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When does the use of foreign language phrases in a novel feel like a turn off?

5th June 2021

When does the use of foreign language phrases in a novel feel like a turn off?When does the use of foreign language phrases in a novel feel like a turn off?

I recently read a crime mystery set in Paris. It was written in English, by an English author and the text was infused with phrases and words in French, presumably to add French flavour and authenticity to the setting and storyline. A couple of words here, a longer sentence there. Subsequent to each, the understanding of the French was made reasonably clear by either an idiomatic translation, voiced by a character; or, the meaning was conveyed by the follow-on actions of the characters. So far so good.

I then happened to read a few reviews of the book and found it thought provoking that some of the reviews were quite hardline and averse to the perceived ‘over-use’ of French and that it got “in the way of a good read“:

“..I do not speak French and am sure I am not alone. The untranslated French has spoilt it for me and I have given up after a few chapters…”

..set in Paris it is loaded with french phrases which mean little or nothing to those of us who don’t speak the language, worse than that, there is no translation at all, totally infuriating..

“..irritating French prose..”

“.. the use of French. Some words, Maman, Papa, Bon jour, merci are OK but there’s too much, it’s not the sort of language you’d pick up on holiday and it gets in the way of a good read…”

Not only is a perceived “over-use” a potential issue for readers but checking that the foreign idioms you, as an author, are choosing to insert are actually correct in the original.

I then happened to pick up my next read, a thriller set in Greece, and one of the characters is German. The author fell into the same trap, using a lot of German which, I noted because I am fortunate to be familiar with German, was (generally) poorly executed: “..was macht der Jungs Haston in dieser Zeit?” (you can just hear the original English reverberating in that sentence, it’s not German); Or “..dieses Villa..(it should be diese Villa)”; and the commas throughout were having a field day (German doesn’t use nearly the same number of commas that English does). For pity’s sake, it’s not too much to find a native speaker to check over the language. Is it?

If it was, say, Hungarian or Mandarin, I wouldn’t know whether the language was correct or not, but I would TRUST that the author/publisher had gone the extra mile to make sure it is correct. Perhaps my trust is misplaced… Many people have not had the opportunity or desire to learn something of another language and therefore the maxim that anything goes is perhaps just a little disrespectful to the reading audience?

In our 2 reviews of American Dirt, which was a terrific read in many ways, we highlighted the issue of “..overly frequent use of italicised Hispanic words and phrases.”  and “..My only slight criticism is the use of Spanish. There is a looooot of it in the book and at times it felt over the top and clunky to read..”.  A randomly chosen smattering of phrases at face value seems authentic but actually the end result is that it can feel rather forced… And, yes, this over-use did feel intrusive to the reading experience.

I recently listened to an audiobook set in Umbria. There was a decent level of Italian throughout, which for me added a bit of atmosphere. However, it is simple to look up how to pronounce words in Italian. The Italian cittadella certainly confounded the narrator. Similarly, a novel I am currently readying set in Leipzig has frequent inclusion of German, which is spelled incorrectly (Seig instead of Sieg – you can probably tell in which era it is set 😉) and, that every noun in the language needs a capital letter in the language has simply been ignored.

Imbuing a narrative with the local language is something that has to be done with great care and sensitivity – just lobbing in a few bits of French or Spanish here and there can be a real turn off and – actually –  a lazy way to try and add flair and authenticity. Too much and people can start to feel overwhelmed and eyes start to glaze over. That is the point at which an author loses the reader.

Chatting to Istros Books on Twitter recently, who are publishers of exclusively translated literature (to wit, translated literature into English), they stress they have to carefully consider how many words in the original language they leave in. Often they simply stick with names of dishes and place names… they feel it’s good to leave in local colour but there has to be a balance and a desire not to overwhelm the reader. Less is almost more, it would seem.

It is also essential that a native proof reader casts an eye over the language. In the aforementioned Paris-set novel this phrase was used: “Eh! Salope! Regarde óu tu vas, idiote!” (eagle eyes will spot that the óu should in fact be où and frankly it’s a rude and out-dated phrase and not what a true French person might say); and Agnés, used throughout the narrative, should of course have been Agnès.

In this article – Crime Mystery set in Berlin (and why you really need a good editor and proofreader) – the author in this particular novel was keen on using German (a lot), presumably to add authenticity, but 70%, at a guess, was inaccurate. That left me feeling sorry for the author who seemingly had been pitched by the publisher into the public arena with a low grade product; and I felt pretty annoyed that such a poorly edited and proofread novel had made it to the point-of-sale – and into my hands; and that I had spent several hours of my time reading such a substandard script.

So, back to my original question: When does the use of foreign phrases in a novel feel like a turn off? Do you have examples? Do you like inclusion of foreign words/phrases? Have you felt overwhelmed by the over-use of foreign terms? Did you find the Spanish intrusive and over the top in American Dirt for example? Let us know what you think below.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: Gayle Marien

    Posted on: 08/05/2022 at 2:44 am

    I like place names to be what they are in the native language, as that is after all the true name of the place. I belong to a local writer’s group and one member, well versed in Dutch and French often includes foreign words or phrases in her work. Another has a passion for Italian. During the COVID lockdowns I was recording the group’s works on YouTube so we could continue to operate and these foreign words and phrases were so hard for me. I had to look up what they meant, then Google the pronunciations and note that down phonetically so I could get them right. At least I hope I got them right. I so wished, they had written in English.


  2. User: Sleekpony

    Posted on: 06/05/2022 at 4:20 pm

    This is a very thought-provoking article for me.

    I love the use of some foreign language in books, since I find it evokes atmosphere. I am a perpetual nomad, and am utterly fascinated by language, and get a buzz from having my mind opened to common phrases and idioms, which can be both entertaining and very indicative of a culture.

    As an author of comic travel memoirs, I do use foreign phrases, since my approach is to write books that I would like to read! I have not had negative feedback, so I guess I haven’t overdone it… so far… But I would also feek very cheated if the foreign language used was incorrect or archaic!


  3. User: Harriet Steel

    Posted on: 05/05/2022 at 12:38 pm

    I recently read Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment and agree about heavy use of french (or other foreign language) phrases being the lazy way of trying to add authenticity. It was a good story but what I felt let it down despite the french words was the lack of a strong sense of place which I’d hoped for. Hope all’s well with you, best wishes, Harriet


  4. User: Charles Lambert

    Posted on: 05/05/2022 at 12:35 pm

    This has always been an issue for me, as someone who has set several novels in Italy. How much to include, how much to leave out, how much can be assumed… As someone who’s lived in Italy for over 40 years I’ve probably developed an unconscious expectation that some words or phrases are obvious when that isn’t at all the case. I’m currently revising a novel set in Rome in the 1980s and my editor has gently suggested that I may have used at least one ‘così’ too many. Reluctantly, I have to admit that he may be right!