I have some UTF-8-encoded text files which display strange escape codes in Emacs. For instance, this text:

In ista quaestione primo exponam quid intelligendum est per hoc nomen ‘Deus’; secundo, respondebo ad quaestionem.

Shows like this in Emacs:

enter image description here

This only happens in Emacs. Other editors show the text correctly. How can I fix this problem?

Update 1

If I call revert-buffer-with-coding-system and select utf-8 the file get read correctly. So, as Gilles has correctly guessed, Emacs isn't detecting the file encoding. If I add the code ; -*- coding: utf-8 -*- to the file, Emacs opens and displays it correctly.

Update 2

I reencoded the file in "UTF-8 with BOM encoding," and now it displays alright in Emacs. I don't know what's the difference between the two types, but Emacs seems to be aware of the BOMed one only.

  • Emacs isn't recognizing the file as UTF-8. What is the content of your init file? What version of Emacs are you running? Does it change anything if you start Emacs with emacs -q or emacs -Q? Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:06
  • I have no problem with other UTF-8 files. I'm running GNU Emacs 24.4.4. No difference with emacs -q or emacs -Q.
    – NVaughan
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:17
  • Ah, if it works with other files and in a pristine configuration then the reason is probably that the file also contains invalid UTF-8 somewhere. Let me see how to tell with Emacs... Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:21
  • possibly related: emacs.stackexchange.com/q/4100/2264 Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


For some reason, Emacs isn't recognizing the file as UTF-8. You can force Emacs to reopen the file as UTF-8 by running the command C-x RET r (revert-buffer-with-coding-system) and entering utf-8.

The reason why Emacs didn't recognize this file as UTF-8 (but recognizes other) is likely that it contains some invalid UTF-8 sequence. This sequence will still appear as backslash followed by three octal digits with a different color (the escape-glyph face) after reinterpreting the file as UTF-8. You can search for such a sequence by running C-M-s (isearch-regexp) and looking for


where ^@ is entered by typing C-q C-SPC (it's the character ^@ = 0, not the two-character sequence circumflex-at; the character before it is the circumflex character).

You can force Emacs to recognize the file as UTF-8 by adding a coding system file variable: put something like -*-coding: utf-8-*- on the first line, or put something like this near the end of the file (you can replace # by any prefix, but Local Variables: and End: must appear exactly like this with the trailing colon):

# Local Variables:
# coding: utf-8
# End:

Emacs chooses the encoding according to which files are interpreted based on several settings, primarily language environments and the variables auto-coding-alist and auto-coding-regexp-alist. Since you have the same problem with this file even when running emacs -Q, I think that this isn't an issue with those settings, but with the file content.

  • If I open the file without the coding system file variable (i.e. when the file displays wrongly) and run the regex search, all of my \342, \200, \230, etc. get selected. But if I open it "correctly" (using the coding variable), then no search results appear.
    – NVaughan
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 19:52
  • @NVaughan Hmmm. Then I don't understand why this file isn't recognized as UTF-8 when others are (especially under emacs -Q). Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 20:14

For UNIX-like systems only.

In many cases the straightforward encoding definition in ~/.bashrc ~/bash_profile


accomplished with

export LC_ALL=en_US.UTF-8
export LANG=en_US.UTF-8
export LANGUAGE=en_US.UTF-8

in ~/.profile should solve your issue.

P.S. After these corrections you need to RELOGIN in your session to allow changes become visible.

  • Althougth what you say may be useful, this does not appear to answer this question, since the problem was only with some utf-8 files.
    – JeanPierre
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 12:06
  • Suppose that after the strict encoding definition in configuration files this problem might disappear for all files forever end ever :-)
    – Alioth
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 7:36
  • Before I saw this answer, when I typed C-h h in emacs I saw lots and lots of ????? instead of Unicode characters. After I set the above LC_ALL, LANG, and LANGUAGE environment variables (and restarted emacs), entering C-h h showed me beautiful unicode renderings in my emacs instance. (So I gotta say that this answer worked for me.)
    – J-L
    Commented Jan 9 at 23:25

It's late to answer the question about the BOM, but I'll do it anyhow.

The byte order mark (BOM) is a sequence of three bytes \xef\xbb\xbf which, at the beginning of a file, indicates to systems and applications that the contents are encoded as UTF-8. Properly they're metadata, not treated as part of the contents.

Most applications -- Emacs is one of them -- honor the BOM and write all UTF-8 files with it. Other applications may honor it in reading, but not write it; and others don't know about it and may throw an error message when they encounter it. In other words, the situation is messy. I prefer to use it wherever possible.


On Windows

it started recognizing and displaying characters correctly by setting the environment variable suggested by @Alioth.


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