Using Foreign Words and Phrases in Your Writing

It’s cliche, but very true, to say that using foreign words and phrases in writing is an art and science both. Like anything else, there are some formal rules about doing this. There are also best practices for including foreign terms in a way that furthers your story or helps make your point.

Sometimes the rules and the best practices butt up against one another a bit. When that happens, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to adhere to the rule or to bend it in the name of understanding. Of course, before you can make that call you have to understand what those rules and best practices are.

Why Use Another Language at All?

First, these phrases make writing more interesting. There’s simply not always a fitting translation. Used the right way, these words and phrases can make a story more interesting, and give more depth to your characters. Sometimes, they express emotions in ways that other phrases just can’t. Yes, it’s true that when they’re used clumsily the results are cringeworthy. Still, they can add something special to your writing, and it’s worth knowing how to do that.

Here Are Some Technical Rules to Keep in Mind

Let’s start with the basics. These are the rules you should know before you decide to break them.

Italicize Foreign Words and Phrases

It’s generally a bad practice to spring foreign words on your readers without a bit of warning. Italics are the universally accepted way of doing that. “It’s common for scholarly papers to quote works in their original language, at least for major languages like German or French.

This is a practice that has been used throughout the years. However, we’ve been facing complaints due to misunderstanding from our clients recently and figured out there is the need to distinguish between the own text of the work and a quotation.” – says Ethan Dunwill, an editor at Hot Essay Service, a company offering academic writing assistance.

When readers encounter an italicized word, they understand why something may be unfamiliar, and that they might have to explore the meaning of that a little further.

Okay...Don’t Italicize All of Them

The rule about italics only applies to words and phrases that aren’t universally recognized and understand. You certainly wouldn’t need to italicize the name of familiar food, or a phrase that’s so widely used that nobody is going to be taken aback when they see it, e.g., faux pas.

“Never, never italicize religious books or songs, or book titles,” – pleads Neightan White, a writer for Supreme Dissertations, a website offering tips and actual help with academic works – “You just don’t do it!”

Know When Context Provides a Definition

Sometimes, you’ll need to translate the words that you use. However, that’s not always necessary. In fact, it can be overkill to provide a definition when there are sufficient context clues for readers to discern that on their own.

Understand How Much Your Audience Understands

It’s important to know what your audience knows. Whether you need to define something explicitly or make it stand out with italics really depends on your audience. For example, there may be some Latin phrases that you would define or italicize for a general audience, but not if you were writing for an audience of doctors or lawyers who frequently use those terms.

Check and Double Check the Meaning of Any Words or Phrases You Use

Specialists from Grab My Essay advice: “Don’t rely on Google Translate or assumptions when you decide to insert foreign words into your prose. Instead, be very clear about the meanings of the words you’re using.” If you aren’t the results can be embarrassing at best and offensive at worst.

Some Style Guidelines and Best Practices

The point of adding foreign words is to enhance your writing and make it more interesting. To do that, you have to decide how you are going to translate, how much you are going to translate, where you’ll add context clues, where you should use nonverbal descriptions, or if you should choose an alternative to using a foreign language. Here are some options to consider:

Sprinkle Words into Your Writing with No Translation

Consider the following: Maria ran home with her report card in hand. She burst through the door yelling ‘Papi, Look! Papi, Look!’ She thrust the report card into his hands, beaming. He opened it and looked at her grades. ‘Bueno!’ He shouted.

Because words like Bueno and Papi are relatively well known, and the scene is set, there’s really no need to provide translation. Using the words helps to paint a picture of Papi though, as a happy man of Hispanic origin who obviously cares for Maria, and is interested in her schooling.

Using English but with Patterns Found in Another Language

Sometimes, you want to make it clear that someone is speaking in a foreign language without actually using that language. Alternatively, you might want to infuse dialogue with an accent, while still using English. One thing you can do is make it clear that a character is speaking another language, then provide dialogue in English using the cadence of another language.

For example, if you write ‘Your mother, she is very upset right now.’ in dialogue spoken by an Italian man, that pattern of speaking is easily identifiable as being Italian as well. Just one word of caution. This is a technique that can be misinterpreted. You don’t want to seem as if you are mocking, or creating a caricature.

Use Words in Another Language, Then Translate Those

This method works very well to add authenticity to your writing but also ensures that your readers are absolutely clear on what is happening. See this example taken from one of the sample works at a translation service Is Accurate, it is a fragment of dialogue using the method.
‘Adrian says you stole the artwork!’, shouted Clyde.
‘C'est une menteuse!’, Eric responded angrily. She is a liar!
The French character retains his authenticity, by using his language. At the same time, readers immediately know what he’s saying.

Using Context Clues and Non-verbal Communication for Clarity

Writers can use context clues and descriptions of nonverbal communication for two purposes. First, if they do use foreign words and phrases, this can help readers interpret what is being said. It can even help them better understand where the speaker is from. It’s also a great alternative to using foreign language at all.

For example, rather than using Italian words and phrases, you could have a character speaking with their hands.
‘Mama heard enough of the children arguing. ‘Enough!’ she shouted as she moved her hands away from one another in front of her chest as if to say, ‘it is done!’.
There are other things you can do as well. Describing people driving on the left side of the road, having characters kiss one another on the cheek as a greeting, or having two characters bow at one another are all context clues that hint at origin or nationality.

Final Thoughts

Done correctly, this technique can make your writing quite interesting. The only caveat is that you don’t want to make your audience feel confused, or as if they are lacking in knowledge. By using the techniques here, you can use foreign words and phrases in your writing while avoiding any possible pitfalls.
April 18, 2019
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Domingo Infante
August 5, 2020
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Valerie elise ESPINASSE Usage Choubey
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