So, in the coming weeks, I’ll be taking part in the Codexian blog tour, which aims to feature fellow Codex writers–in this particular case, through guest blogs. First at the bat is Gareth D. Jones, who talks about languages and translations.
For a relatively little-known author, my stories have been translated into a surprising number of languages – 20 at the last count. I’ve always been interested in languages, leading me to investigate other tongues that don’t have any established markets for genre fiction, make contact with friendly translators and ask them to translate some of my very short flash fiction. My 100 word story ‘The Gondolier’ is now available in 33 languages, many of them appearing on my own website. Altogether you can read some of my stories in 38 languages, from Afrikaans to Welsh.
Aside from having my work translated, this interest has led me to spend quite some time considering how to deal with languages in my fiction. It’s easy to create characters who all speak English and share a cultural background similar to mine, but a large portion of science fiction is set somewhere in the future, or on another world, or amongst alien species. It’s not very likely that they’ll all conveniently speak English.
The problem is, I don’t feel very confident about creating characters from other real-life cultures who speak different languages. I have no problem creating a new species or inventing a culture, but I’m afraid that if I populate my story with, for example, French characters, I’ll end up writing horribly clichéd dialogue that will make genuine French people cringe. It will be like those characters in US dramas with fake English accents using American expressions that British people don’t use.
There are several ways around the language dilemma, and my experience with translations has given me some insights on the matter:
- Ignore it. Don’t even mention language. After all, in my stories that appear in Greek, everyone speaks Greek.
- Have everyone speak a common language, as in Jack Vance’s Gaean Reach, or Asimov’s Empire. Add planetary accents for variety.
- Oblige everyone to learn an artificial language. In Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld everyone learns Esperanto. This allows you to include cultural variety without worrying about language barriers.
- Supply Universal Translators, or a Protocol Droid fluent in 5 million forms of communication. Once the concept is introduced, you can write all the dialogue in English (or whatever language you happen to be writing in).
- Mention at the outset which language everybody is speaking, but then write in English anyway. This introduces the problem of using idioms and expressions that don’t appear in the language you’ve chosen, and phrases that rely on
homonyms to have any meaning.
If I set a story in a far-future galaxy-spanning culture, do I assume that individual planets will maintain cultural identities inherited from Earth, or will mankind have become homogenous? The answer doesn’t always have to be the same. It doesn’t have to be politically correct either – there’s no reason to assume society will maintain the same values thousands of years from now.
Here are some of the things I’ve tried in various stories:
- A story set in Wales, where I’ve taken expressions my relatives use to make the characters sound authentic.
- A far-future tale where various ethnically diverse, bio-engineered colonists have settled on the same planet and have almost become separate sub-species. A human translator is needed for part of this story, but I’ve made him a character in his own right so that he adds to the translation rather than being a distraction. Others speak a common tongue, but in a Tolkienesque way they maintain their own ‘old tongues’. It was fun to work out how they would interact.
- A section of the novel I’m writing takes place on a Scottish colony planet. I’ve had a genuine Scot translate some of the dialogue into Scots for me. The worry now is that it will be too difficult to read and may have to be Anglicised. And how would that ever be translated into another language?
I am constantly impressed by the work of the translators. In the Catalan translation of ‘Roadmaker’, the translator resorted to a footnote to explain an untranslatable point. This was for a homonym that the character gets confused over. Evidently the equivalent words in Catalan are not at all similar, so there is no reason he would get confused in that language. It’s at this point that I have to stop thinking too hard on the matter, for fear that I’ll end up writing in simplistic language to make it easier on the translators.
There are six thousand languages and dialects on Earth. It’s worth including at least some of them in our fiction.
Gareth D Jones is from the UK. His stories have appeared in over forty publications and twenty languages. He also writes reviews and drinks lots of tea. Work of his is forthcoming in The Immersion Book of Steampunk, published by Immersion Press.
Coming up next: Nancy Fulda talks about writing and art.