Saturday, May 26, 2007
WW? #1: Lost in Translation
While my blog’s comic strip won’t start its new "season" until Friday (I’ll post an entry with more details on that next week), I couldn’t pass on responding to an entry by fellow blogger Jess. In the past, Jess has posted “Writer’s Weekly Questions” for writers and readers to answer. I always found these were a lot of fun, and almost always, they gave me a new insight into my writing. Jess got away from the WW?’s for a while, but they’re back and part of a new blog she’s started called "It’s Creative, But Is It Art?" Check it out when you get a chance. Should be a lot of fun. For now, time to answer this week’s question.
New Writer's Weekly Question #1:
In creating the world your characters live, work, and play in, what sorts of things have you had to consider? How do you go about creating a world that allows your characters to do what they need to do, and yet make the world accessible to your readers?
I think I could spend weeks posting entries to answer this one, so I’m gonna narrow it down to one aspect of the setting my wife and I use in our book The Last VanDaryn. For now, let’s discuss the language of the world my wife and I call Iridia.
I’ve spoken in previous entries about the work involved in creating this world with my wife, but one thing I’ve never touched on is how far we go with employing the actual language of the world. While Iridia is given a medieval setting for the purpose of our book, Iridia is basically an alien world. That means in some distant, distant future that people from Iridia and Earth could actually cross paths. If they ever did, they’d have a hard time talking, because Iridians don’t speak English. With that in mind, one could consider the book(s) we write about Iridia as English translations. That’s why we still call a sword a sword, but Iridians would most likely use an entirely different word for it. Still, some untranslated Iridian terms do sneak into the book quite a bit.
Perhaps the best example of pure Iridian in our book would be the names of the characters. One of the main characters is named "Mikhael." His name contains an "ae" vowel arrangement that we often use when employing pure Iridian words. What’s even more interesting with Mikhael’s name is that the original spelling for it was most likely "Mik’l." Yes, it gets more complicated. We treat Iridia as our world in that multiple languages and cultures exist. Mik’l isn’t actually a typical name within the society where he lives. It’s taken from a neighboring kingdom where the "Mik" prefix is more common. To make him fit in within the place he does live, his adopted parents altered the name into something more "localized," and thus his name was changed to Mikhael.
All that said, many readers might never realize that Mikhael is pronounced no differently than the name "Michael." People who have read our book often see his name and give it more of a Russian pronunciation that resembles "Mikhail." So how do we clue the reader into the correct pronunciation? We might include a glossary in the back of the book. Certainly, many fantasy novels resort to this. But what if we don’t do a glossary? How will we ever let the reader know the correct way to say Mikhael? The simple answer: we won’t. It’s a matter of knowing what matters. Yes, it used to grate on my nerves to hear people mispronounce Mikhael, but I’ve come to realize that I’m simply happy to have someone reading about him at all.
So why even bother with "Mikhael" if his name isn’t pronounced any differently from "Michael?" Why bother with what seem subtle changes that don’t even alter the pronunciation of the words? Certainly, there are plenty of examples I could pull. After all, we have Iridian words for some of the nobility’s titles, the religious leaders and so on. If what we’re really giving the reader is just an "English translation" of the world, then why even bother with what amounts to cosmetic changes in the language? The reason is to give readers a taste of the reality. Every time they see a name like Mikhael or a nobleman’s title like "Thaen," it’s a subtle reminder that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.
This can get complicated, though. After all, how much Iridian can we sneak in there before the reader becomes hopelessly confused? We try to use as much as we can, but there comes a point at which we have to remember we’re offering readers a translation of the world, not the original version. If we’re going to use an Iridian word, we have to make sure it’s used in a context that explains itself.
This isn’t exclusive to fantasy novels, though. In my short story "I am Sam," which appeared in "Spinetingler Magazine" last year, I use present day Richmond, Virginia, for my setting. The main character is a police investigator, and part of the story includes some conversations over the police radio. In an early draft of this story, I made the conversation authentic by using all the "ten-codes" a Henrico County police officer might use. A lot of this code language wasn’t clear for the reader. Even my wife, who knows some of these ten-codes (she helped me memorize them when I started working as a communications officer several years ago), found it tough to follow things. At one point, the investigator is letting the radio operator know he’s leaving one location to go to another. He says, "Show me clear from Mental Health." The original line was, "Show me 10-8 from Mental Health." Both lines say the same thing, but to make the setting accessible to readers, I translate most of the ten codes for them.
As I said earlier, I could probably go on much longer with this. A lot goes into making any story’s setting accessible to the reader, and the local terminology and language are just a small part of that.
As always, thanks to Jess for the Writer’s Weekly Question. Great to have you back!
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 11:31 AM