Bilingual authors are challenging the practice of italicizing non-English words

Time for a change.
Time for a change.
Image: Quartz/Anne Quito
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In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, her Nigerian narrator moves to the US for college, but still fondly uses Igbo with her family. “What kind of man bleaches his skin, biko?” Ifemelu asks her aunt. The characters of Viet Thanh Nguyen, refugees living in the US, recall customs from Vietnam. ”Mrs. Hoa was dressed formally, in an ao dai of midnight velvet embroidered with a golden lotus over the breast,” describes one of the narrators in The Refugees.

In both sentences, the reader is made aware of the non-English words by italics. Setting non-English words in italics is a standard practice for American English style guides (including Quartz’s). But some multilingual writers are pointing out that hitting command + i is no longer simply a neutral expression of style.

The format is meant to be used for clarity, to indicate to a reader that she hasn’t come across a typo or an English word she doesn’t know. But the practice reinforces a monolinguistic culture of othering, some writers believe, and it simply doesn’t sound natural. For the world’s bilingual population—by some estimates, more than half—it’s not the way people really talk.

Over the last decade, there has been a shift away from enforcing italics on non-English words in publishing. And the decision to italicize or not has prompted authors and editors to ask for whom they’re writing, and to question assumptions about the experience of reading.

In the late 1990s, the Dominican American writer Junot Díaz prevailed against the New Yorker, a publication legendary for style sticklerdom, on the slanting style. After he had two short stories published in the magazine with the Spanish words italicized, the ones in his 1999 story, “Otravida, Otravez,” were not.

So in one of his earlier stories, a character is described as “the ecuatoriana with the biology degree and the chinita eyes.” In “Otravida, Otravez,” someone tells the narrator, “Sounds like you’re going to be bien cómoda.”

The lack of italics in Díaz’s stories were unusual enough to be noted in a New York Times profile of the writer. “I write for the people I grew up with,” Díaz told the Times. “I took extreme pains for my book to not be a native informant. Not: ‘This is Dominican food. This is a Spanish word.’ I trust my readers, even non-Spanish ones.”

It’s not common for a writer’s preferences to overrule the New Yorker’s style guide, says Andrew Boynton, head of the magazine’s copy department. “The reason we do not use italics for Spanish words in Junot Díaz’s stories is simply that Mr. Díaz prefers not to use them,” he explains in an email. This doesn’t reflect style elsewhere in the magazine, which is usually to italicize non-English words, “unless they have entered common use in English, or appear in the main body of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, or are included in the magazine’s style book.”

Children’s publishers in particular have been asking themselves in recent years about the politics of italics, as they’ve responded to a growing call for more diverse voices. In 2014, the fantasy and YA writer Daniel José Older posted a brief, funny video on YouTube that has made the rounds in children’s publishing.

Italicizing non-English words misrepresents a fundamental aspect of bilingualism, Older argues: “When a native speaker speaks and switches back and forth between languages, it does not sound like this: ‘I needed some groceries so I went over to—” The video cuts to Older wearing bangles and a Havana hat, with a popped collar and visible chest hair. He says with an exaggerated accent, “El super mercado.” The video then cuts back to him in his regular clothes, and he continues speaking conversationally.

“That’s not what we sound like. That’s not what anybody sounds like,” he says. “But when you put italics in a sentence, that’s what it looks like. That’s what it reads like.”

Cheryl Klein, editorial director of multicultural children’s publisher Lee and Low Books, says that Older’s video prompted her and other industry people to think more about the implications of the <em>. Now, instead of a blanket policy, she considers each book individually, and relies heavily on what the authors prefer.

She recalls working on In the Shadow of the Sun, by Anne Sibley O’Brien, in which an American girl, adopted from South Korea as a child, finds herself in North Korea. The team decided to use italics only for characters who speak Korean as a foreign language, showing that they spoke Korean haltingly. For native Korean speakers, non-English words are unformatted.

“It asks readers who only speak English to be comfortable being in somebody else’s shoes, to be comfortable not knowing all the words that are presented for them and having to navigate around those,” Klein says. “Many readers who only speak English are not used to that experience. They’re not used to a book being not exclusively for them and accommodating them at every moment.”

In some ways, not italicizing bucks an editor’s impulse to create as clear and smooth an experience as possible for the reader. And not all bilingual writers agree that it’s time to ditch the italics. “I choose to italicize the Sinhala words in my writing precisely because I want to draw attention to them,” Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane, told the literary journal Ploughshares in 2012. “I have chosen to write in the English language, thereby addressing a primarily English-speaking audience, one less familiar or entirely unfamiliar with Sinhala.”

But Older says he’s glad the industry is waking up to the conversation. ”It’s a question of culture and whether or not we get to be our true selves, or have to translate ourselves and perform ourselves for an outside audience,” Older tells Quartz. He says it’s no longer much of a struggle to get editors to agree not to italicize. Readers, though, still express confusion or assume the lack of formatting was a mistake.