• Joseph Morganti

Writing Dialogue for non-English Characters (Plus Examples)

Dialogue is a significant makeup of any great script, a portion of a story that if it isn’t good, it’s impossible to make a decent script out of it. No matter how good the story idea might be, dialogue drives the success of a script. Still, many screenwriters struggle with what they should do while writing dialogue for non-English characters.


As challenging as it might seem to write dialogue for non-English characters, there are a few key ways you can set out and do it. Examples include writing it in an accent, making it known what dialogue is foreign, note at the beginning for what’s in a foreign language, or writing it as you would with any character. Nevertheless, let’s look at these examples and how you can apply them to your script.

Still from 'Wonder Woman'. Photo credit: WSWS


English Language in an Accent


Although not as familiar with middle to lower-budget films, many mainstream big-budget pictures write foreign languages in an accent rather than the language itself. No matter what your feelings are, it’s an effective method for not confusing the audience with subtitles.


Again, if you find it repulsive to go with this style in a script, that’s completely fine. It’s just worth noting that it’s an option to consider. For example, in the 2017 film Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman is up against German soldiers. Rather than have them speak in German, the film has them speak in a German accent.


It’s easy to do this style by putting parentheses for what accent they’re speaking in. If the film isn’t overly complicated with what’s foreign, it can just be noted at the beginning that the specific characters in that foreign language have an accent. This is a great way to not overcomplicate things and make it easy.


Example


LARRY

(in Italian Accent)


Hand over the gun!


BILL

Give him the gun, Jason!


Write Script in English But Make it Known What Dialogue is in a Different Language


Another way to write dialogue for non-English characters is to know what dialogue is in a different language. Think of it as you would with writing a flashback. Just make a note saying all dialogue below is in whatever language they’re speaking in. It’s an excellent method for when there are just a few scenes where the characters aren’t speaking English.


Now, if you have a character speaking a foreign language with someone who is speaking English, then you’ll have to note which characters aren’t speaking English. Either way, it’s an effective method for quickly noting who isn’t speaking English and who is. Below is an example of how you could do it with your script.


Example


INT. OTTO’S HOUSE - MORNING


Otto and Jason sit opposite from one another on a hard wooden floor.


All dialogue in German.


OTTO

So, where do we begin?


JASON

Don’t start with that.


Don’t Differentiate, Write Foreign Language As You Would With Any Character


The most straightforward approach to writing a script with non-English characters is to write their dialogue in the language as you would with any other character. Now, you need to make sure the dialogue you’re writing is proper grammar in that language. Don’t rely on Google Translate for whatever dialogue you hope to insert.


Keep in mind, if a production agency, agent, or manager reads your script and isn’t native to the language you wrote, then you’ll need to write translations for them. This style only works best for already established filmmakers who can get away without putting what every bit of dialogue means. Using the same example as above, below is how this method can flow in a script.


Example


INT. OTTO’S HOUSE - MORNING


Otto and Jason sit opposite from one another on a hard wooden floor.


OTTO

Also, wo fangen wir an?


JASON

Fang nicht damit an.


Note at Beginning That There is Foreign Language Dialogue


Instead of putting headings or keeping it in a simple accent, you can place a key at the beginning of your script when someone isn’t speaking English. This method works best if there is one foreign language present in your script; otherwise, it may get too confusing to have a lengthy key.


An excellent key to utilize is to italicize when a character isn’t speaking English. Now, if your script is heavier in a foreign language than English, you may want to do the opposite. Specify when a character isn’t speaking the primary language in the film and try to go from there. You’d be surprised how easy this style is.


Example


INT. HOUSE - AFTERNOON


Billy and Ashley sit face to face in a dirty LIVING ROOM, warming their hands over the fireplace.


All dialogue in italics is spoken in Italian.


All dialogue in [brackets] is spoken in Italian.


ASHLEY

We should’ve paid our heating bill.


BILLY

You’re always complaining.


BILLY HEARS a knock at the DOOR.


BILLY

John, is that you?