On Emphasizing Non-English Words in Fiction
Is it asi or "asi"?
At a breakout session during FIYAHCON 2020, someone mentioned how they didn’t want to italicize Spanish words in an English-language story.
Believing I was in whole-hearted agreement, I chimed in saying, “And if you wanted to italicize those words, that was fine too.” I was met with crickets, understandably.
I like to think of myself as progressive. However I, admittedly often, come to newly progressive viewpoints late.
For example, I remember working on a culture magazine and the editor set our style guide, which included replacing the plural “Latinos” with “Latinos/as.”
I felt mostly indifferent about it. Before that, the extent of my frustration with the Spanish language was conjugating all those verbs. Yet, by the time Latinx became more widely used—sadly, it’s not the standard yet—I was fully onboard with the change.
I’ve both used and omitted italics when adding Spanish words to my fiction. Usually, it relates to my mood. I tend to use italics to depict internal thoughts by my main character. So using italics to portray the transition to a different language, muddies my approach for personal thoughts.
The primary negative reaction to italicizing Spanish in fiction is because it’s forced on authors by editors, by which Spanish—or the language in question—is not their native tongue. They believe Spanish doesn’t immediately fit in with American norms, so it obviously needs to be explained. Side-eye.
While writing this, I’m taking part in the Writing the Other Workshop by Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford. I asked them about this issue, in general. They provided this resource by author Daniel Jose Older, “Why We Don’t Italicize Spanish.”
Older makes tons of sense. I agree for the most part.
Yet, my mind was still getting bogged down by meta thought experiments regarding whether this guidance still applies for a piece that is not #OwnVoices.
As I was advised, it’s best to put to focus on if the language is native to the character and whether emphasizing the word or phrase is how the character would deliver the line. So, this has me leaning against italicization in normal use.
Another point worth mentioning: In the U.S., Spanish words are used colloquially by many, even non-fluent Spanish speakers. So, it’s already well part of the norm.
However, perhaps because I don’t like to be put into a box, I reserve the right to italicize if I am so inspired.
To close, here’s a quick book recommendation that doesn’t italicize non-English words: “Midnight Robber” by Nalo Hopinkson.
It’s easy to get engrossed in this contemporary sci-fi story that delights with its heavy dose of Caribbean culture.
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