Thoughts on Writing – Using Foreign Languages In Your Stories

Recently, I’ve been making edits to The Multiverse Chronicles. It’s a pseudo-steampunk fantasy story, and it’s very much not historically accurate. We’ve got dragons, dinosaurs (all right, all right, I know pterosaurs technically aren’t dinosaurs, but still), dirigibles, magic powers, a dragon queen who rules over Britannia, an Industrial Union of Prussia that makes automatons… The list goes on.

Still, we want to have occasional nods to reality, and it’s nice to know which parts of history we’re butchering before we actually butcher it. Since the world is supposed to (vaguely) resemble our own world, we’ve been trying to add flavor through various means, and our latest method has been to insert little snippets of other languages where appropriate.

For example, one of the end scenes of the Multiverse episodes involves a group of airship pirates. The name of their dirigible is mentioned, and the name is supposed to be in German.

Of course, neither Isaac nor I know much of anything about the German language, which is a recipe for potential issues.

In this particular scene, Isaac wants the name of the ship to roughly translate to, “The Spirit of the Iron Vulture.” The first step to renaming this in German was to use Google Translate.

However, from our experiences with Spanish classes in college, we know that online translators aren’t necessarily that reliable. So, whenever I try to name something or use a word that isn’t English, I may use an online translator to start with, but I will usually run it through multiple translators, and then take that translation back from the target language to English to make sure it translates correctly both ways. (I’ve had a few interesting translations when I tried that particular method, as the translator might have had the right word, but not the right meaning). I also try to look up whether words should go before or after one another, if there might be any changes to how the word looks based on what it’s modifying, and anything else that might be different in that language.

For Spanish, this isn’t quite so difficult because I’ve had a few classes, which helps me know what to look for. Even then, I’ve had a beta reader correct my Spanish grammar, and that was helpful to getting the sentence right (I had the wrong verb form).

For German… well… I don’t know German.

I’ve picked up a couple words here and there from Hogan’s Heroes. (Not exactly conducive to knowing how a language works).

I really wasn’t sure what we were looking for in naming conventions, especially since the name we wanted had the “of the” portion. Then I remembered that a friend from college had studied German, so I figured he might be a someone to ask. I sent him a Facebook message, and he was able to offer quite a bit of help.

When in doubt, ask someone with more experience than you.

When Isaac first chose the name, he ended up with “Der Geist Eisengeier.” (Note: If your ship’s name has “the” in the beginning of it, don’t forget to translate that as well). With a bit more checking, I ended up with “Der Geist des Eisernen Geier,” but it seemed a bit of a tongue twister (which I probably pronounce wrong, anyway, since I don’t know German pronunciation rules). Anyway, we asked if it would be feasible to shorten the latter to the former, but our friend pointed out that without “des” (of the), we would end up with a really long, run-on noun. He suggested “Der Geist Des Eisengeier” as a compromise, though he pointed out that German ships would often have longer names.

Isaac and I chose the compromise (Der Geist Des Eisengeier), though knowing about the longer names factor definitely makes using the full name a more feasible option.

As a writer, half of the process of story research is knowing what to look for. In this case, I suspected the language rules might be different from English, but I didn’t have enough knowledge on the subject to know where to begin. At this point, asking someone who does know (or at least has more knowledge than you) is a good way to find a decent starting point. This can be used for language, culture, special procedures, technology… anything. Of course, the more you read, the more you know when you should conduct research, and the more likely you’ll catch where you might have problems before a reader does.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. 🙂 Have you ever had issues with adding words from another language into your manuscript?

(Another good example of doing writerly research can be found at Thrill Writing, a blog where the author interviews various experts about specific topics which are helpful to fiction writers.)



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8 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Using Foreign Languages In Your Stories

  1. German language has a lot of run-on nouns with adjectives crammed on. Mark Twain was making fun of them for it 135 years ago.

    For example a life insurance company is “Lebensversicherungsgesellschaft”. You could write it as Company of Insuring a Life and translate to Gesellschaft der Versicherung einer Lebens . In the same sense you can name the ship EisenGeierGeist, or Iron Vulture Spirit (I would then be forced to call it the EGG for short and because it’s a dirigible so egg shaped…see how well that works).

    • Interesting… I hadn’t realized they did their nouns that way. (And I could see why Mark Twain would complain).

      Humorous thought calling it the EGG… will probably avoid that acronym. LOL Reminds me that in one of Isaac’s and my campaigns, there was a futuristic ship that vaguely resembled an egg and one of my characters got a lot of flak for deciding he was going to commandeer it. But it was technologically advanced, so that made up for its looks, right? 🙂

      • Yeah German (and Welsh oddly enough) build compound words by adding the descriptors onto the base word. So instead of Seven Thousand Two Hundred Fifty Four you get Siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig. There’s a famous town is Wales named “The Church of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio with a red cave” or in Welsh that’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

        Your friend was right that in German the name would be a compound word like this, but even just the German word parts make great names. ‘Geist’ is just a wonderful break from ‘ghost’ and ‘Eisen’ is just as good as ‘iron’. Geier (pronounced guy-are) for vulture’s not bad either.

        This is why so many authors just make up new languages. 🙂

        • Wow. That is one really, really long name (at least by our standards). Interesting, information. 🙂

          But yeah, I can see the benefit of made-up languages. (Granted, having something to base the language on is handy).

  2. I teach English as a second language and my wife is from the Netherlands – that to say that I can understand how difficult it can be to find the correct translations. There are many words in Dutch that don’t translate the best into English. I’ll bet German is quite similar and not every word translates. It is great to see your perseverance in making sure you get it right.

    • Definitely. Not every word is going to translate properly into another language, and then you get idioms and phrases that don’t have literal translations… That’s awesome that you get to work with multiple languages, though. I’m only fluent in English, but I find other languages fascinating.

      I’m glad you appreciate the research attempts. 🙂 We’re pretty much guaranteed to get something wrong, given the mismatched nature of the story (dragons, dirigibles, dinosaurs…), but we’re trying to get as many details right as possible. At least enough to be believable, so that when we do inevitably botch something (or intentionally change a detail for story purposes), it won’t be quite as likely to throw the reader out of the story. 🙂

      • I’m also only fluent in English. It makes for interesting, fun, and challenging classes.

        • Ah, fun. Yes, I do imagine that would be challenging, though I suspect the payoff of seeing other people learning the language (as well as learning a language yourself, over time), would be quite rewarding.

          I had a bit of difficulty in one of the Spanish classes I took that was almost entirely in Spanish. Granted, it wasn’t until the end of the semester that I realized the professor rarely wrote words on the board… which is typically how I picked up on the language in previous classes. I was better at reading than understanding the spoken language, which may or may not be related to my partial hearing loss.

          Either way, though, languages still remain fascinating to me. Good luck with your classes. Sounds like they could be interesting to work with. 🙂

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