Spanish words, slang, and phrases in novel writing

A Google search for the definition of a new term to me, ‘heritage speaker’, led me to a blog series by Lisa Bradley who writes at Cafe Nowhere. Lisa’s blog is a gold mine of information. I especially enjoyed her series, Writing Latin@ Characters Well, where I found the answers to many questions about the complicated business of using Spanish words and phrases in novels.

My novel, A Decent Woman, debuts this autumn, and there are Spanish words sprinkled throughout the story. I’m a native Spanish speaker, so it was natural for me to use them in my story.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. –Buddhist proverb

The questions rattling in my brain this week,( besides the questions of when the City Public Works will collect the debris of my neighbor’s downed tree branches now littering my sidewalk), were:

1. Should I italicize the Spanish words and phrases in my novel,  A Decent Woman? What about my character’s thoughts? Should they be italicized?

2. Is it best to offer the meaning of Spanish words and phrases within the text, or place a comma after the Spanish word and use the English word in the same sentence?

3. Should I include a glossary at the end of my novel for non-Spanish speaking readers?

4. Am I missing important differences between 1900 Cuban and Puerto Rican slang, words, and phrases?

5. What Puerto Rican Spanish curse words were used in 1900-1930? Yes, I need to know this!

My thoughts and some light bulb moments gleaned today from a few of Lisa Bradley’s blog posts and from her reader’s comments as they pertain to my novel:

1. Me – Do not use names that require accents marks. I used the names, Raúl, Agustín, Isabél, and Vicénte in A Decent Woman. Great names, but what a pain when it came time to edit until I found the ‘Replace’ and ‘Find’ feature on Microsoft Word. I have since replaced Raúl with Isidro because it is an older name, and I’m not hesitant to use those great names any longer.

2. Don’t italicize non-English phrases or words in a manuscript. Potential readers and buyers will (hopefully) have read the book cover blurb and/or the synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads. If the author has written a good description, synopsis or blurb, the reader will know to expect some Spanish words.

3. Readers will rise to the challenge, don’t dumb down text with translations of non-English words. I’ve read books with French and German words in the story; a talented writer will give you the meaning of the word or phrase within the text.

4. No glossary. Same reason as #3.

5. I’m still searching for the answer to my question about whether thoughts should be italicized in a novel. I’m sure my editor extraordinaire, Ally Bishop, will know the answer to that, so I’m leaving that one alone for now!

Definition of a Heritage Speaker: “a person who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or merely understands the heritage language, and who is to some degree bilingual in English and the heritage language” (Valdés, 2000)

Link to Cafe Nowhere:


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