Some of you may know that I hold one undergraduate and three graduate degrees in foreign languages (French, Italian, and Spanish). Because of my background in foreign languages, I like to use foreign expressions in my fiction when the opportunity arises to do so.
But using foreign language expressions in fiction requires not only an understanding of the expressions being used, but also an understanding of how to use them.
For example, while most readers know certain foreign expressions like coup d’état or carte blanche, few readers understand expressions like per piacere (Italian for “please”) or non vedo l’ora (Italian for “I can’t wait”). So what are some strategies we can use to include foreign expressions in our stories especially when we write stories set in a foreign country or a foreign culture? Here are a few tips I have found effective:
1. Include the English translation after you use the foreign expression.
Example: “Hai fame?” Carlo offered her a slice of bread. “Are you hungry?”
2. Use foreign expressions with which most readers are familiar.
Example: “Merci, Monique. I’m grateful for your help.”
3. Have your characters use gestures specific to their culture.
Example: Giovanni slapped the palm of his hand to his forehead. “Mamma mia! I forgot to make the pasta.”
When using foreign expressions in your fiction, keep your reader in mind. If your reader struggles to understand the meaning of a foreign expression, she may feel frustrated and be drawn out of the fictive dream.
Have you used foreign expressions in your fiction? If so, what techniques have you used to make those foreign expressions natural to your story?
NOTE: The Facts on File Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases is a helpful resource for understanding foreign expressions and their meanings.
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