Italics for Non-English Words in Fiction

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Switching to italics for the occasional word or phrase borrowed from another language—and not listed in a standard English-language dictionary—can be helpful to readers.

For example, if I refer to Marcel Proust’s fictional maman in my otherwise English prose, italics signal that I’m not simply making up new words or misspelling “mama.”

This strategy works well for literary studies and history and the like—or for anything that requires straightforward, unambiguous prose. And it’s what CMOS recommends (see paragraph 11.3).

Fiction, however, isn’t always so straightforward and unambiguous.

A novel or a story invites its readers to enter a world that isn’t the same as their own while asking them to accept it as real (or at least plausible). And that can mean encountering unfamiliar words and words from another language or culture.

Italics = Inauthentic

The problem with using italics for non-English words in fiction is that italics will draw attention to those words in a way that can make them seem mannered or inauthentic. Ernest Hemingway (or his editor) understood this a long time ago.

Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, originally published in 1926, follows a group of American and British expatriates as they travel from France to Spain for the festival of San Fermín. Hemingway uses his novel to show off his own recently acquired local knowledge, especially once we get to Spain for the running of the bulls.

In the following passage, the words “encierro” and “cogido” are enough to suggest that the narrator is speaking Spanish (or broken Spanish, or a mix of Spanish and English—we can’t know for sure) with his Spanish waiter:

“Anything happen at the encierro?”

“I didn’t see it all. One man was badly cogido.”

“Where?”

“Here.” I put one hand on the small of my back and the other on my chest, where it looked as though the horn must have come through. (Modern Library ed., 1930, p. 205)

Italics would have taken these two words out of the ordinary, conversational register of the rest of the dialogue, as if the speakers were emphasizing them in some way.

Even when they’re not in dialogue, most of the Spanish words in Hemingway’s novel appear in regular text, from “aguardiente” (pp. 109 and 155) and “bota” (p. 161) to “fondas” (p. 252) and “paseo” (pp. 155 and 186). All of these are now listed in Merriam-Webster (either in the free dictionary or the unabridged).*

On the other hand, even familiar French terms are put in italics in the narrative (but notably not in dialogue)—from “apéritif” (p. 13) and “bal musette” (p. 19) to “fine à l’eau” (p. 21) and “sportif” (p. 247). (“Apéritif,” “bal musette,” and “sportif” are all in Merriam-Webster.) The result is that the French terms feel less authentic, or more self-consciously French, than the Spanish.

This distinction can serve as a model for today’s writers and editors. If Hemingway’s relatively inexpert smattering of Spanish words in both dialogue and narrative could seem more authentic without italics, then maybe yours won’t need italics either.

Italics Are for Emphasis

Writers working today have the same choices available to them that Hemingway did, but many still default to italics for non-English words—or accept the italics imposed by their editors or publishers.

Here’s a passage of dialogue from Pachinko (New York: Grand Central, 2017), an English-language historical novel by Korean American writer Min Jin Lee:

Ajumoni,” Fatso shouted genially. “Ajumoni.”

“Yes?” Yangjin knew he wanted more to eat. He was a puny young man who ate more than both his brothers combined. (p. 14)

These italics read as emphatic, which is a reasonable assumption for a character who is supposed to be shouting. But “ajumoni” (a Korean word that means something like “ma’am” or “madam”) is italicized wherever it appears, even where there’s clearly no emphasis: “Yes. I’m indebted to you and ajumoni” (p. 54). So we can’t be sure.

A similar problem crops up in a narrative passage from another historical novel, Shanghai Girls (New York: Random House, 2009), by American writer Lisa See:

Her gown, a cheongsam made of midnight blue silk with midlength sleeves, has been expertly tailored to fit her age and status. A bracelet carved from a single piece of good jade hangs from her wrist. The thump of it when it hits the table edge is comforting and familiar. (p. 4)

The language-marking italics for “cheongsam”—the Cantonese name for a type of close-fitting dress that became popular in Shanghai in the 1920s—compete on the page with the emphasis italics for “thump.”

Though the italics for non-English terms work well enough in most cases throughout both of these novels, readers might be better off without having to navigate this additional layer of meaning.

Fiction in Translation

A good translation can provide valuable insight into how to deal with non-English words in an English-language context. That’s because all translations start with unfamiliar words—and, to complicate things, many words aren’t easily translated.

Here’s Matthew Ward’s translation of the famous first paragraph of Albert Camus’s The Stranger (Vintage International, 1989; published in French by Gallimard in 1942, as L’Étranger):

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday. (p. 3)

Note that “Maman” (the French word for “mom” or “mum”) remains untranslated. And it’s not in italics either. That works well: “Maman,” in italics, might have spoiled at the outset the slender illusion that Camus’s fictional world—and that of his first-person narrator, Meursault—might be real.†

To put it another way, the choice of regular text for “Maman” signals—by not signaling—that this word belongs to the narrator’s vocabulary and worldview in a way that can’t be translated, on the one hand, and that needs no special typographic treatment, on the other.

Less Is More

Using regular text for non-English words is one way to avoid the heavy-handed feel of italics. Another strategy is demonstrated by a recent story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

“With the Beatles” (a title the story shares with the second studio album by the Fab Four, who were almost as famous in Japan at the time it was released as they were in the US and the UK) was translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Aside from a few place-names and other proper nouns or adjectives, there isn’t a single word of Japanese in Gabriel’s English-language version.

Yet the translation still manages to remind us that the story is in Japanese, as in this notable chance encounter between the narrator and the older brother of his first love. They are in Tokyo, a few hundred miles from the place where they both grew up, and it has been eighteen years since their last meeting:

“Excuse me,” he said. He had an unmistakable Kansai intonation. I stopped, turned around, and saw a man I didn’t recognize.

We can guess that the narrator shares the Kansai accent, though this is the first and only time it’s mentioned. And soon it will become clear that he has come face-to-face with his past—his childhood and adolescence in the city of Kobe—in a way that turns out to be both unsettling and revelatory.

Sometimes it’s enough to remind readers of the narrator’s world through simple narrative hints. This strategy can be even more effective than introducing words that may not have much meaning for your audience and that may need help from additional context anyway.

* * *

Ultimately it’s up to the author of any creative work to decide how to incorporate different languages into the text and whether to use italics or not. If you’re the editor and you’re not sure what the author wants, just ask.

But authors and editors should both consider that using italics for non-English words risks sending the wrong message. In a polyglot narrative, who decides what is familiar, or which language is the default? On the other hand, what assumptions do you want to make about readers?

My advice would be to give readers the benefit of the doubt and save the italics for better uses.


* Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (published in 1961 and the original basis of Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged dictionary) cites a passage from Hemingway—from the 1927 story “The Undefeated”—for the sense of “paseo” related to bullfighting (the online version retains the example). The Oxford English Dictionary cites this same passage in its definition of the word.

† It’s worth noting that Ward’s translation capitalizes “maman,” which becomes apparent in the middle of a sentence: “I wanted to see Maman right away” (p. 4). This is the convention in English for words like “mom” that are used alone, in place of a name (see CMOS 8.36). But in French it’s lowercase, as you can see in the original version of the opening sentence: “Aujourd’hui, maman est mort.”

Top image: Torre di Pisa (Tower of Pisa), by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

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3 thoughts on “Italics for Non-English Words in Fiction

  1. I believed that if the French word appears in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary it is not necessary to italicize. E.g. metro, chateau, etc.
    Otherwise you do italicize the foreign language word. If there are only a few words, then it works well, but if the writer is scattering foreign words all over the place, perhaps not.

  2. I’ve never found italicizing foreign dialogue a problem or competition for emphasis. Italics help readers ‘hear’ the language as something different from English. If anything, use of italics for emphasis is overdone by many writers and that is far more of a distraction for me.

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