Fictional translation

A friend of mine used to do something interesting when running roleplaying games: he'd use real-world historical names for famous characters in quasi-medieval fantasy worlds, so that the players would immediately have a sense of what those characters were like. If an NPC says to a player character, "King Glorbfong has sent his agents to seek you out," it probably doesn't mean much to the player; but "King Hitler has sent his agents to seek you out" might give the player the same sense of alarm the character would have. If the player can get over the oddness of the juxtaposition, anyway. (Another approach to this: Kam tells me that the GM of a game she played in college made the players read a novel the GM had written, set in the game world, so that when Prince Orgleborgle (or whoever) appeared in the doorway, the players would all know how their characters should react.)

I've seen something similar done in sf, and I find myself intrigued by it even though I'm not entirely sure I like it. For example, a story set on an alien world might have characters mention pine trees, and it's generally (though not always) to be understood that, just as the alien words are being translated into English for the benefit of English-speaking readers, the alien flora is being translated conceptually so the reader will know what kind of tree it is in relation to the local culture. "Pine tree" carries a lot more connotative weight for an English speaker than "kerflugle tree." (Of course, it carries somewhat different connotative weight for different people, depending on where you live and what your assocations with pine trees are.)

But sometimes it's hard to know where to draw the line. What about cultural stuff? If the alien kids play a game involving a ball and a hoop, does it make sense to refer to it as "basketball" even though the rules are entirely different?

Authors rarely go out of their way to call attention to such devices. One thing I liked about Dennis R. Caro's The Man in the Darksuit (Pocket Books, 1980) when I read it sometime last year was the explicit addressing of (and then playing with) this issue:

"Can you keep the farping thing at five fifty-two or not?"

(Farping is a convenience word. It doesn't mean anything, but everybody knows what it means. It wasn't even the word Coggins used, but it will do as an approximation. There is a race of humanoid lizards that requires the female to be fertilized by three separate males for conception. Coggins' obscenity described copulation among this species when fewer than three males were available—a pleasant interlude, but generally a waste of time.)

[...and a little later:]

(Minutes, and seconds for that matter, are familiar words. Coggins' "day" was broken into a thousand parts, one of which was the equivalent of eighty-eight point nine shakes of a lamb's tail or sixteen point three jiffies. Big deal.)

Often in sf stories, some words get translated and some don't. "I sat under the pine tree and ate my mifflin bread and gretzel cheese." There are some genre conventions governing this sort of thing (especially in High Fantasy, where there are horses, dogs, and dragons, but there are sometimes also schmertzbeasts and giffleflowers), but mostly people seem to go by gut feeling for what sounds right.

For me, it starts to get jarring when someone starts talking explicitly about the language. If a character who's speaking Old High Martian says "It's spelled just like it sounds: G as in grub, R as in red, O as in octopus, L as in liver, B as in basketball," I start to get pretty dubious. But what about idioms and puns? I think mostly I can suspend my disbelief about translations up to the point when something about the language seems specific to one particular time and place (which isn't where/when the story is set). If someone on Planet Krekk, where rocks are money, says "I need some greenbacks, some lettuce, some folding paper, some dead presidents," it jars me. In some sense it should be fine; the author is just translating for the reader, and presumably the Krekkian is really using equivalent slang phrases in its own hard-to-understand tongue. But the language calls too much attention to itself for me to continue to suspend disbelief.

Conclusion: translation is hard.

Real-life translators face similar issues, of course; I continue to be astonished that Michael Kandel managed to translate The Cyberiad:

"Have it compose a poem—a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter S!"

Oh—one more reference point while I'm here: Lydia Davis's excellent and kinda spooky story "French Lesson I" (in her hard-to-find but worth-the-effort collection Break It Down) addresses some of this stuff in real-world languages.

10 Responses to “Fictional translation”

  1. Jay Lake

    In a similar vein, I’ve always wondered why the Germans in WWII movies speak English with German accents when talking to one another. Surely their German (which the English is standing in for to the benefit of the audience) is unaccented? Or at a minimum accented with the German analogs of Anglo-American regional accents.

    It’s one of those conventions of the movie genre, parallel to what Jed describes. One of the few movies I’ve ever seen that got it right was Roi de Coeur, a WWI movie which had the Germans speaking German, Frenchmen speaking French and the English speaking English — every bit of it subtitled. (For other reasons I highly recommend the movie if you haven’t seen it, but the language thing alone is worth it.)

  2. Jed

    A.k.a. King of Hearts, an excellent movie. The repertory theatre in Palo Alto used to regularly show it as a double feature with Harold and Maude when I was in high school.

  3. Joe

    I tend to find it annoying when authors make up strange names for measures. A krelb is three goomaks, which is the distance you can travel over a span in a single flarg. Just use miles or kilometers, minutes and seconds, and make the story more readable. If it’s important that a day is 41 hours long, let us know it’s 41 hours long, but don’t feel the need to make up a new name for those hours.

  4. David B

    Fascinating. The most annoying case of this I have ever seen is the fact that peaches are poisonous in Robert Jordan’s world in the _Wheel of Time_. To me this means simply that they cannot possibly be peaches, and so the word is mistranslated.

  5. Shmuel

    [Disclaimer: I haven’t read the latest installment of Jordan’s series, and don’t remember anything about peaches. With that said…]

    David, this assumes that Randland isn’t actually our world far in the future (or past; there are no beginnings or ends to the turnings of the Wheel of Time). Otherwise, if it looks like a peach and evolved from [or will evolve into] a peach, but differs only in that it’s poisonous… why not call it a peach? Translation wouldn’t even enter into it.

    Granted, the above relies on a hypothesis that you might not buy. (Although, without getting into anything spoilerish, I think the series does provide grounds for buying it.)

  6. David B

    OK, I see your point, Shmuel. It would be counterproductive to go into the kind of scientific discussion of how these are related to today’s peaches in the novels. The kind which one sometimes finds in old hard SF. (I think the references I refer to are in book #9 of the series.)

  7. Arthur Evans

    Of course, you’re overlooking the possibility that the peaches are identical and the characters just happen to have different physiology from humans.

    That said, it sounds kinda dorky to me. But I can’t say I’ve read Jordan. Perhaps it is actually forshadowing a future revelation that the inhabitants of Whatchamacallit are actually descended from … um, something that’s deadly allergic to peaches.

    Or it could be that people only *think* they’re poisonous, like Europeans used to believe tomatoes were inedible.

    Still, I think I’m sticking with “dorky.”

    I hear you on the pine trees, though, Jed. It sometimes feels like the author just ran out of time or patience when inventing their new world. Sometimes it can be explained–alternate world scenarios, say, or the ever popular humans-colonize-another-world-and-name-native-stuff-after-familiar-plants-and-animals gambit. But often it just ain’t, and it is irksome.

    Having a fruit called a peach on a totally alien world that has never had a nation called Persia to name it after would be an example.

    On the other hand, sometimes using familiar names is preferable to a total failure of imagination. If you’re going to invent a race of people who walk on two legs, ride horses, and drink coffee, don’t tell me they’re flumulans, who ride qorses and drink a bitter black wine called guaveh, which is served smoking hot.

    I think this is like the Germans speaking English with a German accent. It’s a convention of a certain kind of SF, an attempt to lend the story atmosphere and color.

    Like most things, some people pull it off a lot more convincingly than others.

  8. Vardibidian

    The point at which I read a passage in a space opera novel mentioning that the wood called hemlock had almost nothing in common with the Old Earth plant after which it was named was the point at which I realized that (a) I didn’t need to keep the book, or read any others in the series, and (b) I was only going to finish it to see if the hemlock plant was ever mentioned again. It wasn’t.

    I think you wound up with that book, Jed. Did you notice that bit?


  9. Nalo

    What bugs me is when secondary characters are given cutesy versions of their local dialects, complete with idiosyncratic spelling–(“Aye, mi laddie; sure an’ it’s a foine day”)–while the main character speaks in standard English with standard spelling. To me, it’s a big pointing finger that says, ‘look, he’s *different* than us? Isn’t that cool?’ For one thing, it assumes who “us” is. If I’m an Irish person who’s seeing my accent mocked, exoticized and misrepresented like this, I might not think it’s so cute.

  10. Clarissa

    I realize this is a late comment, but I was just re-reading this post and wanted to note that these issues drive me up the wall, and I don’t know where to make a decision point. Argh.

    In translating Chinese poetry, I learned that the famous “plum trees/blossoms” one runs into much in Chinese and Japanese literature and art *are not plum trees.* They’re in the prunus family, but so are lots of other things. These “plum trees” are actually closer related to the shrub called “wintersweet,” hence my LJ username.

    Translation is hard enough with Earth languages!


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