Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood … in the 21st century, movies are made everywhere. And while the film industry expands, so does our desire to hear from more diverse voices, including languages we may not understand. But with strict screenplay formatting, how do you write in a foreign language to enhance the authenticity of your story, and at the same time make it legible and not confusing? Never fear, there are a few simple ways to write foreign language dialogue in your script, no translations needed.
Option 1: When it Doesn’t Matter if the Audience Understands the Foreign Language in Your Screenplay
If it’s not important for the audience to understand the dialogue spoken by a character (perhaps it’s just setting the tone for the scene), or, despite not speaking that language, the audience will still understand what’s going on, then you can write that dialogue in the spoken language. This is only recommended for writing in a foreign language in very small bits of dialogue. For example:
Julio waves goodbye to the departing bus.
Or, you can write the foreign dialogue in your given language, but add parentheticals under the character’s name to let the reader know which language that line is meant to be delivered in. For example:
Hand over the cake!
Give him the cake, Mary!
Option 2: When a Character Speaks in a Foreign Language for a Length of Time in Your Script
If you’re writing a scene that’s foreign language heavy, you may consider stating that in the scene description or when you introduce that new character. For example:
Int. Army Barracks - Morning
Otto and Hans site face to face in two rickety chairs.
All dialogue in German.
Subtitles would need to be added to the film after the fact.
Option 3: When Many Scenes in Your Screenplay Feature Foreign Language Dialogue
If there’s a significant number of scenes in your screenplay that utilize foreign language writing, you should note near the beginning, in the description, that all dialogue spoken in that foreign language will be noted using italics from there forward. Or, that all dialogue spoken in a foreign language will be noted using brackets. For example:
Int. Café - Afternoon
Carlos and Maria sit face to face in two rickety chairs, warming their hands on their COFFEE CUPS.
All dialogue in italics is spoken in Portuguese.
All dialogue in [brackets] is spoken in Portuguese.
Here she comes.
Where? I don't ...
CARLOS snaps his head to the left to see his BOSS standing over him.
I, I wasn't expecting you.
The screenplay will flow better for the reader, without the constant interruption of parentheses to note a foreign language is being spoken.
Option 4: When the Sound of the Foreign Language Dialogue is as Important as the Meaning
David Trottier gives this example in The Screenwriter’s Bible for conveying that the sound of the foreign language is as important as what the character is saying, but the words have a humorous quality:
Voilà! It’s really that simple. Writing a foreign language in your screenplay will be even easier with the SoCreate Screenwriting Platform. Interested in giving it a try? Be sure to sign up for our private beta list to be one of the first to know when the platform launches soon.