Whether you’re writing a TRANSFORMERS sequel with an eye toward global distribution, a TALENTED MR. RIPLEY-style international thriller, or the next great World War II epic, knowing how to accurately, efficiently, and consistently format dialogue in another language is an essential tool in a screenwriter’s toolkit. Even in a global market, English is the default for scripts written for an American audience. Any language outside of that (be it Spanish, Urdu, Italian, Elvish, or Dothraki) will generally need to be indicated when inserted into your screenplay.
Fortunately, WeScreenplay is here to help you embrace the polyglot protagonist. Here are a few ways to make sure that your cosmopolitan cast can be featured in all of their multi-lingual glory––and that your reader never loses the plot in translation.
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A simple and straightforward option for a single piece of dialogue, parentheticals are also the standard way to format dialogue in another language. This approach is streamlined and perfect for noting a character speaking in a different language for a single piece of dialogue. Here’s a simple example using American Sign Language:
As is the case with any parentheticals, excessive use can prove taxing for the reader, so be sure to employ them effectively or use an alternative such as an in-action note.
This is a great option for reader accessibility, employing a Tolkien-esque fabricated fantasy language, or simply avoiding a translation snafu if you aren’t fluent in your character’s native tongue. For a few lines or a single piece of dialogue, use parenthetical actor direction to indicate subtitles:
However, this method can prove tedious for readers when used throughout an entire scene and can be distracting when building a rhythm. Try an action line specifying the language in which the characters are speaking. End the scene with an in-action like that makes it clear when they’ve switched back into English. It might look something like this:
A Blanket Language Note
Final Draft is the industry-standard screenwriting software, which allows for some creative options when formatting a screenplay. A blanket note, in an offset color for clarity, is an easy way to make use of Final Draft’s formatting options to showcase a character’s break into another language.
If you’d like to be selective about which dialogue is in a different language while avoiding excessive parentheticals, try using italics:
Toggling between languages in italics can prove visually difficult at times, so another option for off-setting lingual shifts is by using brackets.
Brackets can also be used, either as a method to set aside non-English dialogue:
Or as a means of translating short pieces of dialogue written in another language:
The Bilingual Method
If you happen to be part of the over-achieving half of the world that is bilingual, you can also simply plug in the language your characters are speaking.
Impressive? Yes. Accessible? Not so much, which is why this method is best for filling out the world of your story rather than communicating pivotal story points. It can also be a great way to indicate a character casually using a different language.
As with any rule, there’s always an exception. VIDA on Starz made use of a mix of non-subtitled and translated Spanish to showcase the true-to-life use of Spanglish, Spanish, and English in the East LA community of Boyle Heights. Here’s an example from the pilot of VIDA:
Prioritize clarity and specificity, and remember: dialogue should drive the story no matter the language. Of course, expert feedback can help you refine your approach, so take advantage of script coverage with specific feedback on your script: from character analysis to detailed notes on your script’s plot and structure.
Need help with your next draft? Check out WeScreenplay’s top-notch Coverage services!
Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.