Italicizing Non-English Words in English-Language Fiction

“Cyrillic JA”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

I’m a bit late in posting this, but:

There was a really fascinating conversation going on a while ago about whether writers should italicize non-English words in English-language fiction.  Daniel José Older made a very funny and incisive argument against it, and Kameron Hurley added more excellent thoughts (link to Hurley’s blog; has Older’s video as well — watch it and come back; it’s well worth it).

I love what Older said about non-English words just being part of the flow.  There are a few Cantonese and Swatowese words I grew up with that are just part of my vocabulary, and it would feel downright bizarre to italicize them in writing.  What I call my grandparents, for instance, or the names of certain foods or places, or, for that matter, my name.  There’s no othering in either my inflection nor my cognition when I use these words in conversation; it would never even occur to me to italicize them even though I’m not fluent in the languages:

“I picked up some dumplings and bao today.”

“When I was at Amah and Ayeh’s apartment . . .”

“My sister grew up calling me Jeh-Je.”

And when I’m talking to people who have some Mandarin knowledge, we go even further with our mixing.  Here’s some goofiness from a thread on Absolute Write (quoted with permission):

“Yaaayy totes hen gaoxing!”

“Putputt, there’s another recipe for ya. Durian, intestine, and stinky tofu-stuffed jiaozi with dough made out of cornflakes.”

“*hides under the fanzhuo* Ni keyi haz them. Wo hai pa.”

“Screw han zi! Ask Little Ming, not too long ago I mistakenly said “I poured from Indonesia”. Hate han zi.”

“Bu tai hao. Very bu tai hao.”

And these were written communications, in mixed company (Mandarin-speaking AND non-Mandarin speaking AND partially-Mandarin speaking), and nobody was italicizing.  But still, everyone got which words were Chinese — I think! — and when I think about italicizing, I cringe.  “Yaaayy totes hen gaoxing!” or “screw han zi!” looks bizarre and reads with entirely the wrong cadence.

So, YEAH.  I agree with Older and Hurley!

. . . most of the time.

Because the natural next step was to think, wait, I have a few non-English sentences in my novels and I’ve italicized them.  Why did I do it?  Should I remove it?  Should I stop doing it?

And I struggled for a few minutes, because I couldn’t figure out why italicizing those words in my books felt right, when in the above examples it would feel so, so, so wrong.  But after a while I realized: they’re not words my main character understands.  She’s not meant to understand them; on some meta-level they’re being transcribed phonetically into the narrative.  I also want to signal to the readers that they’re not meant to understand them either, necessarily; even from context — part of what I’m trying to do with italics is signaling to the audience that their eyes can gloss over it a bit.

Here are the passages:

“That’s stupid,” I muttered, but without any vitriol, and without any real belief behind the words. “You should be able to axiomitize everything. How else can you know right from wrong?”

Rio was smiling again. “If you’re asking me personally, you know how. Sumasampalataya ako sa iyong tsarera.”

“What does that mean?” He didn’t answer me, but I knew already.

is from book one, and:

“Not the time for pleasantries,” I snapped over my shoulder as I went back over to Checker and his laptop.  “Get to work or get out.”

No es tan antipática como parece,” Arthur said to Pilar, with a sideways glance at me.  “Te lo prometo.”

He was definitely mocking me.  Ass.  “Fuck you,” I said.  “I assume.”

is in book two (unless it hits the cutting room floor).

I keep looking at the passages.  Changing the italics to plain text.  Changing it back.  Reading them over.  And I think that if I don’t italicize them, it makes the reader stumble a bit, doesn’t signal clearly enough that these words are about to be a chunk of text they don’t recognize and aren’t necessarily meant to, especially as there’s no fluent switching from those characters elsewhere in the text.

But what about characters who do mix languages fluently?  Does that make a difference?  Does it make sense then to non-italicize, even if my POV character doesn’t speak those languages, if, regardless of her fluency, the speaking characters are dropping in those words as part of the normal flow of conversation and expecting her to get what they mean?  Does it make a difference that, in both cases above, the characters speaking are saying something in front of her that they deliberately don’t want her to understand?

I think it might.

I’ve realized I also had a few sprinkled-in words that come from non-English languages, in which everyone was assumed to understand the meaning, and I’ve already gone through and de-italicized those.  (It’s fascinating for me that I italicized them without thinking in the first place!)  But in these cases where I really am trying to offset the text as not understandable, the choice doesn’t feel quite as clear.

After a lot of mulling, I think I think that in the above cases the italics work to offset the words as something foreign — foreign to the POV character, that is.  Another thing I loved about Older’s video was his stress at the end about how language is about communication and understanding, and in that vein, I think I think that italics can be used — or not used — in a judicious manner to change the readers’ perceptions of a non-English language’s appearance in the narrative.

But I’m not sure.  And there’s the whole question of othering to consider, and how italicizing non-English languages can contribute to that.  So I’m very much interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this, and I might still change my mind.  It’s definitely something I’m going to put a lot more thought into from now on!

(And now I deliberately want to go and write a short story that mixes languages, as I’ve been thinking about it so much lately.  For more great thinkiness on mixing non-English into English language fiction, try John Chu’s utterly fantastic essay in The Book Smugglers, and then go read his excellent Hugo-winning short story “The Water That Falls From Nowhere.”)

About the author

SL Huang (aka MathPencil)
SL Huang (aka MathPencil)

SL Huang justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero books. Debut novel: Zero Sum Game, a speculative fiction thriller.
Twitter: @sl_huang


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  • Hmm… is it a coincidence that this post comes the day after I made some comments about not liking long sentences of foreign language in a story? I don’t really want to start politicising my literary preferences, because my comments were meant purely on the artistic merit of including it. I often write about ancient foreign cultures (Greek, Egyptian), but I write for a readership that doesn’t understand those languages, so I don’t use them, other than a sprinkling here and there for flavour. I don’t italicise single words either, but if I ever quoted a line of foreign dialogue, I think I would.

    EDIT: Actually, I did – when a foreign character swore a nice long meaty curse in his own language. I didn’t translate it because a) the POV character couldn’t understand it, and b) it was clear from the context that he was cursing. An exact understanding of the curse wasn’t necessary.

    But although I’m trying to keep well out of the debate on ‘othering’, I fear I may just be treading my big stupid paws all over it again… *sigh*

    *Goes to delete post*

    *Hits ‘post comment’ button by accident*

    • Oh, bunneh, it had nothing to do with that! Don’t worry your little paws. I’m glad you commented.

      I think your point about single words versus lines of text is a good one, too. Single words in another language are more often meant to be in an unbroken flow with English words, and more often meant to be understood in context, I would suppose . . . versus lines of text where the reader really isn’t meant to get it at all . . .

      *mulls more*

  • I think your intuition has been steering you in the right direction. As a reader, I do prefer it when authors italicize foreign communication, even if it is just a word. This is an interesting topic. Why does it feel right and improve the flow of the story? Even if I understand the foreign words, it feels appropriate to italicize them.

  • You’ve given me a lot of food for thought here. I italicized words I made up even though the characters knew what the word meant. It seemed the right thing to do, but now, not so much? I also italicized words in foreign languages that no one speaks anymore (Latin, Sumerian, Akkadian). Is there a difference between italicizing the words in dialogue or narrative? So much to consider! I welcome your suggestions.

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