How Do You Handle Foreign Languages in Books?

Asking the audience this time. Often when I’m writing, the characters I’m dealing speak more than one language. In Don’t Go to Sleep, Gia and Enzo are both Italian, so there’s no going around it: they’re going to speak Italian at some point. (Likely even more often than I portray in the book.) My approach to date has been to put the foreign words and sentences in exactly as they would say them.

(I used to italicize them, to denote it was a foreign word, but I stopped that when a friend pointed out it made those words too . . . “other.” When I was over in Germany as a missionary, I often peppered German into my speech when I was talking in English. When I did that, it wasn’t as if the word was said with an outrageous German accent. It was just a word like any other word. Italics make it feel like the speaker is changing how they’re speaking, when really, they’re just speaking. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but it makes sense to me, so . . .)

However, I’ve read some responses to the book where people got really frustrated, because they wanted to know exactly what was being said. So every time an Italian section came up, they dutifully typed it into Google Translate to see what was going on. I never thought someone would go to those lengths, mainly because I tried to make sure whenever Italian appeared, its meaning was either implied in context, or the meaning really didn’t make a difference to the book. In my head, the reader would either just see it as “Oh, they’re speaking Italian right now, and I don’t speak Italian” and just keep reading, or else the reader would actually speak Italian, in which case they’d be happy they got to understand some easter eggs.

In the book I’m working on now, the main character doesn’t speak any foreign languages, but he interacts with some characters who are German. Most of the time, I’m peppering in German phrases here or there, although there’s one scene where they speak back and forth in German, specifically so that he doesn’t understand them. I’m not entirely sure how to handle the German in this case.

On the one hand, I speak German, and it wouldn’t be that hard to throw in the full sentences. On the other, my main character doesn’t, so there’s no way he’d be able to tell any of the words, and it’s written in first person. I’ve sort of compromised, adding snippets of real German here and there (to give the reader the same feeling the main character has), and then just saying “They spoke in German some more” at other times, to make it so the reader doesn’t have to feel too frustrated.

But I realize not everyone approaches reading and writing the way I do, so I thought it might help me to hear what other people think about this. Any ways you’ve seen it done that you particularly like or dislike? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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