Do you speak French?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.


I will forgo this month’s question as I have never dealt with audio books. I want to talk about a different issue that has me puzzled, more as a reader than as a writer. Some old-time authors I admire, among them Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, and several others, sometimes include French sentences in their books, usually in dialogs, without a translation in the footnotes. Why is there no translation? Are all their readers supposed to know French?

Maybe in the past, everyone with education could speak French. I’m not sure, but I doubt it was true even then. I do know for sure it isn’t true now. I don’t speak French. Neither do many of my friends and neighbors.

When I encounter such foreign-language phrases in books, I generally guess what was being said, but it irritates me. Why did the writers do it at all? Didn’t they want their readers to know exactly what they write? Did they want to baffle their readers? And why, for Pete’s sake, don’t the modern editors supply the translation, when a story is reprinted a hundred years later? I’m certain that every modern editor in every publishing house knows that not everybody speaks French. So where are my translations?   

Do you have anything to say on this issue? Do you have answers to any of my questions? Are you ever tempted to include French in your own books? Or any other language without translation? Tell me in the comments.



This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Reading and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Do you speak French?

  1. denizb33 says:

    I know how you feel! I can speak French, so that’s not a problem. But some of the same authors (Sayers and CS Lewis come to mind) also include Greek! If I come across Spanish or Italian or Latin, which I can’t speak, I can try to puzzle it out. But you can’t even begin to puzzle out the Greek phrases unless you know the alphabet!

  2. I ‘think’ that the authors you mention included French because it was part of their privileged upbringing. And yes, it irritated me – but not enough to stop reading their books. Some French I can get the gist of, though the subtleties escape me.

  3. Jemima Pett says:

    Yes, it was definitely the sign of a good education if you could manage several languages, especially in the UK, which is notorious for having people too lazy to learn another language and speak it decently.

    But I don’t think it transfers well for US readers, where perhaps (I’m guessing) French, Latin and Greek weren’t on the school curriculum (Greek was only done in Public Schools – i.e. the upper class private education – after the mid-60s.) I did French, Latin and German at an ‘ordinary’ school, but Latin probably got dropped some time ago. Which is a shame really, as it’s really good for sorting out the meanings of long English words. 🙂

    I’ve read some US middle grade books recently with heavy doses of Spanish. That’s good, I think. Spanish is a major language, and I’ve only done a term’s worth (while at work).

    But I think it have gone out of fashion otherwise. Unless the protagonist is ordering something in France.

  4. Like Jemima, I’ve seen lots of Spanish in middle grade or young adult books lately. A lot of times they explain what they’re saying through internal thoughts or another way. I’m including a little Spanish in my current manuscript. That’s what I’m doing.

  5. Good question! A translation would help. I can guess on a few languages, but I wouldn’t know exactly what was being said.

  6. spunkonastick says:

    The only other language I know is sign language, so it would bother me to see lines in French or another language.

  7. patgarcia says:

    I have read all of the above authors you mentioned, and it has never bothered me. I myself include some Italian phrases in the first book of my series and will continue to do so. Whether I will include an appendix in the back for the few words I do use, is something I will think about.
    Shalom aleichem

  8. Yes, once upon a time every well educated European spoke at least a modicum of French and German. It bothered me as a very young one, no more, as I do read French now 😉
    In primary school (1st to 10th year) I was taught English, German, Latin and French in this order, apart from my native Danish. Later (11th to 13th year) I was taught Spanish too, while continuing English and German and Latin. I’m not THAT old, but nobody ever learn four foreign languages in the first 10 years of school any more. Young ones here seem to think Japanese or Korean the new craze, so of course I am learning a bit of Japanese as well 😉
    In my writing I keep to one language, either Danish or English, I only write few, guessable flavour words in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and German, and a slew of Icelandic words and phrases, as this is my vessel of magic.

    PS I’m happy to see you back, and sad that you do not participate in the A – Z Challenge this year.

  9. Julia Quay says:

    I’m with you, Olga! I recently read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Among the reasons I didn’t like it was its ongoing insertion of Spanish phrases and dialogue without interpretation. And I can get by in Spanish!

    Was the author targeting a Spanish-speaking audience? I don’t know. But he won the Pulitzer for it, so…

    Dig out that Spanish or French phrase book and let the sprinkling begin.

    Happy IWSG Day!

  10. Loni Townsend says:

    A friend uses French phrases in her work, but she also tries to give context so readers like me, who don’t speak French, can figure it out. If the context isn’t there, then yeah, it’s frustrating as all heck.

  11. emaginette says:

    It depends on who’s speaking. If it’s Poriot, I’d expect it. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  12. Jemi Fraser says:

    For the most part, I tend to assume the phrases can be guessed at. I don’t get stressed without a translation, as long as it’s not happening too often. I recently finished a book with scattered phrases in Pakistani. I liked the flavour this added – it was mostly with family and terms of endearment (I think!) 🙂

  13. Erika Beebe says:

    I get frustrated too and skip it hoping I don’t lose interest. Great question!

  14. I’ve only used phrases of a different language. In Fate Intended, the women were Russian, so it seemed necessary to add some phrases. I chose curse words and slurs and hopefully, through the response of the listener in the book, explained what was being said. That was one of my favorite books to write because I hired a translator to get them right. When I asked for a Russian version of jack ass, the translator replied, “You want to call him butt of a donkey?”

    Definitely something you want to pepper in, not use in whole chunks. I get annoyed by it in movies too. I get it. They speak another language, now let’s pretend they speak English too 🙂

  15. Denise+Covey says:

    Hi Olga, interesting topic. My opinion is different to yours in that I think a smattering of foreign phrases/words adds interest to a novel, sometimes I think it’s necessary. When I come across whole French phrases, for example, I look them up in my French/English dictionary and use it as a learning process (like reading books using a different version of English to mine, such as American English where they use ‘bangs’ for a hair fringe.) Always makes me smile. As I set a novel in Paris and the hero is half French/half American, I think readers would be disappointed if there was no French in it. I think some French words are universal – who doesn’t know what ‘merci’ means? I’ve been taught when using a foreign phrase, directly after it, show its context so the reader understands the word. In my vampire series (set in Italy and France) I incorporate Italian and French words, but in context and showing understanding. I am of the opinion of trusting in the reader’s intelligence. A foreign phrase is just another mystery. I’d prefer them to some dialects. Have you tried to read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for example? A whole book written in a foreign dialect, LOL. But reading is learning to me. Bring on the foreign phrases!

  16. cleemckenzie says:

    If I use any non-English phrases or sentences, I figure out a way to let the English readers know what they mean. I’d never leave them scratching their heads. That’s not necessary.

  17. jenlanebooks says:

    I’ve experienced the same frustration. Sometimes I look up the phrase on a search engine to try to figure it out. I did write a series involving a Mexican American family and inserted some Spanish for authenticity, but I tried to have another character subtly translate most of the time.

  18. Jenni says:

    I think we read a lot of the same authors. 🙂 I’ve noticed this too. Sometimes it’s Latin as well and even German in 18th century novels. I think they did assume that people just knew French or whatever language they are using.

    But I hadn’t thought of the fact that they could add a footnote for modern readers, which would be nice.

    I write mostly for kids, and I’ve always been told to make foreign word meanings obvious by the context or provide a translation. Occasionally, I see a glossary in the back if there’s a lot of words.

  19. denizb33 says:

    Coming back to add my appreciation for Jemi and Denise’s comments! Especially because my current WiPs feature characters who speak English and French or English and Gaelic, and I have phrases in their second languages scattered throughout!

  20. yvettecarol says:

    I’ve often had the exact same reaction, Olga. I read the phrase and wonder, what does that mean? Is it important? And a general feeling of frustration ensues.

  21. mlouisebarbourfundyblue says:

    I understand what you’re saying, Olga. I am often flummoxed by foreign language phrases in English writing. Thank goodness for my husband who can help me with many Latin phrases. I was required to study Latin in high school, but it has vanished from my mind. And thank goodness for Google translator which helps me a lot. I used some French phrases in my short story in an IWSG anthology. The story didn’t feel authentic without them. But I tried to make the meaning clear within the text. I wish there was more emphasis on foreign language learning in the US, especially in the elementary grades. I think Canada does a good job of promoting bilingualism, except in Quebec (but I’m not going to go there). Happy writing and reading in April!

  22. Widdershins says:

    I’ve read books where the author is too busy proving themselves smarter than the reader in this regard, and I stop reading at that point … but if the author takes the time to give me a context, the odd phrase in another language adds a certain frisson 🙂 to the narrative. 😀

  23. Diane Burton says:

    I agree. Sometimes I can figure out what the phrase means. Mostly, not. And it is irritating.

  24. Shannon Lawrence says:

    The use of untranslated French has irritated me enough to stop reading books before. I usually stick it through if it’s guessable, but I remember putting away a collection of Bronte sisters works because there was so much French and no explanation whatsoever. Annoying.

  25. Damyanti Biswas says:

    I’m a little late to this post, but it resonates with me. I often come across foreign language not being translated and it often leaves me anxious, because the thought of not completely understanding the book is frustrating!

  26. If I’m given enough context so that I can figure out the meaning without being jarred out of the story, then I’m okay with it, but if there’s nothing to help me understand it, that drives me nuts.

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