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How to Write Foreign Language in a Traditional Screenplay

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 utilize 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 add foreign language dialogue to your screenplay, no translations needed.

Option 1: When it Doesn’t Matter if the Audience Understands the Foreign Language

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 very small bits of dialogue. For example:

Script Snippet

Julio waves goodbye to the departing bus.

Julio

Adios, amigo!

Or, you can write the 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:

Script Snippet

Louis

(in French)

Hand over the cake!

John

Give him the cake, Mary!

Option 2: When a Character Speaks in a Foreign Language for a Length of Time

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:

Script Snippet

Int. Army Barracks - Morning

Otto and Hans site face to face in two rickety chairs.

All dialog in German.

Subtitles would need to be added to the film after the fact.

Option 3: When Many Scenes Feature Foreign Language Dialogue

If there’s a significant number of scenes in your screenplay that utilize foreign language, 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:

Script Snippet

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.

Maria

Here she comes.

Carlos

Where? I don't ...

CARLOS snaps his head to the left to see his BOSS standing over him.

Carlos

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 is as Important as the Meaning

David Trottier gives this example in The Screenwriter’s Bible, 4th Edition, 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:

Script Snippet

Alien

Zoo-BEE, Woo-BEE.

Subtitles

You're cute.

Voilà! It’s really that simple. And adding a foreign language to 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 later this year.

Adios,

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