Writing Historical Fiction: Foreign-Language Dialogue

Although the first part of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is set in the United States, one of my main characters is European. Jerome Bonaparte’s first language was Italian, and his second was French. Betsy had studied French from an emigré when she was a schoolgirl, and her lifelong dream was to live in France, so it only made sense to assume that the two of them spoke French to each other quite often.

The problem is that many of my readers won’t know that language. So how does a writer tackle this issue? I took a variety of approaches.

One tactic is to write the dialogue in English but to say that it was said in French, as in the following example:

The two young men were speaking in French and, apparently assuming that Americans could not understand the language, spoke at full volume even though their comments were far from discreet. Betsy, who had learned French from Madame Lacomb, heard one of them say, “Bonaparte, I think the young lady before us is the one whom Mlle. Pascault described, the girl called the Belle of Baltimore. Certainly, I have not seen anyone else who fits the description.”

A second tactic is to sprinkle the text with small phrases that are either well known or similar enough to English that they are easy to figure out:

Pardonnez moi.” Jerome bowed, sweeping his arm elegantly to one side.

A third tactic—and this one is my favorite—is to plant context clues in the surrounding text, so the reader won’t feel lost even if they don’t understand exactly what the characters are saying:

Jerome lowered his voice. “Je rêve du jour quand je te présenterai à Napoléon. Il verra que j’ai choisi un femme aussi élégante que Josephine.

Although Betsy felt gratified that Jerome would compare her favorably to Josephine, she could not allow him to assume their marriage was a certain thing.

Because a large part of Betsy and Jerome’s story concerned the interaction between and comparisons of two different cultures, I wanted their dialogue to show that. These three techniques allowed me to accomplish that goal.


Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

12 responses to “Writing Historical Fiction: Foreign-Language Dialogue

  1. Context works well for words no longer in use too. In my medieval novel I wrote – Each table bore a small nef, the largest in full sail before her. The little jewel-encrusted ships brimmed with the spices she had chosen this morning.- If I’d said ‘nef’, and left it at that it would be difficult for the reader to figure out what I was talking about, just as it would be if you’d written your dialog in French without any explanation. I’ve been reading your posts and Madame sounds like quite the gal 🙂

    • Linnea, that’s a terrific example. I’ve had to do similar things, but probably not nearly as often as you did in a medieval novel. Yes, Betsy was quite an interesting woman, and her life had many turns and twists.

  2. My Historical Fantasy touches on differing languages throughout. Renaissance Hungary was a melting pot of languages, and I have used all three of your methods in my story, depending on the particular circumstance.

    • Renaissance Hungary sounds like a fascinating and unmined subject. Has your book been published yet, or is it still a work in process?

      • It’s still a work in progress. It will actually be a series of at least four books when the story is complete, whenever that will be. The first book is written and just waiting for me to go through more edits. Book two has been started with parts of it written here and there (I’m a pantser and I don’t write linearly). The others I’ll get to them when I get to them. Right now I’m working on something different, something much shorter that I’m not sure will be longer than novella length, but we’ll see.

      • Sometimes taking a break from the long work can help. Especially when it requires so much research, as it sounds like yours does.

  3. It’s neat to see how other writers are doing this. My WIP features a French spirit seducing living teen girls, two of which are American. I’ve felt a little cheesy having him call each of them “Chere” or in a couple of instances, “chaton,” but I suppose it’s kind of the same as your second technique (it’s clear in context that they are terms of endearment). The non-American character is French as well, but I’ve still got him slipping the same terms in with her to show how his behavior is a thread through his interactions with all four of the girls.

    Otherwise, I have him using little to no contractions when he speaks. Would you say this is an effective way of indicating a “foreign” accent in written dialogue? Each of the girls has her own voice, but they are all somewhat modern, so this device seems to make his words contrast decently against theirs. Any advice appreciated!

    • Hi Ashley, and welcome. I just stopped by your blog! If all your other characters use contractions and the foreign-speaking one doesn’t, that would certainly indicate a difference. I think playing with word order is also an effective technique if you know that the foreign language uses different word order than English. (Darn, I should have remembered that one. Maybe a follow-up blog post.) Here’s an example of what I mean. I have a scene where Betsy is being refused admittance to the port at Amsterdam:

      As the boat turned back, the old Dutch pilot slapped his forehead. “Verdomme! Idioot!” He snatched the salt-stained cap from his head and wrung it between his hands.
      “What is wrong?” Stephenson demanded.
      “Three weeks ago, a notice I read describing this ship and forbidding us from guiding her. Now, Jezus Christus, I will be hanged unless my age and bad memory they excuse.”

  4. and another just because I keep forgetting to sub scribe to comments, lol

  5. Pingback: Characters Who Speak a Foreign Language, Part Two | Ruth Hull Chatlien

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