Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
July 21, 2021

Flavor Your Fiction with Foreign Expressions

by Sudha Balagopal

As a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction. I believe these international words and expressions help lend credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.

Some writers explain the meanings of non-English words, either in-text or in a glossary. At times foreign expressions are used sparingly, at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. Regardless of their methods, when expressions from another language are used in description or in dialogue, they leap out at me.

Examples of Foreign Expressions in Fiction

Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Athough I had no knowledge of French, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.

Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is often overlooked and dismissed because he is non-English, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to develop his persona.

‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’

‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.

‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’

-- Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies (Hercule Poirot, Series #9)

Appropriate dialogue is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place to your story. Using the right words makes dialogue sing. Look at how E. M. Forster makes use of Indian words in his book A Passage to India.

The first, who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away.

“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.

“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.

“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”

Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply, being full of their own affairs.

-- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (Chapter 11)

We may gather from the dialogue that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not.

All this is inferred from a short piece of dialogue!

Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English. In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes:

“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first-year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.”

Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their own heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances.

The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adornment to the dialogue.

Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.”

(Part One, Chapter 1)

Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.

The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands.

-- Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled just two Igbo words into the paragraph to make it shine.

Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialogue and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad, the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.

You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo.

--The Pura Principle, New Yorker, Mar 22, 2010

Final Thoughts

Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities.

To authors who incorporate them, I say: may you continue to do so.

Do you like it when authors sprinkle foreign words into their English narratives (assuming they do it sparingly and well)? Who have you seen do this the most successfully? Please share them with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Sudha

Sudha Balagopal's recent short fiction appears in Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Splonk among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can't Tell Amma, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction in July of 2021. She is the author of a novel,  A New Dawn, and two short story collections. Her work is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2021 and is published in Best Microfiction 2021.

More at www.sudhabalagopal.com

Top Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

24 comments on “Flavor Your Fiction with Foreign Expressions”

  1. If you do this, be SURE you do it right. There is nothing more irritating (or entertaining) than reading something someone has written that is not correct.

    For an example, I'm going to assume the excerpt above from Junot Diaz was copied wrong - because it uses 'tacita', but has an accent on the first 'a'. A 'taza' is a cup. A 'tacita' is a little cup (ita is the ending for a feminine diminutive in Spanish). The Spanish word 'tácita' is the same as the English word 'tacit', which means 'understood or implied without being stated.' The excerpt is referring to the little cup which the mother makes sure has the same amount of liquid as the other little cups. If the excerpt was copied correctly, Diaz is using the wrong word OR has a typo.

    'tacita' is pronounced tah-SEE-tah, while 'tácita' is pronounced TAH-see-tah (the accent is always written in words that end in a vowel, s, or n, but have their emphasis on the second from the last syllable; these words are called esdrújulas).

    I'm not being pedantic - it literally stopped me in my tracks to read the word with the accent as I was making a mental picture of the mother and her friends. The example you provided was convenient for making the point about getting things right.

    The only exception would be when you are using a character's errors in a foreign language to show that character is NOT fluent in that language, a subtle extra step.

    If not sure, and you don't have a nitpicky friend fluent in the language, don't use foreign phrases. Google Translate is very good, but it is not your friend. Or proofreader.

    If done right, you are correct - it adds a level of delight for the reader, especially when you're subtle about clueing the reader in as to the meaning of the phrase. [Aside: I checked the spelling of clueing vs. cluing - both are correct, but I have seen 'clueing' much more commonly.]

    Write on! (Or is it 'Right on!' - from my hippie days?)

    1. Dear Alicia,
      Thank you for your comments . YES, make sure the foreign expression is correct or the whole exercise falls flat!
      I double checked on the story at The New Yorker and here is the place where the word is used, again: Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. So the accent is in the original story!
      So the accent is there!

      1. Things like that make me wonder about the rest of that. I would have expected The New Yorker to check, or the author. How odd. Thanks for going to look at it.

        I see MANY errors with accents in Spanish, but the rules are extremely simple, so there's really no excuse in getting them wrong IF you know how to pronounce the word. They were drilled into our little heads in elementary school in Mexico City where I grew up. My kids never really learned Spanish properly as children, but I made sure they knew those rules.

          1. Thanks for a fascinating topic, Sudha.

            I do use included foreign words and phrases, so will be giving an extra pass to the Indian ones and the Czech ones. We can all make mistakes!

  2. Very nice article. One of my novels, Times To Try the Soul of Man involves extensive dialog in Spanish, but the Spanish itself varies from place to place. One of the challenges for me was finding an editor who could correct what a Puerto Rican character said and another who could handle the discussions in Chile. Then, of course, I had to make sure the meaning was available for my English speaking readers. Great fun.

    1. Kenneth Weene, thank you! I used to italicize Indian words, but now I tend not to, especially if they are few and far between. The context usually makes the meaning clear.
      Happy writing!

      1. Amber, thank you for your feedback. I'm sorry, I think I answered to your post and addressed my response to Kenneth Weene! Apologies. Yes, recently I have stopped using italics and if the dialog in the foreign language is not extensive, I feel I don't need to explain. Readers are smart, we have to give them credit!

    2. Hi Kenneth,
      Sorry I think I inadvertently replied to someone else's post and addressed it to you! Yes, it is challenging, isn't it, getting the right flavor of the language, especially the regional differences.
      Kudos to you for doing your research!

  3. I appreciate well placed foreign words in a novel but feel there should be a reason for it. For instance, a parent tries to express the importance of the family's cultural heritage and wants the children to speak the mother tongue.

    When reading foreign words that I don't know, it's handy if the author gives contextual clues. I like to be able to puzzle it out rather than find a translator to look the words up. That way I am less likely to be pulled out of the story.

    1. Hi Ellen,
      Of course, foreign phrases can feel contrived in your text if there is no reason for them. It helps to place them where they can embellish the narrative, where they feel natural to the story.
      Also, yes, contextual clues should help the reader figure out the meaning while reading the story.
      Thanks for your comments, Ellen!

  4. Thank you for the examples. I love using foreign words in my work. And while I speak only school learned Spanish and grew up speaking only English AND have no ethnicity beyond my white American heritage, I truly love sprinkling Spanish or French flavors into my characters. And because I write SFF Fantasy, I've even generated new galactic species with foreign words.

  5. Sudha-- Thank you for this! I use Greek words and phrases in my manuscript and my writers group told me to explain them. I sent the manuscript to beta readers and they all said I explained way too much--it took them out of the story. So now I'm removing it, and wow! I didn't realize how much word count that wasted. This was important validation for me as I work through edits based on the beta feedback.

    Alicia-- you're so right! I have consulted with authors who write about Greek subject matter but aren't familiar with the language and customs. Google Translate isn't your friend. You can't translate languages literally. Transliteration can be tricky as well. I once reviewed a manuscript where the person referenced the Greek word for oil (the edible kind). The person wrote "lathi". But if you pronounce the "th" like "thing", it means mistakes. If you pronounce the "th" like "this", then it means oil. So I told the author to write "ladi" or "ladhi". I worked with another author who wrote about a wedding on a Greek island. She Googled "congratulations" and got a word that does mean congratulations, but a Greek would never say that to you at your wedding. If you don't know the language or culture you're writing about, always work with a Cultural Consultant or with someone who is knowledgeable about it. You don't want to get it wrong.

    Na se kala!

    1. Maria,
      Thank you for your comments.
      It's always tricky, finding just the right number of words to include or the kind of words to include.
      Thank you also for sharing how this whole flavoring can go wrong to ruin a dish!
      All the best with your writing,

  6. Sudha, this is such an interesting and informative post! I just approved another comment as well so you might want to take one pass from the top. 🙂

  7. I loved your post. I recently had a conversation with an editor about foreign words in dialog. One opinion was that if the speaker was, for example French, using common French words should not be italicized because the words were not foreign to the speaker. Perhaps like labeling other languages not "common" or uncommon to the speaker? Or some words are part of our language so there is no need to set them a part?

    1. Hi Amber,
      Just in case you didn't see my response to your post -- just been a long day -- here it is again!
      Thank you for your feedback. I'm sorry, I think I answered to your post and addressed my response to Kenneth Weene! Apologies. Yes, recently I have stopped using italics and if the dialog in the foreign language is not extensive, I feel I don't need to explain. Readers are smart, we have to give them credit!

  8. Excellent post, Sudha. In the third James McCarthy book (Cold Karma), I included several Navajo words, as James was working with Deputy Nestor Yazzi. There are also cultural references that add depth and color to the character.

  9. This is so useful. As a non-native English speaker, I also sometimes wonder how do I effectively incorporate non-English words in my writing.

  10. I do like it when they're used appropriately--sometimes they can be very educational about culture--but, not as token drops.


Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved