The Intrusive Word: When the Right Word Is in Another Language

This tip is for anyone who has ever tried to write in one language but another one keeps intruding.

Have you ever found yourself  in “the writing zone” – inspired, full of energy, the words just jump out and land ‘bang & splat’ onto the page like magic – so you write and write and suddenly, you find that the next word you are about to put down fits perfectly into the sentence, only it happens to be in another language? The pace then slows to a halt and for all the world, you just cannot find any other word that fits as well.

This happens to me from time to time. The only solution I have found is to go back to the beginning of the paragraph and write it in the other language. Then I usually manage to see where the problem lies. Often I can find either the word I initially needed, or a sentence construction that fits the original language well enough.

Sometimes, though, I discover that I was just writing in the ‘wrong’ language all along. But what if you are on page 150, 300 or more of a novel? If you are intrepid, you will just rewrite everything; if not, you can just cut out the sentence and use it for something else; or you might consider making the text bilingual.

So, what would you do in this situation?



12 thoughts on “The Intrusive Word: When the Right Word Is in Another Language

  1. I think of my mom. Although she’s been in this country for over sixty years she still will revert to her home language when trying to express herself. Sometimes the right word does come from another language. There can be a charm in the result depending on the piece.

    1. I agree, the idea for the post came about because I was reading two different translations of “War and Peace”, one in English and one in Spanish. Tolstoi wrote a lot of dialogue in French, and one translator translated the french parts, while the other one didn’t. The result, for me as a reader is that when I read the translation with the french parts intact, I found that it was part of the characterization of the high classes, the characters that used french seemed affected and fake. The translator who decided to also translate the french part did this by making these characters language more affected, but I thought that it did not work for me so well as the one with french. Then I realized that using different languages can be a tool and not a hinderance. And different authors use it for different effects. I’ve found that when I can’t find the right word in the language I’m writing i get stuck, and find rewriting the whole paragraph in the other language helps me get unstuck.

      1. Being only English conversant I’m a bit in awe of being able to switch between two lanuages! How wonderful to mine the depths of linguistics with such ease 🙂

  2. I think this happens when the idea you want to express doesn’t exist in the language you’re writing in. In that case, it’s a great opportunity to find the way to explain that idea to a new audience.

    1. That’s lovely, I’d never thought of it that way, the idea existing in one language and not another. But, thinking of it a bit more, perhaps that is the main reason for loan words in most languages. Thanks for commenting Nora!

  3. I only write in English, but I do use words that may or may not have seeped into the lexicon from other languages if they are the “right” word for the sentence. I will italicize them to alert the reader, and if the reader doesn’t know what it means, I expect them to figure it out from context or look it up. It’s an interesting question that I’ve never thought about as a problem before. I can’t imagine rewriting an entire text to suit the language it “should” have been written in. Interesting topic.

    1. Italicizing the right word is a great option. I can imagine that rewriting an entire novel just because you realized on page 250 that you just can find the right word. If I imagine myself in that situation, I might just do it, it could cut the translation costs, and broaden the audience 🙂

  4. When this happens to me I write down that word in whatever language it is, and come back to it later. Usually after having slept on it, and after using a thesaurus 🙂


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