Language is a really tricky issue in historical fiction. The point of historical novels is to transport your readers to another place and time, but chances are good that people in that place and time didn’t speak English. You have to communicate whatever language they did speak while not confusing your readers.
There are a couple of ways you can deal with the language issue in a historical novel. Some authors choose not to use any foreign words at all. The characters certainly don’t talk like modern Americans—their language tends to be more formal and stilted—but even if they’d speak Chinese or Latin in real life, the novel is entirely in English.
Personally, I dislike this approach—I think language is an essential part of a historical setting. I prefer to pick a few key words and phrases (five or six at most) and repeat them throughout the story. If there aren’t too many words, and if you clearly define them in context, your readers will understand them fine. Some authors use a larger number of foreign words and provide a glossary at the back of the novel. This technique can work, but I’m not overly fond of it because I find it annoying to flip to the back of the book every time I come across a word I don’t know.
So what do you think is the best way to cope with foreign languages in historical fiction? Should you use foreign words, and if so, how should you communicate what they mean? Or is it better to just abandon foreign vocabulary altogether and let the language come through in another way?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.