language handle it well. I prefer to get the gist of what they’re saying when it’s in a foreign language.

  7. RO

    I like it because I’m learning something new and it does make the story seem so much more authentic. I feel the same about movies too. Really great topic!πŸ˜€

  8. I notice sometimes that an author will sprinkle a few foreign words into the story, often fairly well known ones, without going too deep into the actual language, and i always have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand maybe it adds authenticity? But then on the other it seems like oh we’re only going to use 3 words of the foreign language lol?

    I think French and Japanese are two languages I’ve seen this done with. From an early age for example I knew the concept behind the word “gaijin” from comics lol- the author kept emphasizing the foreignness of the character to Japanese culture so they used the word so much. πŸ™‚ So I guess in that sense I learned things.

    This is a great topic. I agree with your pros and cons, I think on balance I like it if it’s authentic. As for fantasy languages, that’s a different animal, those words sometimes are so annoying but Tolkien did an amazing job in Lord of the Rings with his elven language. It’s amazing how that went.
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    • It sure is a difficult line to walk, how much foreign language to use. I agree that using only 3 words can feel lame too, but if they use too much it can get confusing as well.

      French and Japanese are common ones for me too. I picked up a few Japanese words from watching anime, which comes in handy sometimes when reading. I learned a bit of french in school, although I only know the basic things.

      I agree fantasy or alien languages are different. It can be very confusing when there isn’t a dictionary as there is no official translation except for in the author their head. Context is even more important then to understand the meaning.

  9. I actually have not come across a book that had excessive foreign language unless it’s meant to be that way – usually written by a foreign writer. I have noticed a lot of authors mention that characters are talking in a certain language but the dialogue is in english for the readers benefit. Once in a while they will throw in one liners in another language and it just works if done right XD
    Lily B recently posted…A Promise of Fire by Amanda BouchetMy Profile

    • Yes I’ve seen that a few times as well, where it’s mentioned they talk in another language without it being written out. Which also works.

  10. I definitely enjoy it when a foreign language is used in a book, if it makes sense to the story and the plot. But one of my biggest pet peeves is when a foreign language is used, and even with just a couple of sentences, there are huge mistakes. Grammar mistakes, or using the wrong word, or having the word order completely jumbled – those are very easy fixes! Twitter is every author’s friend, and google translate just doesn’t work. It has happened several times that French was used in books I’ve read, and it was completely wrong – and it was supposedly a Parisian speaking.
    So yeah, I enjoy foreign languages in books, but it has to be done right!
    Lexxie @ (un)Conventional Bookviews recently posted…Review: Rebellious – Gillian ArcherMy Profile

    • I agree if foreign language is used it needs to be grammatically correct, there always is the chance that someone who knows that language will read it.
      And google translate sure has led me wrong a few times when I needed to translate something, so definitely don’t trust on that if you want to make sure it’s correct. I think the best bet is to see if the authors know someone who speaks that language and ask them to read your foreign language or book and see if it makes sense.

  11. What a great topic you have here Hun!!! I don’t mind seeing a foreign language in a story especially if it adds more authenticity to it. And as long as it doesn’t overshadow a story it doesn’t pull me away from a story. It can be quite interesting to see how authors implement them in books. I see it most in historical’s but it’s nice when I see them in other genres.

    • Thanks! And I agree that foreign language can really adds authenticity to the story. I haven’t read as many historical’s yet, but I’ve seen foreign language in quite some different genres and it’s always interesting to see how authors handle it.
      Lola recently posted…Review: Pets in SpaceMy Profile

  12. I saw the title of this post and smiled before I clicked though. I had a feeling you’d mention me! I love putting Japanese into my books. At first, I used too much, and had a lot of criticisms over it. I’ve gotten better about it over the years, cutting back to “just enough.” It’s a fun topic! And I enjoy seeing foreign languages in books as well.
    S. J. Pajonas recently posted…Sunday Update – October 23, 2016My Profile

    • Your comment made me smile :). I think you handle the amount of Japanese really well in your books so I had to mention your books. You really bring the setting alive and I always feel like I am visiting Japan when I am reading one of your books and can imagine everything so vividly. And I think the use of Japanese words really helps with that too.
      I can imagine finding the right amount of foreign language to use is very difficult as it’s hard to gauge what is just enough. And it probably differs from person to person as well.

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