The Borderlands of Language: Using Italics for “Foreign” Words (Part I)

Junot Díaz once told me that he writes for his six best friends and the rest of the world.  This was a few summers ago in a VONA fiction workshop in San Francisco. We had been discussing the meaty issue of how much to explain in our short stories and novels. For example, would the reader understand the meaning of chiltepe without having to look it up? How much did I gain from including details that may feel welcoming to some, alienating to others? I wondered if I should italicize certain words, and by that I meant words in Spanish.

Junot answered my questions with a question: “Who is your audience?”

My audience? Other than the folks sitting around that rectangular table, I didn’t have an audience. This was the first short story I had ever written, save for three failed attempts at stories that were really scenes in an undergraduate fiction course. It was 2006. All of us seated at the table were writers of color. All of us had confronted the barbed wire fence in our writing—italics. When was it appropriate to use them? By using italics were we signaling to readers—foreign word alert, foreign word alert? Were we pushing some readers out? Which readers? Or, was the use of italics actually helpful to all readers?

For Junot, if his six best friends understood what asqueroso meant, then there was no need to italicize the word. As for the rest of the world? Well, the rest of the world could get the word’s meaning from context, or they could look it up. He knew what he was doing. After all, if a writer from the majority culture uses specific terminology from polo or tennis, the reader is expected to look it up. He wanted to flip this and change the identity of the privileged reader. So he would never explain what a platano was, much less a morena. You’ll notice I did italicize these words in Spanish. More on that later.

For that workshop, I submitted a short story where I had practically italicized everything. I italicized words like: por favor, bueno, Señora. I’m embarrassed to admit that I even italicized taco. I know.

I changed as a result of my experience at VONA. And my writing changed too. I became more conscious of stylistic choices in my work and the socio-political effects of these choices. I stopped italicizing words in Spanish because I believed it other-ized the very readers I was trying to include. In my fiction I intentionally didn’t italicize words and phrases like: vaya pues, chapin, arroz con leche. Then, in later writing workshops, my classmates wanted answers. Correction: my non-Spanish speaking, white classmates wanted answers. They wanted to understand what a certain character said to another character in Spanish in a particular scene. Go figure. Well, I thought. They can look it up. I imagined my VONA friends chanting in agreement. Yeah, they can look it up. Let them look it up.

Then I attended Macondo, a writing workshop held in San Antonio and founded by Sandra Cisneros. To my surprise, she was on the opposite side of the ring when it came to the use of italics for “foreign” words. In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have a poet. In class one day she explained that a poet is as interested in the performance as in the words on the page. A poet on stage needs to know if she should say “mole” as in a mole on someone’s face, or “mole” as in the Mexican sauce. The heated discussion surrounding the use of italics continued well after workshop. Italics are much more than a slanted font on a computer screen or an 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper. They are the borderlands of language. We let in taco, but we don’t let in pepian. This conversation brought up ideas of access, privilege, audience, and history—specifically, colonialism.

A friend once told me about a time he tried to get a Coke from a soda machine in Texas. He had only been living in the U.S. for a month and he didn’t speak English. He inserted several coins into the vending machine. It read: “dime.” Instead of digging out a ten-cent coin from his pocket, he leaned forward and said, “Coca-cola…por favor.” In Spanish, “dime” means “tell me.” So that’s what he did.

In the end, here are some ideas I’ve gathered about the use of languages other than English in prose:

  • Consider your intended audience first; italicize second.
  • If you plan to read the work aloud, use italics.
  • Journals and publishing houses usually have their own style guides, but these are not necessarily set in stone. Ask your editor.
  • Don’t italicize the word taco. Or for that matter, “foreign” words already assimilated into English like: buffet, salsa, boondocks.
  • Remember that there are more reasons to italicize a non-English word besides calling attention to its “foreignness.” For example: “Mujer, that asqueroso was so cheap he didn’t even buy her a platano!”

As someone who writes about and for people who speak English and Spanish, and someone who has set stories in non-English speaking settings, I often grapple with whether or not to italicize non-English words. Ultimately, I try to remember that my role as a writer is one of creative expression, but also one of communication. Language is my tool.

The conversation continues next week with Lysley Tenorio, Chris Castellani, Angie Chau, and more.

(Image, “To Understand Each Other,” by Francesco Giordano. Creative Commons-licensed content.)