Yo Hablo Espanol, Pero Un Poco Solamente.

By John Gilstrap

The title means that I speak Spanish, but only a little. (And don’t yell at me for not knowing how to put the tilde on the N. I tried, but it doesn’t work on WordPress the way it works in Word.) Are you impressed? I didn’t think so. Did it fire you up to read more? I wager it did not. For many, all the title did was cause confusion.

Which brings used to my topic this week: How to handle foreign words in fiction. More precisely, how I handle them in mine. Spoiler: avoid them because they stop the story. Consider the following exchange:

“Alto!” the guard shouted. Stop!

“Que ocurre?” I asked. What’s wrong?

“Manos arriba!” He raised his rifle. Put your hands up.

I’d write it this way:

“Stop!” the guard shouted in Spanish.

I answered in the same language. “What’s wrong?”

He raised his rifle. “Put your hands up!”

The secret to the fictive dream that Brother Bell speaks so effectively about is dependent upon keeping the spell alive in the readers’ minds. Foreign words are dams in the flow of imaginary images.

When the story is set in a different language . . .

Several of my Jonathan Grave thrillers are set south of the U.S. border with Mexico and everyone speaks Spanish only. I’ve established from the beginning that Jonathan and Boxers both speak fluent Spanish, thanks to the work they did for Uncle Sam back when they were still part of the Unit and involved in drug interdiction. Thus, while my writing is strictly in English, I establish early on that everyone is speaking Spanish. Done and done.

If the time comes when our heroes speak to each other in English, I write, “he said in English.”

Now here’s the tricky part: Because all dialogue is presumed to be Spanish, the reader will never see the gratuitous “Gracias” in dialogue. They’ll see “Thank you.” I learned this trick from Jeffery Deaver, where, in his fabulous book Garden of Beasts, which is set in pre-war Germany, everyone addresses Hitler as My Leader. That is the English translation of Mein Fuhrer, and it would be inconsistent to switch to German for the sake of an honorific.

When the POV character does not speak the language that is spoken to him . . .

Let’s go back to the first example, where the guard is challenging our hero. If the hero doesn’t know the language of the person shouting at him (whether it’s Spanish, Arabic or Swahili), I think it’s silly, and a bit distracting, to quote words that our hero doesn’t understand. In that case, I’d lean toward this kind of narrative:

The guard yelled at me. I guess the words were Spanish, but how could I know? When he yelled again and raised his rifle, though, I knew I was in trouble. “What’s wrong?” I yelled as I raised my hands.

If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, you know that I don’t believe that there are rules for writing. It’s all about giving the reader the best ride you can. So, TKZ family, what do you think about this foreign language stuff?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

20 thoughts on “Yo Hablo Espanol, Pero Un Poco Solamente.

  1. It’s tricky, because there are just some terms that when translated lose their meaning. Obviously, you don’t drop foreign words in the middle of an action scene, but titles should remain in that language (I’m not about to call my Imam a priest because that’s misleading). Also, the occasional word dropped in conversation, like gracias, is fine. It depends on context, the effect you’re going for, and most important, whether you’re going to let the word or item named fit within the sentence or spend a ton of time explaining it. (Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, always have her characters use a samovar and never explains it. She never wastes a word saying teapot, just has her characters pour tea from it.)

  2. Thanks for sharing those excellent examples, John, which I wish everyone followed. I was at sea on a number of occasions in some of Cormac McCarthy’s books (I think The Border Trilogy) when the characters were conversing in Spanish and the reader had to struggle to get the context. Carumba! Umberto Eco seemed to go on in Italian (or maybe it was Latin, it’s been awhile) for freakin’ pages during In the Name of the Rose. Ba Fungu!

    • Yeah, I”ve lost patience with CMcC more than once. Plowing thru “All the Pretty Horses,” I asked myself “Why am I reading this?” Then I got to the scene where they’re breaking the horses, and knew why. A wonderful chapter, one of the best, ever. Otherwise, his lack of attribution and use of untranslated Spanish are irritating, Someone gave me a copy of “No Country for Old Men,” so I read that. He sure can write.

  3. Linda Castillo’s books are set in Amish country, and she left the fold but knows the language. In her job as Chief of Police, she has to bridge the gap between the Amish and the English, and I think it works that she follows the ‘translate the words after they’re spoken’ method. It hasn’t slowed down my reads, or hurt her sales. After a while, the eye skims over the Pennsylvania Dutch (unless you’re like me who tries to relate it to 2 years of college German.).
    I set much of Dangerous Connections in Mexico and I’d have to go back and see how I handled the language. Give me a sec.
    I’m back. I avoided using anything other than words I figured would be understood by most readers. Gracias, Buenos Dias and a few others that once I translated for the characters, like the bad guy leader’s handle of Patron, I used Mexican characters who spoke enough English for my main characters to understand.
    Next book is going to be set in Croatia. That’ll be fun.

  4. Buenos dias, Senor Juan. In Costa Rica, we used “un poquito” – (a little bit) for our answer to the question, “Do you speak Spanish?”

    I would agree with the way you set up the rules, though I agree with comments above, that an occasional word that readers would understand reminds readers that they’re reading the translated version. And, of course, names and titles, keep us in the culture we’re reading about.

    Great post! Hasta luego.

  5. I don’t mind reading an occasional foreign word or term. The English language contains many words derived from foreign languages, especially Old German, and French since the Norman invasion of England in 1066. If I don’t understand the meaning of a word, whether it’s foreign or English, I’ll look it up online. That’s how I expand upon my meager vocabulary.

    But if a story is rife with whole sentences in a language other than English, I will stop reading. The insertion of translations as a remedy would really grate on me.

    If non-English dialogue is necessary to the plot, I think your solution below is effective:

    “The guard yelled at me. I guess the words were Spanish, but how could I know? When he yelled again and raised his rifle, though, I knew I was in trouble. “What’s wrong?” I yelled as I raised my hands.”

  6. John –
    Total agreement.
    Good suggestions.
    The use of a foreign language phrase or sentence with no translation provided is particularly undesirable but not rare. Produces an annoying speed bump for the reader and lack of clarity in the scene.

  7. Sí, Señor Gilstrap.

    File this under “whatever works.” For long exchanges, getting in and out as you suggest is easiest for the reader. I don’t mind the occasional italicized word. The reaction of a character can do the translating, rather than spelling it out:

    The guard raised his rifle. “Manos arriba!”
    I put my hands up.

  8. Good advice, John.

    When a Spanish character is speaking in English, I include forms of address like “senor” or “senora,” and the occasional “gracias.” But otherwise I just say the characters are speaking Spanish or whatever language.

    “Manos arriba” always reminds me of the classic film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As they’re robbing a Mexican bank, Butch is reading from crib notes. The customers already have their hands up when Butch says, “Manos arriba.”

    Sundance snaps, “They got ’em up.”


  9. Yours is a good policy, John. I have an Italian character in a few of my novels. Other than Ciao for hello and goodbye, I try to limit her native dialogue to well-known phrases like mungia, mungia.

  10. Great post, John. Your approach is my preference as a writer, because i don’t want to interrupt the fictive dream. However, when necessary, I’m fine as a reader if an author using an occasional word or phrase in a different language.

    That said, I did break my own writing “rule” in my novel Gremlin Night by using words from a number of different novels, because my sorcerer-agents (who work for a sort of secret, magical Interpol) need to switch languages when recasting a spell, or to place particular emphasis on spell because of a particular magical creature they are interacting with. If I used a foreign word, I would follow with the English translation. Other times I would just write, for instance: ““Reveal,” I said in Somali,” which I thought worked well.

  11. Great advice, John. I like your solution. An occasional word in another language is fine, but I don’t want to read a novel with sentences or paragraphs in another language.

    The only time I use words from another language in my books is when one of my main characters, an actress, is in disguise and makes up a name to go with the character. She usually explains the name in the story. For example, she’s “Mrs. Finta” in one scene. “Finta” is Italian for pretense. She’s also “Juliette Duperie” in one book and “Rose Ramen” in another.

    Thanks. Ciao!

  12. Translations are tricky. I think I’d be “taken out of the story” if a German said “My Leader,” even if the rest of the conversation was presented in English although we knew they were speaking German.

    There’s a German novelist, Jae, who published a couple of crime stories (romantic suspense) set in the PD in Portland, Oregon. I read the novel both in English and in her German translations. (Interestingly, she writes in English first, believing that it’s better to translate into one’s native language.)

    In _Conflict of Interest_, the main character, a woman whose name is Aiden, works for the Sexual Assault Detail. In the German translation it’s Sondereinheit für Sexualdelikte.

    Even when i’m reading the novel in German, this title pulls me out of Portland, Oregon into some German bureaucracy. I don’t know if it has this effect on native German readers. I don’t know if it would be better if the German version used ‘Sexual Assault Detail.” English novels referring to the French Sûreté don’t translate it to “Security.”

  13. I like to throw in a sprinkling of local language. I usually follow the rule, first occurrence of a foreign word, such as taberna, is italicized, then it’s taberna from there on. Fortunately, many German words are the same or close to the English. Thus in “Mouth of the Lion,” as Jung employs a word association test to probe Hitler’s mind, when the psychiatrist instinctively deviates from the standard list and says “butterfly,” [schmetterling] Hitler can logically stumble and, instead of “insect,” [insekt], blurt the word he most wants to avoid: “incest,” [inzest]. Jung then rapidly continues with “insect,” as if that was what he heard. Incest is the key to Der Fuehrer’s character.

  14. Good timing, John. I do as you do, plus I might throw in the ‘sat down with his interpreter’ to alert readers.

    But interestingly, I just finished reading a 2020 book that made a complete mess of this: American Dirt. They’re in Mexico, everyone’s speaking Spanish, the author could have easily used the Gilstrap Method, but instead, it’s a complete mish-mash of italicized Spanish + romanized English. Very poorly executed, in my opinion. And don’t get me started on the rest of the book, which I found incredibly average for such a hyped-up book.

  15. “You’re Spanish (castellà) is terrible. No surprise you stuck to English.”
    And, my English is not so good.
    Your Spanish (castellà/castellano) is terrible. No surprise you stuck to English.All the best.

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