Thursday, August 26, 2021

italics Alex?

I'm curious what the "rules" are for italicizing foreign words, from an agent/editor perspective. According to my research, the Chicago Manual of Style says you only have to italicize the first occurrence, but I've seen it done differently in a book (Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield): every occurrence is italicized. 

What has been your experience? 

Every publishing house has its own style guide.

You'll see it when you turn in your final edited ms, or when you get copy edits to review.

Thus a book published by Snooty Tooty and Cootie may have one way of italicizing foreign words like knickers and catsup, whereas a book published by Hoi Polloi and Cousin Roy may have another.

When you're querying it doesn't matter.

My preference is you not italicize foreign words as long as I can figure out what the word means from context or a quick trip to the google machine.

And who's to say what's foreign?

Hijab may be a new word for some, but it's an item in daily use for someone else.

Same with mami, which I've seen publishers turn into mommy (with great hilarity from me, but NOT from the author).

Some of us think oven is a strange and exotic word, but I am reliably informed that most people not only know it but use one. Who knew?




C. Dan Castro said...

I've read online (not necessarily the source of truth) the recommendation to italicize words that would be unfamiliar to the reader. But like Janet said (and thanks for the post, Janet), what's unfamiliar? For a short story submission, I had to agonize over whether to italicize "je ne sais quoi"; I've known this phrase forever, but does the average reader? How would I know? But if different publishers, etc. have different style rules anyway, perhaps the best advice is not to overthink, stay off the hamster wheel, make a choice, and move on.

Heather Wardell said...

My most recent book, "Fiery Girls", contains some Yiddish and Italian words because my two main characters are a Russian Jew and an Italian, both young immigrant women. I was investigating how to italicize these words and learned that there's a growing movement not to, for the "who's to say what's foreign?" reason Janet stated.

So I didn't mark those words as different by italicizing them, and not a single reader has mentioned it although many have liked the use of those words.

I won't italicize words in other languages going forward either. It's a bit like describing all characters by their race except for white ones - it's assuming a certain perspective is "normal" and everything else is weird and must be called out.

Colin Smith said...

How much italicization do you suppose Anthony Burgess used on the ms of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE that he submitted? And how much did he fight with his editor to get it published the way he wrote it? Questions to ponder... unless someone knows the answers. 😀

As Janet says, probably best to leave it to the editors to handle according to their house style. If they have questions, they'll ask. And if they try to correct your foreign words, or italicize them inappropriately, you should have the opportunity to discuss and make corrections.

My 2c: Be judicious about your use of strange or foreign-to-your-target-audience words. Always ask if they're necessary to the story, or if they get in the way of the reader understanding what's going on. One might wonder, for example, if all that Elfish in the Lord of the Rings books is necessary. I think that's a valid debate. On the one hand, it looks as if Tolkien invented this language and he was darned sure he wasn't going to let his time and effort go to waste. On the other, the inclusion of Elfish songs adds atmosphere and credibility to the world. In the end, however, if I recall correctly, none of the "foreign" language sections in the books are necessary to the story. You can skip them and still follow the flow of the narrative. Everything you need to know is presented in plain English.

My rule of thumb--and this is just me: don't add anything to your story just because you can. If a foreign word is necessary for character or plot, use it. But be sure those who don't understand the language can discern what it means from the context. If your readers need to know a) that the character is speaking in a foreign language, and b) what the character is saying, then present the dialog in English with an appropriate tag:

Sergi turned to Alex. "This man's a bigger fool than I thought!" he whispered in Ukrainian. Alex grimaced his agreement.

Other than that, je ne sais rien! 😉

NLiu said...

Colin, I sincerely hope you meant Elvish and not Elfish! Quelle horreur!

Craig F said...

I'm farting around with a YA horror kinda thing. Half the characters toward the start are Puerto Rican.

Therefore I am tossing a lot of Spanglish and Puerto Rican dialected Spanish into the dialogue. Since it is dialogue, I leave it as it is.

Imagine what a fantasy writer's draft would look like if they italicized all of their smeerfs, smoofes, and other Turkey City rifs.

Colin Smith said...

NLiu: I'm going from memory... and Elvish seemed wrong. But I sit corrected. What do I know? I'm not an Elvish impersonator! OK, I'll leave now...

John Davis Frain said...

Strive to italicize as little as possible, and have a solid reason for any words you feel the need to italicize.

Quick Steven Pressfield story that I love since OP brought him into the mix. I was at a Story Grid seminar where Pressfield was speaking, and did a Q&A following. Someone asked him how much research he did for his novels. His answer, which I'll never forget: "As little as possible."

It wasn't a "this is the lazy way to do it" answer; it was a "this is the smartest way to do it" answer for a writer. I got the chance to talk to him afterward for a while, and he's a terrific guy. No surprise.

(Three cheers for the interrobang, which is not on my keyboard still.)

PAH said...

I don't like saying "foreign word" ... to me it's more about when someone is speaking a different language, intermixed with English. Feel like it reads weird WITHOUGHT italics.

Like Hercule Poirot's little French expressions sprinkled into his English.

I also think the italics helps the reader know that it's a word in a different language than the rest of the book, not an obscure SAT word that they just haven't seen before (and therefore the reader knows how to look it up if they must).

KDJames said...

I really like what Daniel José Older had to say about this in a video a few years ago.

*googles video, notices that it was SEVEN years ago, takes many deep breaths while pondering time passing*

Anyway, here's the link, titled "Why we don't italicize Spanish" if that gives you a clue to the content. Sorry I didn't make it clickable but that seems like ancient practice at this point,, get with it.

Colin Smith said...

Here's KD's link linkified:

I agree. Get with the 21st century, Blogger!

KDJames said...

Thank you, Colin! (although, you probably shouldn't encourage my sheer laziness :) )

AJ Blythe said...

Gah, now I'm questioning the italics in my ms. Will leave it up to the publishing experts (when I have said experts). Great topic!