The Author as Translator

The Author as TranslatorA revelation about my fantasy series: I’m the author as translator. Put another way, my characters don’t speak English…

My fantasy world is far from ours in time and space. The people there have many languages unknown to us; the Horse Clans, the Lacani tribes, the Arrionites. The common lingua-france for day-to-day conversation within Eskalon is the Low Speech. It has various dialects, some of which are unintelligible to outsiders. Then there’s the thieves’ cant of the criminal underworld spoken by the Coterie. The Church and the Aristos revert to the High Speech.

Why does it matter?

It hugely influences the vocabulary, idiom, tone and register of all the dialogue and interiority. When it comes to word choices, metaphors, similes, pop-culture references, I have to decide; does it belong?

Book-tuber Jed Herne recently surveyed his audience on the things they hate about the fantasy genre. Anachronistic language came out high on the list; dialogue and description twenty-first century Earthlings take for granted that just don’t belong in the Kingdom of Zaarg…

Preserved in Amber

Language is the front line casualty when reader expectations and genre conventions clash. High or Epic fantasy typically features characters with no exposure to twenty-first century Earth culture. They have their own cultures; often highly detailed in Lore and World-building (deliberate use of capital letters, there).

We can’t all be Professor Tolkien who spent decades as a scholar creating languages for Middle Earth. Even he had to translate Elvish back into English for the likes of you and me. I don’t speak Elvish. Believe me, I tried.

This is a problem for certain genres within fantasy more than others. Urban fantasy (Dresden Files) and Portal fantasy (Narnia) get to take characters and settings from our world as their start-point. Language and culture come with them into the fantastical elements, often with intriguing or comical ‘fish out of water’ consequences.

Side note: the Fremen of the desert world of Arrakis would never use the metaphor ‘fish out of water.’ They have no fish. Or water. But they do have sandtrout. There’s an equivalent saying in their culture.

Great Expectations

‘Classic’ fantasy is assumed to take place in a setting inspired by ancient antiquity (Persia, Greece, Rome) or else Iron-Age Britain, Medieval or Renaissance Europe. The current borrowing from pre-industrial China, Japan, Africa, or South America widens the genre considerably.

Did any of these cultures speak modern English? No. None spoke the phrases “wassup,” “swipe right,” “club sandwich,” or “rad!” I doubt the Pharoahs addressed each other as “yo, dude!”

So it upsets readers and takes them out of the fantasy world when characters do just that.

Shakespeare is often cited (wrongly) as the founder of ‘modern’ English. His four hundred year-old jokes are littered with classical and Elizabethan cultural references. As are Alexander Pope’s notes from the Enlightenment a century later. Do you fully appreciate the social hierarchy and codes of behaviour in Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker as usual). What about the stylised and formal language of any of those writers within their milieu?

They don’t speak English as we know it today. Language and culture moves on and evolves.

Meanwhile our fantasy characters know nothing or them or of us; they exist in their own time, place and culture. They speak their own languages.

The author becomes their translator.

So the next question is; what kind of language or idiom is appropriate?

When Readers meet Characters

The current YA ‘Romantasy’ genre has a common narrative voice which sounds like a suburban LA teenager, regardless of the setting. This is deliberate. If today’s authors wrote like Shakespeare or Pope, few YA readers would get to the end of page one. They want readily identifiable characters using everyday language. That includes teenage girls gushing about how ‘hot’ is the next guy to enter the room.

These authors know their audience; readers who don’t think very deeply about culture and probably can’t spell anachronistic. This is okay. This is the market.

Is it good writing? Maybe not. What do I know?

It’s not Okay

Let’s take okay or OK. Cited as the most commonly used word on the planet, where did it come from? The Choctaw word okeh? The satirical Oll Korrect? An election catchphrase Old Kinderhook? Yes, that last one’s a cultural classic.

I can’t tell. Okay sounds contemporary. Which is why none of my characters ever say ‘okay.’

I’m old-school British, so ‘dude’ is a particular pet hate of mine. ‘Rad’ belongs to 1980’s skate-dudes.

Obviously somebody studying an ancient parchment is never going to ‘swipe right.’ The expression comes from the digital age of smartphones and touch screens. That’s going to jump right out at the reader.

But how about ‘doom-scrolling?’ Wink; nudge; smiley-face! It’s a little on-the-nose. It might raise a smile, in which case, it better be intentional.

Back to the question, then. Appropriate language and idiom; who gets to judge?

Every single reader.

Creative Subtitles

So my job is to present the story in a language and idiom that fits the characters, setting and genre. Everything has to filter through culture, lore, environment, belief systems and the available technology. Today, we’re so obsessed with machines and the media, much of our discourse drips with it. Ancient cultures obsessed over deities and spirituality. The British obsess over the weather.

But that doesn’t mean restricting myself to a cod-Medieval “swearest-thou-thine-oath-varlet” vocabulary.

I find the creative subtitling of non-English TV and movies endlessly fascinating. Sometimes expressions are lost in translation, sometimes ingeniously heightened.

Why shouldn’t a teenage pharaoh greet his tutor with “yo, dude, wassup, my mentor?” That might fit the character perfectly. Who’s to say an equivalent bit of street slang didn’t exist among the generations of workers at Giza? Or along the watch towers of Gondor? Or the thieves’ cant of the Coterie?

What’s appropriate? You decide. I’m just the translator.

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