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The general advice is often to focus on the content of what's said in dialogue and just write it in the reader's language, largely whether the characters would use that language or not in-universe. See for example the answers to this recent question or for that matter universal translators.

However, what if you really want to show that the point-of-view character does not understand what the other characters say? As he or she sees it, they are speaking to each other, but the words are gibberish.

In the particular case I have in mind it's a made up language, but it could just as easily be a real human language.

Obviously one shouldn't overdo it (there's a reason why the general advice is for the author to translate, and I mostly agree with it), but for something like a few lines, is it acceptable to make up some such dialogue or should I just stick with something like "she looked at him and spoke in [their native tongue]; I had no idea what she said, but [the result was ...]"?

Put another way, in what situations might it be a good idea to actually write down the actual words, rather than a translation into the reader's language?

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Why write "A@pl;/,,.(* %%^$w", they said when you can write She spoke fervently, her eyes staring intensely into mine. I shook my head; her language was beautiful, but it was still gibberish to me. Still, I think if you want to use a made up language that's fine, but keep its use to small statements; the reader will almost certainly skip over it rather than trying to read it, much as they do when we give characters long and odd names, so it may damage the story flow if you over use the language. –  CLockeWork Sep 16 '13 at 8:20
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@CLockeWork You make a good point, and one seemingly well in line with both my second-to-last paragraph in the question and Dale's answer (which I upvoted, but I found Lauren's answer with some examples more helpful which is why I chose to accept it over Dale's. –  Michael Kjörling Sep 16 '13 at 9:22

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Depends on a few factors:

1) Is the narrative's point of view from the person who doesn't understand, the person who does, or omniscient?

CJ Cherryh writes books where the humans are the outsiders in non-human societies. Until the human catches up with the non-human language, the human sounds like Cookie Monster. "Me want food! Me went store, but no has coinage for to pay!" So that's the POV of the person who does understand the language, because the non-speaker is obviously not speaking correctly.

If the POV is from the non-speaker, then it depends on whether the person can pick out words or whether it's gibberish. See Dale's excellent answer for suggestions there.

If it's omniscient, you can switch or combine depending on who is the focus of a given scene.

2) Is the language one which the reader understands (or could understand) or not?

If your narrative is omniscient or you're writing from the POV of a speaker, you can choose to reproduce the actual words.

If your language is a human one, then just put it in. A reader who understands French (etc.) will follow the dialogue.

If your language is non-human, then you can use the non-human words, but you will need the translation, because the reader isn't going to follow either.

Regardless of your decision, if the words are important to the plot, then the reader eventually needs a translation. If they are not important, the translation is up to you.

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There is one very specific situation in which it is a good idea to write down the words spoken in the language that is not understood by the point-of-view character, and it occurs when you want the reader to experience vicariously, as closely simulated as possible, whatever the POV character is experiencing when he or she hears the language being spoken.

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I would refine the advice thus: Translate the viewpoint character's experience into the language of the reader.

That is, if the viewpoint character hears gibberish, you translate the experience of hearing gibberish into the reader's language.

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