Writer’s Questions: What if My POV Character Does Not Understand the Language Others Are Speaking?

Point of view (POV) is an important consideration in how you write your stories. I came across this question in one of my Facebook Writing Groups.

How to write about characters speaking in a different language?

Hey guys, hope ur all well! So I’m working on a ww2 story and in one scene, the British mc gets captured by the enemy soldiers. He is laying on the ground at gun point while the other men are arguing with each other in German about whether to kill him or not

How should I go about this since the POV character doesn’t understand what they’re saying? But I also want to show the readers the intentions of the soldiers arguing with each other (some want to take the boy prisoner, but some want to execute him as a lot of their friends got killed in a recent skirmish)

I was thinking maybe ‘they shouted in German’ or actually translating and writing the German dialogue down. Any suggestions please? Thanks!

My Answer

If the POV character does not understand it, don’t translate it. That takes the reader out of your character’s point of view. He probably can’t even make out the words they’re saying, much less understand them. The character can get a sense of what they are saying through their actions and tone of voice. One of them puts his boot on his back, shouts something angrily in German, and presses the gun muzzle to his head. The other shouts, “Nein,” (most people understand that even if they don’t speak German) and pushes him away. Then they argue. The character knows which one wants to kill him and which is trying to save him.

Remember, only 7% of verbal communication is in the words we say. The other 93% is body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. The POV character does not have to understand the words to get the gist of it.

Omniscient vs. Character POV

I gave this advice because the poster said the British MC was the point-of-view (POV) character. If he/she was writing in an omniscient POV, it would be fine to give the words in German and translate them, e.g., “Wollen Sie mit mir kommen?” (Do you want to come with me?) the man asked. In an omniscient POV, you have a narrator who knows everything, so they can tell you anything they want you to know.

But if your POV character does not understand German, you can’t give the exact words. So you have to communicate the soldiers’ intent in a way the MC will understand, i.e., body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Most novels today are not written in omniscient POV, and I think for good reason. Here is another example that I think clearly shows the difference. Jerry Jenkins used it in one of his writing tutorials.

In this scene, Mary has just won some election. Here is a brief snippet you might write in omniscient POV.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

Mary did not believe him.

We have an omniscient narrator telling us what Mary is thinking. But let’s say you are writing the scene from Bob’s point of view. Bob does not know what Mary is thinking. You have to show it in a way Bob will know.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

“Oh?” Mary raised her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted your wife to win.”

Don’t you feel the tension much more that way? In the omniscient POV, we know Mary does not believe Bob, but Bob does not. In Bob’s POV, Mary shows her disbelief clearly, so Bob knows along with the reader. This is the difference between telling and showing. I added a little body language with Mary raised her eyebrows. But you could have just written Mary said, and it still would have been clear.

“Show Don’t Tell” and POV

Show don’t tell is one of those rules you hear all the time but can be difficult to explain. I think the best way to learn it is to practice using POV characters instead of omniscient POV. In omniscient POV, you can tell all day and get away with it. But if you filter everything through one character’s POV, then you have to show it.


What do you think? Do you have a way of handling characters dealing with foreign languages? Do you prefer to write in omniscient or character POV? Why? Do you agree that character POV makes it easier to show and not tell? Let me know in the comments.

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