Q&A: Writing a scene with 2 characters who are not English speakers

Brenda asked:

I have a quandary.  I have a scene in which two characters are speaking, both of whom are not English speakers, but of course, since it would be meaningless to have a page of dialogue the reader can't understand, it is written in English.  In this story's case, it's a historical, the speakers are Apaches.  Traditionally, historicals featuring a scene like this would write the dialogue in choppy, stilted English.  But this doesn't make sense to me.  The scene is in the POV of the Apache, and while I wasn't in that time period, I view it much the same as if you walked in on someone having a phone conversation with a friend in a rapid exchange of Spanish, French, German, what have you.  They are not stumbling over their words.
On the other hand, I'm not sure if I should assume the reader "gets" that these two Apaches would be speaking in their own native tongue.  And someone suggested to me to use the stilted English, which doesn't seem POV-true to me.  How do I remain POV-true to the character yet provide the cultural clues the reader needs to not assume they are speaking English?

Camy here: I personally agree with you that the stilted English option wouldn’t be very true to character or to point of view. It also might be considered a bit non-politically correct to show the Apache language as stilted English when it’s nothing of the sort.

I have seen this in other books and it has worked quite well. You have two options, both them very similar:

1) Start the dialogue with a line in the language (in italics to show a foreign language), then switch to English, letting the reader know the conversation continues in the Apache language.

For example (since I don’t know Apache, I’m going to use Japanese):

”Genki desuka?” Eleanor asked.

Chikako tried to dry her eyes on her sleeve. Thank goodness Eleanor knew Japanese so Chikako didn’t have to struggle to communicate in English, not now with the way she was feeling. She continued in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks for asking. The doctor said I’ll get the results next week Monday.”

Eleanor smiled ruefully. “It’s hard waiting, isn’t it? I felt that way with my breast cancer a few years ago.”

2) Start the dialogue directly with an indication that it’s in the foreign language. The only problem with this is that some readers might miss the fact the dialogue is not supposed to be in English.

For example:

When Marta left them to go to the buffet table to load up, Chikako turned to Eleanor and asked in Japanese, “Who did the cooking for tonight?”

“Sylvia. She got her sisters to help her, though.”

I hope this helps!

If any of you guys have any other questions for my Q&A series, just leave a comment and I'll be sure to get to it!


  1. Wow, very helpful! I'm thinking about doing a book soon with characters who speak another language, so I'll definitely keep these tips in mind :)

  2. This is very succint and helpful advice. I think having these two methods to use would also be helpful if you have more then a few scenes where non-English speakers are talking in your book to kind've help you change it up and not get tiring.

  3. Good point! Variety is always better.

  4. In "Kim," Rudyard Kipling wrote the parts in which characters speak Hindi using "thee," but the parts in which characters are speaking English have "you." James Clavell did something similar in "Shogun" to show when the characters are speaking Latin.

  5. That's a good idea! My only concern is that if the grammar is odd, it might slow the reading flow for the modern reader.

  6. I agree about staying away from "pidgin english". it smacks of old colonial prejudices.

    Also, you might find you don’t need to explicitly state “They were speaking Apache” while they are speaking to one another, but you can do so when someone else is around them who doesn’t understand Apache. (a nice paradigm shift for the reader)

    One subtle trick is to deliberately choose words that establish the culture of the character. Just like you would choose words to establish the class, education, personality, etc of your characters.

    To establish people as scientists you put loads of latin and greek derived words in their mouths. To establish a poet, you make them brood with snatches of obscure metaphors. For a hard-working blue collar bloke sprinkle some slang (go easy) and stick to the more Anglo/German derived words.

    So if you have Native Americans talking, try using earthy words, living words. Stay away from words that come straight outta Latin and Greek. Remember to use the cadence of their speech to summon the image of ____ (insert what you want the reader to feel about their culture: stately, fatalistic, peace-loving, simple, fierce, happy, angry, etc, etc, etc)

    that's all I got. :)


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