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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


This article first appeared
Adventures in YA Publishing (March 6, 2015) and Uncommon YA (March 20, 2015)

by Christine Kohler

Imagine you open a book and one character's dialogue is in a foreign language that you do not read. What would you do with the book? Probably close it and not read the story. I know I would, because it would frustrate me not to understand one side of the conversation.

Now imagine you open a book and one character's dialogue is peppered with foreign words that you don't understand. You sort of pick up the gist. But you're still not real sure what the character is saying. At best, you're turning to the glossary in the back of the book. At worst, you were looking up the foreign words online. Depending on how heavy the foreign words are, or how confused you get about what the character is saying and what is going on in the story plot, it is very likely you still might give up and put the book down.

Best case scenario, imagine you start reading a book and one character's dialogue is peppered with foreign words that you don't know; however, the foreign words are in context of actions and thoughts (interior monologue) and narrative that give clues and even rephrase the words in English. The story moves you through the foreign words in a way that you understand without having to look them up in an outside source or glossary. That's what I'm going to show writers how to do in this article.

First, though, it is difficult to discuss writing foreign words without talking about voice and dialect. I recommend you read on my blog Read Like a Writer the article "11 Tips on Writing Authentic Dialogue."


Writing foreign language dialogue for a character is more than just using foreign words. In Developing a Written Voice (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1993), Dona Hickey, a professor at University of Richmond, names five stylistic features transfer voice from the air to the page: (Hickey, P. 23)
1. Sentence patterns;
2. Sentence length;
3. Word choice;
4. Word placement;
5. Punctuation.

Dialect in narrative voice should be very light. It can be heavier in dialogue. In general, the older the character the heavier the dialect and foreign language. This is because the older character is more likely to be first-generation immigrant to the United States, and may have less education in a US school.

My novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER is written in two different dialect point-of-views--a 15-year-old Chamorro, Kiko, and a Japanese soldier, Seto, who has been hiding in the jungle for 28 years after WWII ended. The story takes place on Guam in 1972, during the Vietnam War. The Chamorros and Guamanians speak Pidgin English. The Japanese soldier speaks Japanese and very little English.

I made a stylistic decision to put all of Seto's first-person dialogue and interior monologue in italics since he is speaking and thinking in the Japanese language. The narrative in Seto's chapters is in third person and not italicized.


One thing I believe writers should do when writing about a specific culture is to use the proper terms of address, especially for family members. I had a little problem in that in Chamorro the word "Nana" means mother, whereas, in the United States mainland "Nana" means grandmother. I got the idea to include a page before the prologue with "Chamorro terms of address" from Linda Sue Park's Korean WWII novel WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO. Neither of our historical novels include glossaries in the back of the book, which shows the actual foreign words are not abundant. However, many books do have foreign were glossaries in the back.


Let's return to that best case scenario where foreign words are in context of actions and thoughts (interior monologue) and narrative that give clues and even rephrase the words in English.

Here is an example in the prologue (P. 6) of NO SURRENDER SOLDIER (Merit Press, 2014):
… Besides, if things did not go well in battle, Seto knew what his superiors required of him. To die honorably, and go the way of the cherry blossoms. He looked at the bayonet on the end of his rifle and swallowed hard against what felt like a peach pit stuck in his throat. He had pledged to die in battle for Emperor Hiro Hito. But could he commit hara-kiri like a true samurai?

Notice in the paragraph above that I never added a separate sentence or clause that defines hara-kiri. It's not necessary to even use the word suicide, or to describe in gruesome detail how samurai committed seppuku, disembowelment. It's enough for the reader to know that hara-kiri will lead to Seto's death.

Also take note in that paragraph the saying, "To die honorably, and go the way of the cherry blossoms." I use this wording "go the way of the cherry blossoms" quite a few times throughout the story. I made a stylistic decision to make Seto's language poetic more than adhering to how a Japanese speaker might sound. Although many Asian languages do not have articles like in the English language in so I tried to leave articles out where it enhanced the poetic dialect.

Some foreign words require a direct translation for the reader to understand. Here are two different passages in NO SURRENDER SOLDIER where I handled the translations in different ways. The first passage (P. 13) in Chapter 1 is Kiko's mother waiting on two Japanese tourists. Grandfather (Tatan) had just offended them:
Nana scurried toward the counter and apologized to the Japanese girls, while bowing her head and shoulders repeatedly. “I am so sorry. Dozo. My apologies. Dozo.” She gave the girl change.

In the passage above it is clear that the Japanese word "dozo" means "sorry" and "my apologies." This passage also reveals that Nana speaks Japanese (at least a little; later the reader learns students were taught to learn the language in school during WWII), and that she knows Japanese customs such as bowing. Earlier in this chapter Nana would not bow, even though it would have been a polite courtesy to her Japanese customers vacationing on Guam. The reason all of these parts are so important as a whole is because creating a character of a different culture and language is deeper and wider than just giving them an ethnic or foreign name and throwing in a few foreign words.


This next passage (P. 20) in Chapter 2 is from Seto's point of view. I rarely use this technique of a direct translation set off by em dashes, but in this case I did not want to lose the continuity and flow of the action, and internal monologue showing his emotions and reactions. At the same time I felt that many readers would not know what kamikaze means. I would caution against using this em dash technique except in a pinch when it fits. (Like a pinch of pepper! Or, pepper in a pinch.)

Deception and trap, indeed, Seto had thought at the time. Ha! Japan could not lose with its kamikaze—divine wind—Buddha’s blessings, and the divine Emperor himself ordering the war. Time dragged on. Shellfire ceased. Bullet sniping silenced. Seto became disheartened; Japan must have lost the war.


As for how heavy or light to make the Pidgin English dialect, Newbery-winning Richard Peck advised me to read Graham Salisbury, who also writes Pacific Islander literature. Peck said, read well-written books in the place and era you are writing and model the masters. I would add, read how dialect is written in books within the past five years. In particular, I found Blue Skin of the Sea by Salisbury helpful. I've also critiqued with a Hispanic writer and so studied Pam Munoz Ryan's novels.

Besides reading other children's lit books with foreign language peppered within English language text, I recommend reading literature from authors in the language of your characters. For example, to create the tone and cadence of Seto’s voice in NO SURRENDER SOLDIER I read gothic poetry from Akinari, an 18th century Japanese poet.


In conclusion, I leave you with these reminders: Story first. Clarity is imperative. If the reader stumbles over words repeatedly he will throw the book down unfinished. It is better to include no foreign words in your story at all than to frustrate English-only readers.

However, if you can pepper foreign words in skillfully, and make the general meaning understandable within context, then foreign words are one more tool in a writer's arsenal to capture authenticity in voice, dialect, and culture.

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