Cultural Foreign Words

When writing in a historic setting in a non-English language world (real country, real language), how much of untranslated & untranslatable words can be added without losing the reader?

If it is completely anglicized, will people read easier and not notice the absence or will they miss the flavor?

Is it overall a bad idea to write in a foreign country with all foreign cast dealing with a historic events in a foreign country that have little connection with UK or USA?

Usually, all the popular books use a British/American drop in character like Shogun & I notice that the foreign settings are fairly limited geographically and timeline wise for the bestsellers.


I would use foreign words for culture-specific things, like dishes or event names, and for honorifics. For the rest, I would use English, because it can be a difficult read for a reader unfamiliar with the culture.


Well, how far do I go? Money, measures of weight and length, titles, professions, clothes, all of these make a sizeable chunk of text and in a history book would be given in a foreign word and an approximate English translation. Translation or foreign word in each case?


Let’s just not put any more white saviours in them stories if we can avoid it…

This one feels like it may actually be outside my wheelhouse. I’m primarily super white and definitely speak English and almost nothing else (have 6 months to finally learn Japanese).

On the other hand, I’m very familiar with translating Japanese and exporting cool japan from my manga studies, so I can at best use that example, but I would honestly defer to better minds who are more familiar with this space, as well as general opinion.

In reading translations of Japanese stories, they very frequently leave in words that are sort of tough to translate and then include translator’s notes at the end on what it’s sort of alluding to. Honorific is the common one, cultural stuff is usually left in there, like when they refer to doujinshi which doesn’t really have a one word translation. When they leave in translatable words (baka, nakama, sugoi) it’s kind of dumb. Like we definitely have words for that…

Anyways, if you’re not of the ethnic background or from the location you’re writing about, in some way you’re inevitably putting some sort of cultural lens on it, even without injecting the typical white-lead, so you would have to be careful around how you portray things and do your best to represent them. If a phrase really doesn’t have a translation, I think it’s better to leave it in as it stands and leave a footnote about it. It gives people an opportunity to better learn about and connect with that culture and helps bridge the gap.

If you turn onigiri into jelly donuts, you’re doing a great disservice to that culture, and people in the west may never know that onigiri are a thing or why a people might be so into rice as to seemingly have it with every dish. If doujinshi got translated, you wouldn’t be forcing people to have to go look up what it means and find out about the culture of self-publishing manga and conventions and so on.

It’s not your culture/language, so it’s kind of a tricky space (which I defer to others), but from a translation standpoint, you should let them stand. Fiction helps people build empathy after all.

Also, please never do the thing where the character speaks in English but then inexplicably throws in random phrases in their language to, I guess, represent that they speak that language? I’ve met literally nobody, in the most multicultural city in the world, who speaks like this:

“Hey, could you pass that wrench over to me, amigo?”


The country I’m thinking about has Caucasian population, so it is not a question of a white saviour, more of a British PoV

Colonial viewpoint likely not better haha


Nope, it’s not going to be colonial, as politics of the time is a bit different. It would have complicated trade and diplomatic relationships at the time, but no war. Some merchants could be there, and I wanted to have a sideplot with a British citizen, but not as a POV person to add English interest. Everyone else would be ethnically not related to Anglo-saxons.

I am genetically and culturally qualified to write the culture.

If it’s a sideplot of how the British are there, totally, that’s a thing that happens. So long as it doesn’t fall in the Last Samurai camp.

And if it’s your culture then how you handle it is up to you, really I would say this is a great chance to get people more engaged and familiar with those words and concepts


Thank you for the conversation. I guess, I am actually looking for a POV of a anglophone, how irritated they become if they see completely unfamiliar words, and do they want them, or would rather have English words.

In other words, do they think they miss out when they see jelly donut & feel cheated it was not a Japanese word as they expected Japanese words?

1 Like

It mostly depends on who you’re interacting with and how much or little they want to engage with other cultures, so I wouldn’t worry about it too too much.

Generally it’s a factor of:

  1. Is this story interesting enough for me to want to try and learn about this?
  2. How familiar am I with this culture/language generally?
  3. How easy/difficult is it to learn about it?

The willingness to learn about and translate Japanese words and culture has been there.

If you shift some of that language to slightly later in the story and engage more on the narrative and commonalities, and sell people on being addicted to the plot, then they will learn about every intricacy of every detail if that’s what it takes to get to the ending.


All as long as it’s culturally unique and the readers can understand the general meaning of the sentence.

For example, if you say, “It costs 500 yen.” the readers will get that “yen” is some sort of currency. They don’t need to look it up to be able to understand the story. So that’s fine.

For professions, if it’s a generic one, like butcher or janitor, then I think it’s better in English, but if it’s one unique to the country, like “geisha”, then it’s better to use it.

Maybe you can include a glossary in the end or the definitions as footnotes if you think it could be confusing.

1 Like

I’m currently writing a story set in Poland, and all the characters are meant to be speaking Polish, and no Western connection comes into it. So I feel you on that point. I’ve left honorifics and culture-specific things (like kielbasa, etc.) in Polish, but pretty much everything else is English. Though of course I have a whole other layer of separation, because I don’t actually speak Polish…

I think of these, only professions is the one I would generally expect to see translated, unless the profession doesn’t have a proper equivalent Like, in my own native language, the word which means washerwoman can be readily translated into English. But stuff like sarpanch doesn’t have an exact translation - the closest I can think of is headman or mayor, but really it’s a mix of the two. Another thing I’d expect to see in its original language is any culture-specific ideas or philosophies, which can’t readily be translated.


I guess I technically fall under Anglophone.

Even as a kid I had zero issues with words in other languages than mine. I actually really loved it because it gave me a chance to at least learn those words in those languages.

Khaled Hosseini does it with Farsi in all of his books - and it’s awesome! I really enjoyed it and how he did it. It’s very effortless and I never felt like I missed out. And if I did want to know a direct translation, I googled it.

I think it’s really healthy for people whose first language is English to see other languages in literature since pretty much everything gets translated - or they don’t learn a second language and read books in that language. (Massive generalisation here, but I don’t think it’s completely incorrect)

So, use them words. Enrich people linguistically.


Thank you for all the answers, guys. I’m still on the fence about investing time and research into something that will end up alien to the anglo-saxon centric world, but I feel that if I decide to fight it, it would be better to stick with food & outfits as foreign words, and translate the rest as best I could. That will give enough window dressing, without every page having a foreign word to remember.


I’ve read a couple of Chinese novels (add-filled boxnovel). Most things translate ok. Most food that’s mentioned is specific if it’s a cultural dish; otherwise it’s pork, chicken, or a boxed lunch. Same with other things. Holidays are explained as the character lives them.

Occasionally, there is a word pun with words that sound the same in Chinese, which obviously wouldn’t translate into English. These are given a bit of explanation either within the story or author’s note. There are cultural jokes that don’t translate, but should be included just like other cultural differences. This sort of thing is important to include to solidify the culture into the every-day (think hobbits with multiple meals, having names for snack time, or the English and their tea). Just something to think about.

1 Like

Do you mean Caucasian as in people from the Caucasus or just white people?

I’ll not be able to answer your question as asked, because I had not prepared the full genetic and ethnic derivation of each character in my project. Various ethnicities may be present, including but not limited to those specifically from Caucus region within its 16 century boundaries, and/or from the greater Eurasian region, and their descendants, depending on how I handle the plot. In preliminary terms, I would describe the cast as Eurasian.

The conflict arises from system of governance, ethnical, gender, and religious differences as well as interpersonal.

I hope I had provided a satisfactory answer as far as the planned use of ethnicity in my project is concerned.

1 Like

Oh, got to thinking… turns of phrases as it relates to translations- for example: “he released a mouthful of bad air” instead of burped (something I saw in one Chinese story) mostly I think because it’s different than burp. It has the added connotation of releasing bad Spiritual energy, if you know what I mean. So don’t always go with the easy translation when you need a bit more to add a world-building belief system/social structure.