Whether you exclusively read literary fiction, or you like to curl up with the trashiest science fiction you can find, you’ve probably seen it so many times it doesn’t even register. Most publishers italicize words in foreign languages. I can’t even name the number of novels I’ve read that do this – it’s in everything from Nabokov to Tolkien.
As a writer and editor, I’ve done it myself. I recently edited an entire novel with an international cast of characters, and painstakingly went through italicizing all the Spanish, Italian, and German words. Back in February, I wrote a flash fiction zombie story with an elderly Mexican woman and sprinkled a few Spanish words in for effect. In June, I had an entire essay published in Salon about the fact that I’m not bilingual – and, you guessed it, I italicized the sparse few Spanish phrases peppered throughout. (My editor, however, removed them.)
Then I saw this video by Daniel José Older, a speculative fiction writer and the co-editor of the fantastic anthology Long Hidden, and immediately started kicking myself for never questioning this stylistic assumption:
In case you can’t view the video, what he’s saying is that when authors or editors italicize foreign words, they’re throwing the reader out of the story. They’re making bilingualism something exotic that needs to be highlighted. They’re drawing attention to the change in languages as if it’s something extraordinary and noteworthy, when in actuality… native speakers switch between languages all the time, without pause. If you actually speak multiple languages, combining words from them is not a big deal.
And Older is right. I have Spanish-speaking family members myself, and the transition is seamless. If you don’t have friends or family who slip in and out of foreign languages around you and don’t really understand why this is distracting, reread those first couple of paragraphs at the top of this post.
Yeah, random italicization is pretty annoying, isn’t it?
Of course, this gets really tricky when it comes to genre fiction stories, which may have words in made-up languages. In those situations, there’s definitely an argument to be made that italicizing those words makes it clear to the reader that they’re, well, not real words, and that they shouldn’t dive for the dictionary immediately. I tend to think that too many invented words in genre fiction are distracting anyway – at best, I usually completely skip over passages of imaginary “foreign” text when I encounter them – but if you must use them, you definitely have a lot of think about in terms of readability.
Doubtless there will be some readers who are perturbed by the suggestion that they change the way they’ve been writing for years. And that’s fine. I think Older makes it pretty clear in his video that he’s just explaining his stylistic choices, after having many readers ask why his books have been formatted a certain way.
Ultimately, I think this is a choice that’s best left up to the author to decide. We’ve had it hammered into our heads for so long by the literature we read that there’s only one way to format foreign words in text, even if we’re using a language that we speak in our day-to-day lives without even thinking about it. So start thinking: about what you’re trying to really say, and about the audience you’re writing for. (And don’t italicize “foreign” words that have been adopted into mainstream English, like “taco.”)
Just remember: it is a choice. So if you end up with an editor (like me) who goes a little italics-happy with your text, feel free to challenge them. I’m certainly going to stop and think about the message I’m sending before I copyedit — or submit an essay to a major publication — in the future.