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Including dialogue in your travel narratives is a great way to flesh out characters, keep the action moving, and to tell a story that feels real. But when you and the people around you are speaking a language other than English, or English and another language, it can be hard to figure out how to recount your conversations. Here are some techniques to try.
Technique #1

No lo conozco,” he said: I don’t know him.

The most obvious: give each line of dialogue in the language it was spoken in, and provide a translation afterwards when necessary.

While this technique has the advantage of accuracy, it can get tedious in longer pieces with a lot of non-English dialogue. It works best when used sparingly, when dialogue is sparse, but key.

Technique #2

Don’t worry, I tell her, I’ll be okay in a little while.

Punctuation is your friend, especially when you want to make a subtle distinction between what was actually said, and what you’re translating. Try putting direct quotes in quotation marks, and indicating translations with dashes, or just commas.

With this technique, you don’t waste words, but there’s some potential for confusion on your readers’ part—“wait, did someone just say that or did they only think it?” It probably works best in fairly long pieces, where readers have a chance to get accustomed to your punctuation-signposts.

Photo: Eye2eye

Technique #3

“Will you allow me to do the honor of accompanying you, mujer divina?”

She’s not a travel writer, but we can learn a lot from the way Sandra Cisneros nails this technique in her novel Caramelo. When someone in the novel is speaking Spanish, she lets you know by using translated expressions that sound a little off in English, but are common in Spanish (“what a barbarity!” for example) and by throwing in the occasional (easily understood) Spanish word.

She also changes up the phrasing—rather than translating into standard English, she leaves traces of Spanish grammar. It makes for beautiful reading, and if you can pull this technique off, you’ve got it made.

Technique #4

“Have you been here long?” he asked in English.

When the dialogue is predominantly in one language, you can just advise the reader when you switch to the non-dominant language—he said in Russian, she shouted in Chinese, he muttered in French.

You don’t want to have to do this after every single line of dialogue, so it works best when there’s a primary and a secondary language.

Technique #5

Of course, there’s always the option of just not worrying about it—when you don’t care if your readers know who said what in which language. Or use a mix of different techniques.

And finally, remember that you can’t be a writer unless you’re also a reader. Pay attention to the different ways different writers of all kinds deal with issues like this, and try out the techniques that work best. After a while you’ll hit on something that’s just right for your style and experiences.

Have you hit on any other good techniques for recounting bilingual conversations? Share them in the comments below!

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

Teresa Ponikvar

Teresa Ponikvar is a former Matador editor, a current reluctant English teacher, and a future mini-farmer. She lives in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, with her husband, young son, and assorted animals and arthropods. She blogs here.

  • Hal

    Thanks Teresa! Might have cause to use these tools shortly.

  • Colin Wright

    I hadn’t actually considered how to do this, so I’m really glad I came across this article!

  • Turner

    Yep, #3 is my favorite too.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Excellent tips! Thanks.

  • Tim

    Did you skip #4 because in Japanese it sounds like death?

  • Sarah

    #3 can be dangerous–for some reason I have a real bias against foreign words sprinkled randomly into a piece. French is the absolute worst (unless you’re doing satire, of course.) I think it’s a probléme I have as an américaine who’s dislikes overtones of pretentiousness…

  • Carlo

    Ooh la la, Sarah!

  • tony

    good stuff. read the way Junot Diaz writes in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” If flows, it works and it is beautiful and funny. These are great tips, though, and are great for travel writing.

    • David Miller

      Thanks for that title recommendation Tony. Will look for that.

  • Heather Carreiro

    I’ve learned a lot from Indian and Pakistani writers, who often include Hindi/Urdu words in their work but make it flow so that you’re actually learning the words as you go along. I like to translate a word or phrase the first time but then use it later without translating. Khushwant Singh and Salman Rushdie are two authors who do this really well.

  • Marko Polo Ayling

    Great article.  Balancing out a writer’s own fascination with foreign languages with her responsibility to communicate to her audience can be difficult, but necessary.  

    In my opinion, a great example of this is Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  If you understand Spanish, you will appreciate Hemingway’s masterful use of the language not only to give color, but to illustrate the Spanish perspective on life.  

    Better yet, the romantic way the protagonist translates Spanish into English (using “thou” for both “tu” and “usted”) reflects his own idealized view of the Spanish Civil War.  He slowly comes to realize that the nation’s war and language were far less glorious than he thought.  

    Hemingway incorporates all these techniques, but uses the third technique the most.  English words with Spanish syntax really resonates with readers in the stage of language learning where your brain is all jumbled between languages!  

  • Orietta Pinto

    Cool! Gracias…

  • Namrata

    Nice piece… some very helpful tips for a beginner… loved it.. :)

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