I’m writing a script at the moment which at various points throughout requires characters to speak in different languages other than English. I was just wondering if there is a strict code for writing small moments of French or Italian in an English speaking script?
For example, do I write the foreign language as a regular piece of dialogue underneath the character name in block capitals as normal and write the English in brackets underneath? Or do I write the dialogue in English and indicate in the stage directions it should be spoken in Italian or whatever?
There are no hard-and-fast rules. My best advice is that if the word or phrase is short, and easily understandable in context, use the foreign language. So, the Frenchman says, “Bonjour.”
If it’s serious dialogue you’re talking about, put it in English. Here’s a few snippets from the Ops pilot Jordan Mechner and I wrote, which shows a few ways of doing it.
INT. KIDNAP SHACK – NIGHT
A corrugated-metal shack. We don’t see much of it.
A terrified Dagny is flanked by TWO KIDNAPPERS.
Their leader (the Voice) passes the phone to Dagny.
(fast stream of Norwegian)
Give them what they want, please get me out of here, I’m scared! Papa!
MCGINTY (IN ARABIC)
Hospital! Where is hospital?
The old man scurries inside.
As you can see, we didn’t always format things the same way. In this case, I think consistency is less important than clarity.
If a significant chunk of your dialogue is going to be in a specific non-English language — for instance, if an entire scene is two characters speaking in Farsi — save your readers some bother and drop the “(in Farsi, subtitled)” parentheticals. Just say it’s in Farsi in the scene description. It’s your choice whether to leave it in italics.