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OK. Let's say an author is fluent in three different languages. And now, let's say this author wants to create a trilingual story. The narration may be done in English, but the dialogue may be done in all three languages, and it must be so because the author wants to use bilingual wordplays and puns, so that means translation is not feasible. Is there a market for that type of work?

Will publishers accept bilingual or multilingual works?

If publishers do not accept works in that format, in what ways may the author insert a trilingual character who has a sense of humor and a penchant for language?

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Try searching for such a book. I can find none. Ergo, no market. –  what Jan 25 at 8:14
    
But there are countries with multiple official languages (Canada, Switzerland). Did you search there? Why wouldn't the idea work? –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 25 at 14:15
    
But a person from Canada who knows French and English can perfectly well read a book all in French. And then there's the majority of Canadians who are no more bilingual than the average US American. They learn French (or English) in school, but spend their whole lives reading and speaking only one language. The parts and people who are truly bilingual are very limited even in a country with more than one official language. –  what Jan 25 at 18:54
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You meant like a star trek series with English, Klingon, Ferrengi, Bajoran, Vulcan spoken? –  Blessed Geek Jan 26 at 12:10

4 Answers 4

The problem is that the publisher of a book needs to think that there's enough of an audience for the work. So, they need to believe that there's enough people who speak all of the relevant languages fluently (puns are usually lost on less skilled speakers of a language), AND who like to read, AND who read whatever genre the book is in.

That's starting to sound like a small set of people, no matter which languages you pick.

So, how could one get such a thing published?

First off, as the comments indicate, try to find such works. I have no idea how to search for such a thing, so I'd probably go around to minority language bookstores in the area (Spanish speaking stores in the US, for instance) and see what they can tell me. If you find a publisher of such works, that's the place to start.

Next up, try publishers of minority works (there are publishers of Spanish works in the US, for instance). They already serve a bi-lingual population, so perhaps they'd be up for such a work.

If that doesn't work, and the author believes in the form, I'd say go the self-pub route. Do an e-book, do POD. No it's not a publisher contract, and yes it's a lot of work on the author's part, and no, the money isn't going to be there, but if there's no existing distribution channel for such works then it may be that there's not enough interest to get a publisher on board at all.

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Russian editions of Tolstoy (particularly of his "War and Peace") are bilingual --- French was the language of nobles in Russian Empire at the time, so characters often talk and write letters in French. All French fragments come with footnotes, so bilingual readers (who, in fact, was Tolstoy's intended readers when he wrote those texts) could read two languages and the rest could follow the footnotes.

Those parts are actually interesting ones, though the rest of the book is dead boring. The point is, however, that you could indeed get published with bilingual (at least) book if you provide footnotes.

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Books from the 17th to 19th century, aiming at a highly educated and very limited audience, often had sections in foreign languages. Because at that time everone went through the same type of education and you could rely that they all knew Greek, Latin, and French, if they could read. –  what Jan 25 at 17:36
    
You're right of course. Still, to teach is believed to be one of the side-goals for art and aesthetics, so I don't see why can't we try to emulate the experience to the point. –  Undespairable Jan 25 at 18:35
    
Because you don't learn French from War and Peace. You have to already know it, to be able to read the French passages. There is not learning involved in the bilinguality, here. –  what Jan 25 at 18:51
    
Yes, but I studied English beyond professional needs just so I can read my favourite books in original language. I don't think I'm that different from your average Joe. If book is good I sure will want to be let in on the puns. –  Undespairable Jan 25 at 18:56

I think the main argument against a book written in multiple languages is aesthetic.

And we are not talking about books, like War and Peace, that have small parts in another language, or quote texts in the original language, but books truly written in two or more languages.

Such a book can be easily imagined, when you listen to people who grow up multilingually: for example, here, in Germany, there is a large community of adolescents of Turkish origin. These youths often speak Turkish at home and German in school and with their non-Turkish friends. When you listen to two Turkish kids on the bus, they communicate in a Pidgin mix of German and Turkish. They do so, because some things are better or more easily said in on language than the other, so they switch to whatever comes most easily or sound most cool, or whatever.

From this example – and maybe you have witnessed such a conversation yourself – you can easily imagine a book being written in the same way, with every section or sentence or part of sentence being written in the language that either best conveys the authors intention or sounds best or comes most easily to him.

But why is that a problem, aesthetically, if your readers are fluent in all the used languages? Because the reasons given are not acceptable reasons from an aesthetic perspective.

Writing is a form of art. The assumption is that not everyone can write at a level worthy of publication, or that at least they have to learn it. It takes training to achieve a level of mastery that results in elegant and pleasing sentences. And it takes talent and/or diligent training over many years to enter the ranks of the literary greats.

The idea to write (in one or more languages) as you find it most easy, contradicts the idea of art. Art is based on the idea of ingenuity: of fighting hard, and against the inherent obstactles of a language, for a beautiful text. Writing in multiple languages because that way you can better express yourself means that you take it easy, that you are lazy, that you did not master language, but that it masters you.

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I like your last two paragraphs, so I am going to select it as best answer. –  Anonymous Jan 26 at 15:12

I would say there's no harm in trying.

While I do not know of any works that are really equally split between more than one language, the number of successful books that make use of non-English jokes, idioms, and dialogue shows people are willing to perhaps work or think a little harder (e.g. online dictionaries for words/phrases) to enjoy something good. I also think the bi- and trilingual audience is there and would probably appreciate uniquely engaging literature. Additionally, if done right, you don't only have to aim for those who are fluent in your languages.

There are two prominent examples of authors who have incorporated a second language into their writing: Junot Díaz and (to a lesser extent) David Foster Wallace.

If you've not read any of Díaz's work yet, I'd suggest you do so in order to see the way he masterfully incorporates Spanish language and Dominican culture into his dialogue and narration. I don't speak any Spanish, though I know a moderate amount of French, and I often have enough of a feel for a line or word through context that I don't need to look it up. Because the narrator is always fluent in Spanish and in a community where he speaks it daily, it makes complete sense that it is such an integral part of Díaz's writing.

I really haven't read enough Foster Wallace to know if this is a trend—and I suspect it's not— but there are a fair amount of references to Québécois French in Infinite Jest, mostly in the end-/footnotes and as throwaway jokes. A group of characters are from Quebec, one man has some unfortunate circumstances where his incomprehension of the (untranslated—so it is the reader's perhaps incomprehension as well) French dialogue poses a, er, fatal problem, and there is one particular instance where a non-French speaker mishears a French word. I forget what that specific word was, or what it was misheard as, but I remember having to repeat the botched English phonetic pronunciation aloud a few times fast before I realized what the original word was and had a good smile.

Above all, I think the most important piece of advice is to make sure the writing is good! Even if the publisher doesn't specialize in multilingual text, if the work is objectively good, they will probably try to figure something out. I would also recommend sending inline translations to your readers if meaning won't be clear from context.

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