I had the pleasure of reading Watership Down aloud to my children over the Spring and early Summer. It’s a wonderful book, and they seemed to enjoy it a lot, and that was nice—I enjoy reading to them, but it has become difficult to find the right books that work aloud and stretched out over months.
The thing for this blog, of course, is the inclusion of a few words from the fictional language Richard Adams called Lapine. It’s a thing I have been finding irritating, over the last twenty years or so, the notion that books written in (and read in) English are actually translations from some other alien (or as in this case animal) language, with a dozen or so words left untranslated. And Adams does all the things I find the most irritating about it: choosing words to leave untranslated that have perfectly reasonable English versions, inconsistently using those English words on occasion instead of the untranslated word, a lake of clarity whether the book is nominally in translated-Lapine, or whether the narration is in English and the dialogue in translated-Lapine, the lack of distinguishing characteristics between translated-Lapine and the English spoken by humans (and the Hedgerow spoken by other animals), and the difficulty of actually pronouncing the faux-foreign words. Somehow, though, I don’t mind it in Watership Down at all.
Maybe it doesn’t irritate me in Watership Down simply because I first read it when I was young and naïve, and hadn’t been irritated by other writers doing the same thing. Or perhaps Richard Adams really does do it better than other people—that seems likely, but I don’t have a bunch of other examples immediately to hand to compare him to. Or maybe it’s that the other aspects of the book I really like overwhelm my Reader Irritation on that particular topic. Or indeed that when I’ve been thinking I was irritated by the use of occasional faux-untranslated alien lingo in other works, it was really other aspects of those works that was making me cranky enough to pick on that particular thing. At any rate, I’m fine with it. I don’t even get cranky about the language being called Lapine instead of Rabbit.
And more than fine with it, those made-up words stuck with me more than a lot of the other aspects of the book. As I was reading along, I made the snap decision that the rabbits of Efrafa would have French accents, not remembering that there are more than half-a-dozen different characters that have substantial dialogue, of distinctly different personality types, far beyond my ability to portray with my outrrrrrrrageous French accent. And had I remembered exactly how gruesome the final battle between Bigwig and Groundwort was, I might never have begun to read it to my children in the first place. But words such as silflay and tharn and elil came easily to my tongue, along with the honorific -rah and the diminutive -roo. So that’s all right.
And perhaps I can remember, when around my children and struck by sudden frustration or injury and beginning to swear with a great big F, to convert it to Frith in a tree!