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Writing Books/how best to handle characters traveling in countries where they do not speak the language


i'm working on a novel in which the characters travel to a country where they do not speak the language, so they hire a guide/translator.  i want to show the experience through the eyes of a foreigner and have it ring true, but obviously i don't want the reader to get bored by constantly describing an action or tone of a speaker then having it translated by the guide/translator character.

i feel like i'm finding a good balance and keeping it readable, but i would really love any advice on how best to handle this.
also, do you know of any novels that have done this well?

thanks for your time!

You're on the right track to think in terms of moderation and balance. An occasional foreign word or phrase that the translator explains would be interesting, but giving the foreign sentence and English translation every time would bore readers. I like the idea of the native performing the action and the translator explaining. I would be captured, for example if  a scene showed a native waving his hands and pointing, and the translator saying, “He says we can't catch a taxi here; we have to walk down to the next corner.” As a creative writer, though, I would not use the same method of showing the speaker's action and telling the translation every time. Always avoid patterns. Sometimes the foreigner can try to guess what the speaker is trying to say. Sometimes the translation can be given in narrative. Sometimes it should be word for word and at other times paraphrased, as in my example. Vary the techniques, and the content will stay interesting to readers.

Offhand no specific novels come to mind as outstanding examples, but The Broker by John Grisham does a fairly good job with the use of foreign words.

Be sure to go to and sign up for my free newsletter for writers. I wish you much success with your novel.

Yours in writing,
Bobbie Christmas

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Bobbie Christmas


Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas owns Zebra Communications, a book-editing firm in metro Atlanta. She not only edits books, she also helps writers power up their prose to increase their chances of success. She is the author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), a creative-writing guide that won three awards.


Bobbie has spent more than 40 years in the publishing and communications industry and has run Zebra Communications, a book-editing company, since 1992. The editor of many publications and periodicals, she has worked with book publishers and trade magazine publishers as well as working in marketing communications and corporate communications.

Past president, Georgia Writers Association; past vice president, South Carolina Writers Workshop; charter/lifelong member, Florida Writers Association; Southeastern Writers Association; Atlanta Writers Club; Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL); International Guild of Professional Consultants

Write in Style (Union Square Publishing), A Cup of Comfort (Adams Media Corporation), A Cup of Comfort for Friends (Adams Media), A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (Adams Media), Haunted Engounters (Atriad Press), Remembering Woolworth's (St. Martin's Press), First-Time Home Buyer magazine, HomeBusiness Journal, Apparel Industry Magazine, Edge Magazine, Atlanta Jewish Times, Time Travel Australia, American Writers Review, Points North, That's Entertainment, Atlanta Parent, Agnes Scott Alumnae Magazine, etc.

Journalism: University of South Carolina plus four decades of working in publishing, marketing, communications, advertising, newspaper and magazine production, book publishing, etc.

Awards and Honors
First Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers Annual Contest, 2005; First Place, education, Royal Palm Literary Award, 2004; Best in Division, Georgia Author of the Year Awards, 2005; Finalist, Best Books 2005, USA BookNews Third Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers, 1999; Nominated for Georgia Author of the Year, 1998; plus many other awards

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Capital Books, Sourcebooks, Olin Frederick, The Writer's Machine, Russell Dean & Company, Outskirts Press, and hundreds of writers.

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